Q&A: James Wilder Jr. reveals what happened with the Argos and led to his signing in Montreal

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Running back James Wilder Jr. left The Six for La Belle Province.

There were twists and turns behind the scenes that Wilder Jr. had to navigate like he was running with the football and defenders were trying to take him to the ground.

The 27-year-old reveals what happened with the Toronto Argonauts and details the process for eventually signing on the dotted line to play for the Montreal Alouettes in an open and honest question and answer exchange.

Dunk: What happened with the Argos?

Wilder: At the end of the season, me and my agent were being contacted with some NFL interest and I got an early release. I got some NFL interest — didn’t get any offers, just a lot of interest — so when I was leaving I made it very firm that I’m getting my release just to exercise my NFL rights; maybe WWE. I was told by the organization — Mr. Manning, Pinball and John Murphy, all three of them — that the door will be open for me to always return if anything else doesn’t work out. And John Murphy specifically told me the door would be open, just to keep the honour of my word that I will come back and don’t get a release and leave.

So the day that coach Chamblin was fired, which is no secret we were bumping heads — I was being told by NFL teams I was on the short list, but not being brought in for any work outs, I chose to go with the NFL — but I reached back out to the Argos, Mr. Manning specifically, and he told me to give Murphy and Pinball a call. Me and my team reached out to them and they weren’t interested anymore. They said they moved on after they told me that the door would always be open. It caught me by surprise, blindsided me. I was a little bit hurt by the situation, but that’s part of the business. I moved on with my life.

I had a great opportunity with Montreal, I’ve been wanting to play with them. Personally, I reached out to them because Will Stanback he went to the NFL and I love the way they use their running back. I told coach Khari Jones I’d love to play for him, I love his relationship with his players, I love the energy there, I love everything about Montreal and I would love to be a part of it. He told me he didn’t have a GM at the time, but we stayed in contact. And when Danny Maciocia came we got it in the works and signed the contract. It was a huge blessing in disguise. I was hurt at the beginning, but it’s the best opportunity for me if I could choose any team including the Argos.

Dunk: How would you categorize the NFL interest?

Wilder: A lot of interest, a lot of film out — Las Vegas Raiders, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans, those were the teams that were contacting my agent and they were very interested. We wanted to get an early release and it was actually even for the opportunity to maybe join the XFL, just in case if a team told me I needed to get more film before the NFL season, I was keeping that door open. We had a mutual understanding that I’ll be released early and if I was to ever come back if things didn’t work out, that I would come back as an Argo. I held true to my word. The day Chamblin was fired I reached out to them and tried to get that going.

I end up getting drafted by the Los Angeles Wildcats in the XFL. I actually turned them down to try to return back to the Argos, but that’s when I found out the Argos weren’t interested anymore after I already turned down the XFL. Head coach Winston Moss was pretty pissed they drafted me and I didn’t come. I closed the NFL door and started to reach out to CFL teams. Montreal was the first team after Stanback went to the NFL because that’s a spot I felt I would love to be fit in.

Dunk: Did you come close to signing an XFL contract?

Wilder: It was close. They were getting ready to book my flight, but at that point talking to my agent — I was living in California and I got drafted by LA and they were trying to book my flight to fly me down to training camp in Houston — I turned it down because the Argos fired Chamblin, the NFL wasn’t knocking, let me see if I can return to Toronto. The only reason that was hurting me in Toronto — my issue or bumping heads or whatever you want to call it, respectfully — was coach Chamblin and coach Chapdelaine. We just didn’t have the same vision. The same exact day, as soon as I saw coach Chamblin was fired on Twitter, I reached out to Mr. Manning first. He told me he was glad to hear back from me, reach out to Pinball and Murphy. We reached out to them and they had moved on and they weren’t interested anymore.

I just turned down the XFL, tried to go back to Toronto, I thought I’m in a bad position right now. We did have a clear understanding and I guess things changed and I wasn’t updated. I immediately reached out to coach Jones. He told me I’m very interested in you, let me work, give me some time — you have my word — and said he’d been a fan of mine feeling I would be a perfect fit with Stanback going to the NFL. They finally got the GM in place, Mr. Maciocia reached out to me and we came to an agreement that we both were happy with and made the deal happen.

Dunk: Could you understand why you weren’t being utilized by the Argos?

Wilder: I don’t know. I don’t want to throw coaches under the bus. For instance, Mike Lionello was my running back coach with the Toronto Argonauts and now is with Montreal. I know when the president and GM first got in, they definitely wanted to know what was going on in Toronto. I was badmouthed by somebody in the organization in Toronto and Jim Popp was a huge help for me. Coaches badmouthed me around the league and when I was reaching out to teams like Edmonton, the Eskimos guy said he heard my attitude wasn’t right and whatnot. There were teams saying they could offer me but not a huge signing bonus because they weren’t comfortable with my attitude. I was wondering who the hell was badmouthing me?

Popp is cool with Maciocia and he helped me out a lot. He explained how I am, how I handled the situation and coach Lionello stuck his neck out too. He told Maciocia and Jones what really went on and I handled it like a pro, I handled everything professionally, I was very respectful, always. It was just people didn’t like me. Coach Jones called me and said I don’t have to worry about anything that went down in Toronto anymore because coach Lionello and Popp cleared that up, so it’s a plus for you right now. I said thank you to coach Lionello and Popp, I didn’t ask you guys to talk me up because I didn’t know you were cool with Maciocia.

Dunk: How vital was Popp’s role in helping you secure the next contract in your career?

Wilder: Jim Popp’s been a huge help. If it wouldn’t have been for Popp and coach Lionello, there’s a big chance I wouldn’t have signed because there was a star next to my name about me having an attitude even though I was voted two years in a row by my teammates for the team selfless man Tom Pate award. Somebody in that organization — coaches — badmouthed me to all the other teams. The fact that Popp had a relationship with Maciocia ended up being a huge plus for me. I definitely want to make sure they get credit and I give them thanks.

Dunk: Did you reach out to Popp asking for help?

Wilder: Once Maciocia was hired he actually told me he spoke to Popp about me. He told me Popp spoke highly about me. I called Popp and thanked him, I really appreciated it. I’m glad it got cleared up with them because it was affecting me with other teams. Montreal was No. 1 on my list — it played out perfectly.

After my rookie year when I wasn’t coming back and the Argos paid me more, the media made it seem like Popp and I were beefing, but we’ve always been super great. The guy that I supposedly was beefing with after my rookie year ends up making me money.

Dunk: What made you decide to negotiate your own deal?

Wilder: I just felt like once I spoke to coach Jones and he told me he was very interested, I knew that’s where I was going. Khari’s a people person, talking to other players there in Montreal, they felt I didn’t need an agent because he’s a guy you can keep it real with.

Once Maciocia came along we went that way and everything worked out well. I leaned on Jim Popp a lot, I asked him what can I expect, I need true numbers. I’m coming off a down season that’s out of my control, he acted as an agent. S.J. Green along with Shawn Lemon they’re in their 30’s — I had my own all-star team built. We all were team-working. I don’t want to take full credit for doing it myself, I just did it agent-less.

I told Popp the numbers and I need your true opinion. He helped me, I was offered something and he felt I could get more. I went back with it and they said they could do it. I was learning how to negotiate with a GM.

Dunk: Are you close to the $100,000 mark for the 2019 season?

Wilder: Coming off a down year I wasn’t expecting to top that out. The main thing was having Maciocia understand my situation and what went on. Me controlling what I could control, I had to do research and send all my production over and it helped me out. I’m right around $100,000 and I have the potential to go over. Montreal used their running back the right way, he’s averaged more than four carries per game which is what I was getting. If I do my part and handle my business it it takes me over six-figures.

Dunk: Did Vernon Adams Jr. play a role in you wanting to sign with Montreal?

Wilder: I’ve been going back and forth with Vernon. He’s so electrifying, the things he can do throwing the ball and on his feet, what I can do opens it up more for him. Stanback’s a beast, I see how they were using Stanback and it ended up paying off, he went to the NFL. That gets me excited. I don’t want to talk about Toronto anymore, I put it in my rear-view mirror. I’m big on my connection with the fans and I’d love for them to know that.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.