Argos RB James Wilder Jr. delivers message of hope (and a big cheque) to Covenant House

 Toronto Argonauts running back James Wilder Jr. chatted with youth at Covenant House this week, talking about life experience and self-motivation.

And Wilder isn’t lacking any of either. He just went through an off-season of uncertainty. A contract dispute with Argos management led him to unveil every penny of his contract and living expenses, which he shared over his Twitter account, @IAm_Wilder32.

Wilder, the CFL’s rookie of the year, made just over $50,000 last year and said it was eaten up by rent, food and travel. That doesn’t work with a wife (Bianca) and four children under five (daughters Nala and Carter and sons Jaylen and Evan).

He also claimed to have opportunities in the NFL but, contractually, he had to put in a second year with the Argos before he could pursue them. Wilder threatened to sit out the season.

In the end, he negotiated a new two-year deal with Toronto worth more than $110,000, and he’ll try to pick up where he left off last year, when he averaged a CFL-best 7.1 yards average per carry and helped the Argos to a Grey Cup title.

His return started at Covenant House. As one of the Shaw top performers, along with Hamilton receiver Brandon Banks and Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly, Wilder was able to select one of the three charities to share $50,000 from Shaw Communications. The running back selected the homeless youth agency.

What was the message you wanted to convey when you spoke at Covenant House?

Everyone is not dealt the same hand in life. We are all different, and some of us are more fortunate than others. We know life is not fair, and it can be unfortunate, but it’s all about making the best of your situation … Use your situation, whatever it is, as motivation. My situation isn’t as serious as some of the kids (at Covenant House). But in every situation where things don’t go your way, you have to take advantage of that, of what we have in life, and use it to do better.

How do you relate to these kids who have nothing and are living in a shelter?

I was there with my second mother, I lived with her and her family for two-and-a-half years during high school. Some of that is the same for these kids.

In the past I was in a jail cell (he was arrested for resisting an officer, for failing a breath alcohol test and violating his probation, and for missing a court date caused by driving with a suspended licence) and I had to make decisions about life. I couldn’t use jail as an excuse. I had to make the best of my situation, then, now, and to the end of my life. I told those kids that when you have your vision, you have to see it through, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not going to make it. When I was in jail, back in my college days, people were telling me it’s over, you’re done, you’ll never be a pro football player, just forget it.

So I feel I can talk to kids now and grab their attention. They see, OK, he didn’t come from a perfect household, he didn’t have a perfect life. There was a connection there, and the kids opened up about their lives.

What did you do this off-season to get better?

I always keep in touch with my dad (James Wilder, the franchise rushing leader for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), with guys who’ve been there and done that. My best friend is Devonta Freeman (a two-time Pro Bowl running back with the Atlanta Falcons) and we talk about consistency in everything we do. You see guys who go crazy for one year, then you don’t hear about them anymore. What I’ve strived for this off-season is consistency. One of the things I’ve been doing that is new is training with my helmet on, catching passes with my helmet on, to get that feeling of consistency.

And I’m eating healthy, or healthier. My wife is a great cook but I was telling her about (the nutritionists in Toronto) and that, maybe, there’s a bit too much butter in our food. Those (nutritionists) know what’s good for you, so meal prep is different for me now, they’re making meals for me here, and I’m taking in the right calories, carbs and proteins at the right times. I feel like that kind of stuff will help me get to the next level.

Your off-season was a roller-coaster ride, especially when you laid out your financial details and said you were prepared to sit out the 2018 season. What happened there?

It was pretty interesting, partly because a lot of Americans (in the CFL) are on the same contract I had, and I had multiple guys DM’ing me and saying thank you. I didn’t know I spoke for so many guys in the league. Some of those guys didn’t want to speak out, but I don’t mind that. I’m not speaking like a millionaire, I just thought it would be better for people to understand exactly where I’m coming from. I got a lot of hate mail from Canadian fans, saying I was disrespecting the CFL, but once I explained it all (in a series of tweets), they got back to me and said they understood.

It was like the same thing I told those kids at Covenant House … life isn’t fair, but you make that stand for yourself, and sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. I felt what I did was something that needed to be done, and maybe people will see CFL players in a better light now.

How close were you to not coming back to Toronto?

It was really close. It started with my agent saying let me call so-and-so in the NFL … If I was in the NFL, (it) would have been my fourth year in that league, and my league minimum would have been like $620,000. That can be life-changing for my family. I said I can’t go through another (CFL) season (at $35,000). It wasn’t a contract negotiation, it was me speaking about my situation. I talked to my family about it, I had a job opportunity and it was a lot more than what the CFL was offering, but I had to commit to that job for more than a year. That’s where it all started. I’ve been playing football since I was a kid, and I never sat out a season. But as a father in a house and in a family, you have to look at things from all angles. I love football, but family is first.”

We hear you will now become a full-time resident of Toronto.

Yes, I live here now, I moved here April 1, but I’ll live here in the offseason. That’s why finances are important. I want to give my wife and kids the best life I can, a comfortable life. We’re not millionaires, and some people understand it, some don’t. But I love it here, I love the city, and I’m just super excited to get back and get the season going, All our guys are.”