James Wilder Q&A: ‘I’m putting my family above my dreams’

After releasing a statement on Wednesday saying he would be sitting out the 2018 CFL season, Toronto Argonauts running back James Wilder discussed the reasons behind his decision with 3DownNation.

3DOWN: What’s happened between you and the Argos since you were named the Most Outstanding Rookie and won the Grey Cup?

WILDER: I’ve been getting phone calls to my agent from NFL teams with interest, wondering if I’m available. I signed a contract for one-year with an option and I have multiple NFL teams wanting me and I can’t do anything because I am under contract… I’m held back from a better opportunity. I was told that there was going to be no negotiating without adding years to the contract. I’ve made it known that the CFL is not where I wanted to spend my full career if I had an opportunity back in the NFL, that’s been known since day one. That’s where we are right now, they’re not willing to negotiate with me without adding years and not willing to let me go.

3DOWN: Did you have a verbal agreement with the Argos that if NFL interest came they would let you go try that out?

WILDER: Yes, nothing signed in the contract, all in talk. The exact words were, “of course we will always want to do what’s best for you.” I talked with coach [Marc] Trestman, he is willing to help me. Whatever happens with the front office he is willing to help me by talking to people he knows in the NFL. That’s brought coach Trestman and I closer. I can’t be released so he can’t really help me.

I reached out to coach Trestman for advice because I’ve never been in this situation before with the CFL. I said I have NFL teams interested in me what advice can you give me? He said to talk with [general manager Jim] Popp and see what you can do. I want what’s best for you, I’m willing to help you with NFL teams, I know guys around the league, but you have to handle the release with the front office. I do my coaching and I leave that to them. Coach Trestman really wants what’s best for me. I felt good about it at first and then I got the news from Popp that I’m not going to be released.

3DOWN: How has the situation played out to the point where you’re willing to sit out the 2018 CFL season?

WILDER: It’s about my financial situation with my family. Football is a game of risk and I never cared about that, but at the pro stage, you usually have some backup if anything happens. It was a wake-up call after I got a concussion this year and played through injuries. If an injury was to happen here it’s just ‘thank you for the time you put in here’ and they send you home. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I was very blessed to make it through a season, but now I don’t have any CFL finances. My friends wanted me to come train with them but I can’t afford to go train. I can’t put my body at risk, leave a country and family behind for a job when I could work here for the same money and not risk my body at all. Then not take the chance of injury and enter the NFL next year. I love the Argos, it’s nothing against the Argos, I love everybody at the Argos. I love Jim Popp, coach Trestman and everybody there. Just like they have to feed their kids I have to feed my family as well and $56,000 CDN before taxes doesn’t do it, especially when you have to pay housing in Canada and back home with four children, it’s just not enough.

I’m being treated in a way where I can’t call it my career. I’m supposed to be training to get ready for the season and I can’t do so because I can’t afford it, I have to work because I need to have income coming in. I made the decision I have a great job opportunity, but I have to commit more than the off-season. It will make me more money than the Argos would pay me without risk. That’s what opened up my eyes, I started talking with my family about it and praying and really had to make the decision to put my dreams to the side for my family instead of just for myself. I’m currently working construction in Dallas six days a week, 10 hours a day, 60 hour weeks. I have the pay stubs to prove it. The construction job is just to put money in my pocket right now.

3DOWN: Construction is a physical job, does that leave you any energy or time to train?

WILDER: It’s hard because like you said it’s physical so it zaps your energy. We’ve had a cold snap in Texas so you work 10 hours in that weather, get home and your family hasn’t seen you all day. I still have to get my hour of training so I shoot out to the YMCA because they watch the kids as you train. No trainer, just on my own because that’s the only choice that I have. If I had more money, I’d love to still be in Toronto training with the teammates. But I’m not paid enough to do that.

I’ve talked to so many American players across the league that feel the same way I do but are afraid to speak up. I know I’m going to get backlash from fans: ‘you signed up to do this.’ But nothing comes before my family and this puts my family in the best position and most people will understand that.

3DOWN: Could more players being allowed to explore NFL opportunities even after one season in the CFL lead to more players coming to play north of the border sooner?

WILDER: 100 per cent. I’ve had maybe a dozen players reach out to me and ask me about the CFL and I have to tell them it’s a great experience but if you don’t plan on being there for two years, it’s not worth it – especially with what I’m going through now. If there’s a coach or a GM who gets an NFL opportunity, they can just get up and leave yet we’re stuck and can’t do that.

3DOWN: What would you say to the CFL and Argos fans?

WILDER: This has nothing to do with the fans. The CFL treated me very well, the fans are treating me very well all across the league. I really appreciate everybody at the Argos from top to bottom who gave me an opportunity to play football and live my dream. I love everything about Toronto. But I hope people can understand that I have to have better for my family. If you can’t understand that, I’m sorry. I’m putting my family above my dreams.

3DOWN: Is there any way the Argos can reverse your decision to sit out the 2018 season?

WILDER: 100 per cent. But I’m not going back for $56,000 CDN. We have to do our taxes in Canada which takes us to about $34,000. Breaking bones, concussions that I dealt with last year – I’m not willing to do that again for $56,000. Now if Toronto wanted to negotiate for me to be in a more comfortable position or if they’re willing to give me a chance to pursue the NFL, I’m willing to do that. One per cent of all football players make it to the NFL, and to know that you have that opportunity and not being able to take advantage of it…  when I’m working construction, it eats me up every day.

It has to be livable. From that $56,000, you have to pay your rent in Canada for six months, then you’re sending money back for rent back home. Then there are bills on top of that – phones, electrical bills, insurance, food. By the time the season ends, you might have a little bit of money left but just like that it’s time to get back to work doing something else. I don’t think it’s worth living as you go.

It’s just hard to believe a team when they say they want what’s best for you. Look at the numbers: yards per carry, yards after contact, receiving yards per game, rushing yards per game, least amount of fumbles…I’m number one in all those categories and yet the lowest paid running back. I’m not trying to be cocky but it’s a business: if you’re putting up numbers you have to be paid numbers. It’s kind of like a slap in the face.

3DOWN: Do the Argos know that you’re willing to sit out the 2018 season?

WILDER: Nobody knows except for me and my agent. I didn’t want it to come off like I was arrogant. I’m not doing it for revenge, I’m doing it because it’s not enough for my family. It’s not enough. It’s not enough for what I’m risking. The Argos aren’t willing to offer me another dollar, they are saying ‘this is what you signed, just put in this year.’ It doesn’t sit well with me. I’m in a position to make life-changing money in the NFL and it just doesn’t make sense to put my body at risk for what the Argos want to pay me.

3DOWN: How are you feeling about things now?

WILDER: You always want to keep smiling, have fun and take advantage of the opportunity but once you do your part… we have a Grey Cup, I had a pretty good season but now you have to keep me comfortable. I balled enough that you were comfortable enough to make me a starter but now I have to be comfortable with you guys. Where is the return of favour? It’s just f-you,  we’re all paid, go work your construction. No. To me, that’s just going to kill relationships. It’s not how things should work. It kills teams.

I’m being told I’m not worth more, forget your feelings, forget your family. That’s how I’m looking at it, as a father. So you guys are going to have to find another running back. I hope the Argos win another Grey Cup, with me or without me. But this is a decision I have to make for my family.