Sometimes, it can be tough to tell when Bryan Hall is joking.
After signing with the Toronto Argonauts as a free agent in late February, the former Tiger-Cats defensive tackle has engaged in some spirited – and mostly friendly – back-and-forth with Hamilton fans on social media. But beneath the generally jovial banter, there may be some legitimately hard feelings over how his time with the Ticats ended.
Hall was in fine form during a spirited interview at Argonauts training camp earlier this week, a discussion that featured plenty of light moments – and its fair share of subtext. This was as pointed as it got:
“If Kent Austin bumps me like he did Dave Stala, I will choke his ass out,” Hall said.
That’s a reference to a September game versus Toronto last season when the Hamilton head coach bumped the former Ticat receiver as he made his way through the opposing bench after a play. Austin apologized and was fined $5,000 by the CFL.
Hall is hardly the only Ticat to take a verbal shot at Austin after his departure, a list that started with linebacker Rey Williams and includes former quarterback Henry Burris, now with the Ottawa Redblacks. Turnover is an inherent part of the CFL and so are hard feelings over the business side of football: to express those things publicly, however, is less common.
This off-season saw the departure of veterans Bakari Grant, Taylor Reed and Brandon Stewart but the move by Hall and fellow defensive linemen Justin Hickman and Brian Bulcke to Toronto has added even more spice to an already intense, historic rivalry.
Hickman played six seasons with Hamilton in two different stints and is just one of a number of players from the 2015 front seven who have been allowed to walk away via free agency.
“How is it different [in Toronto?] I don’t know, but I don’t want to talk bad about those guys. I want to be nice,” Hickman said. “[But] if Simoni Lawrence can win the Most Outstanding Player in the East with what he had last year, he should be able to do it easier this year.”
The players moving along the QEW didn’t just flow one way: long-time Argonaut Chad Owens wasn’t offered a contract by the club and subsequently signed a free agent deal in Hamilton. Owens has acknowledged that leaving Toronto was difficult but isn’t interested in going public with whatever hard feelings he may have.
“What do you want me to say? I’m not going to comment. I could look at a million different ways. I had success with them, we won a championship together,” Owens said. “To me, if you choose to focus on the negatives, you’re not giving yourself the best chance to be successful. I’m going to focus on the positives and we’ll leave it at that.”
If there was a sentiment that players on both sides shared, it was this: Saturday’s game is just a taste of what’s to come this season between two clubs who expect to be battling each other for supremacy in the East Division.
“It’s a pre-season game,” Owens said. “Talk to me week one.”
This much is for sure: Owens was dead serious.