Matt Black was convinced he was going to fail his Grade 9 French exam.
It wasn’t just the challenge posed by learning a foreign language or a lackadaisical work ethic but dyslexia, diagnosed when he was just seven-years-old, that raised the degree of difficulty to what felt like an impossible height.
“I remember feeling hopeless when I was learning to read and write, like it wasn’t going to happen,” says Black, now in his ninth year as a defensive back with the Toronto Argonauts. “I struggled reading English, never mind reading French.”
The motivation then, as now, was football. The goal wasn’t just to pass the French exam but to get the grades he needed to play the game at the next level, to overcome this challenge and any other that would come his way. We’re talking about an undersized Canadian kid – he’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds these days so try and imagine him in high school – trying to make it to college and then pro football.
“My love of sports pushed me to do well in school so I could continue to play. I had the athletic ability to get there but I had to achieve certain grades,” Black said. “The academic side was going to hold me back and I didn’t want to let that happen.”
He didn’t, earning a scholarship to Saginaw Valley State where he started for four years, earned his degree and was selected by his hometown Argonauts in the sixth round of the 2008 CFL Draft. He’s played in 120 games for Toronto, making 42 starts while also contributing on special teams.
Black’s not a star but he’s a useful Canadian player and a Grey Cup champion who has also been front and centre in the team’s community initiatives. Since his arrival in Toronto, he’s been heavily involved in the Argos’ Huddle Up bullying prevention program.
Then this August, it all came to a screeching halt.
A hamstring injury late in training camp landed him on the long-term injured list and by the time he recovered, other players were further along in adjusting to new defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin’s scheme. Black was released as part of formal six-line transaction statement from the club.
The move shocked many around the league but not Black.
“When you’re an older guy like myself you expect that they’re going to try and find guys that are younger than you, faster than you, guys who can do what you can do cheaper,” he said. “It’s part of the business and you do yourself a disservice if you don’t realize that.”
He watched that week’s Argo game at BMO Field on television, deciding not to use the tickets he’d ordered for his family to watch the game from the stands – it was hard enough from the couch. But as difficult as that was, the reaction to his release from around the CFL shocked him.
“It was an up and down week. Obviously, I didn’t like the fact that I was released but at the same time the number of people that reached out to me across the league – media, friends, fans, other players – it was really humbling,” he said. “All the hard work and sacrifice, it turned out people had been watching all along.”
During the game, starting safety Jermaine Gabriel went down with an injury and the next day the Argos called asking Black to come back. Other teams had been calling but there really wasn’t much of a decision to be made.
“I was still rooting for the guys and the team – I’ve played with a lot of these guys for quite a long time and they are like brothers to me,” said Black, who would go on to start 10 games and play some of the best football of his career. “Things worked out the way they worked out so I’m hardly complaining.”
Black will suit up in Sunday’s East Final against the Saskatchewan Roughriders and will continue his career for as long as his now 32-year-old body will allow. But when football ends, as it inevitably will, he’ll continue to use his voice to inspire those who might be going through some of the same things he did.
“I share my story about dyslexia and I think it’s relevant when it comes to bullying or just overcoming adversity,” he says. “It’s about learning to love the process. It’s not always going to be fun or easy but you have to love it.
“When you learn to love the pain, the adversity, the struggle, it makes those moments of success that much sweeter.”
Oui c’est ça.