Chris Williams is a small guy so let’s deal with elephant in the room right quick.
No, the repatriated receiver does not harbour any ill will toward the team, the city or (especially) the fans after his acrimonious departure from the club in November 2013, one that featured a Twitter beef, a holdout, an arbitration hearing, a court case and, finally, an agreement that allowed him to pursue his NFL dreams.
“I wouldn’t have come back if it was still an issue and I don’t think they would have traded for me if it was an issue, either, ” Williams said Tuesday after his first day of practice with his new/old club.
“Remember, this is a business first and foremost and I think everybody blew that part of it out of proportion and got real personal with it, and it was never about that. It was business for me, it was business for the team. We put it behind us.”
Williams played two stellar seasons for Hamilton, earning CFL most outstanding rookie honours in 2011, then posting five punt return touchdowns the following year as the league’s most outstanding special teams player. He was a 1,000-yard receiver in both campaigns.
But Williams sued the team to get out of the third-and-final year of his $50,000-a-year contract with Hamilton, ultimately winning his freedom – and the ire of Ticat fans – before joining the New Orleans Saints and then Chicago Bears of the NFL. He played seven games over two seasons down south before (and earned in excess of a $500,000 US) before signing with the Ottawa Redblacks in 2014.
Now he’s back, acquired as part of the deal that sent quarterback Johnny Manziel and offensive linemen Tony Washington and Landon Rice to Montreal.
A lot has changed in the five-plus years since he left: there’s a new stadium, an entirely new coaching staff and just one player remaining on the roster (centre Mike Filer).
“It feels different. You can tell the organization, the guys here, the whole feel of it is just different. We have facilities now and they’re top notch. You can’t beat it, ” Williams said. “I was shocked, I can’t say I wasn’t. But then you start looking at it and it’s a good opportunity for me, for sure.”
While Williams was surprised by the trade, the other Alouette included in the deal – defensive end Jamaal Westerman – was upset by how he found out. The 33-year-old, who was one of the most sought-after free agents this winter and signed with Montreal in part to play with his brother Jabar, got a text from a friend that included a social media post about the trade.
“You get traded, you don’t want to find out like that, ” Westerman said, adding that while he subsequently heard from Alouette general manager Kavis Reed, he didn’t get a call from head coach Mike Sherman.
A father of two, Westerman’s son was born on May 31 and the family was together in Montreal at the time the deal was made and it threw everything into chaos.
“The first 24 hours is a little weird trying to figure out my family because they are in Montreal, looking for an apartment … all the things you normally get done in camp or the first of the season I’m trying to do it in two days, ” Westerman said. “It’s been a crazy year. But it’s fun, it’s part of the business, part of football … on to better things. It’s all excitement now.”
Both Williams and Westerman are a good fit for the Ticats. Still only 30 but coming off ACL surgery in late 2016, Williams appears to have recaptured the speed that has seen him post 1,000-plus yards in four of his six CFL seasons while Westerman is a ratio-breaking former all-star who spent six seasons in the NFL. Head coach June Jones said both could play Saturday against Ottawa.
Which raises another question: how will Ticat fans, many of whom savaged Williams on social media during his fight with club, react to his return in the Black and Gold?
“I don’t know. Some people are going to like it, some people won’t. That’s the nature of this game, you can’t make everybody happy, ” Williams said. “I said it from day one, I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and now that I get a second time around, it’s going to be back to normal for me as far as that’s concerned.
“It’s great man, I’m happy to be here.”