With the news of potential seismic changes in the form of an XFL partnership still looming over the CFL, much has been made about regaining the so-called ‘lost generation’ of fans.
Those in their 20s and early 30s are a missing demographic in many CFL fan bases, with theories abound as to how the league missed on their recruitment. Some have pointed to a growing number of Canadian players with little prior appreciation of the league as evidence of it’s death.
Not the case for Henoc Muamba.
The 32-year old reigning Most Outstanding Canadian wasn’t even a football fan until the Toronto Argonauts made him one.
“I hated it,” Muamba laughed about his experience playing football growing up in Mississauga.
That was until his final years of high school, when former Argos linebacker Chuck Winters and Hall of Famer Pinball Clemons visited his class.
“You can imagine the impression he left on me the time that he came to speak at [Father Michael Goetz Secondary School],” he recalled.
“That was my first encounter with the Argos really and from there on, my curiosity kept bringing me to watch games and I was a big fan.”
Now Muamba is back where it all began, signing a one-year contract with the Argonauts to play under the very man who helped spark his interest in the league years ago.
“To play for a GM like Pinball, to me it’s comparable to nothing,” Muamba said during his introduction to the Toronto media.
“He’s been a mentor of mine prior to him even signing on to take this job and to be able to play for him is an honor for me.”
Playing for Pinball and returning to his double blue roots has been a long-time coming for Muamba.
In the decade since being selected first overall in the 2011 CFL Draft by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the ferocious middle linebacker has bounced around quite a bit. After Winnipeg there was a stint with the Indianapolis Colts and a cup of coffee with the Dallas Cowboys, along with starring roles in Saskatchewan and twice in Montreal.
Each time he hit the market, Muamba was searching for something different and this time it wasn’t the size of the paycheque that was at the top of his list. While he publicly expressed interest in a return to the Alouettes in 2021, the lure of home made that deal unattainable.
“I think that it would have taken a lot from Montreal’s side and I just didn’t feel like there was enough done on that side to bring me back,” Muamba admitted.
“At the end of the day, the beautiful thing is that I’m able to spend more time with my family and go back and sleep in my own bed after practices, after games. That is the major thing.”
So did the three-time All-Star take a hometown discount to join the Boatmen? Muamba won’t dismiss it.
“You can say that,” he said thoughtfully.
“I think that there’s a lot of value in me being home. There’s a lot of different things that compensate in taking the offer that was given to me. The benefit as far as just being home and the ability to network and the ability to do things beyond just on the football field, I think was also intriguing to me.”
That renewed sense of value comes thanks to a tumultuous offseason. The death of his mother-in-law due to COVID-19 and unexpected passing of his long-time agent Jonathon Hardaway put things in perspective and the birth of his second child made the draw to stay close to home even stronger.
Joining the Argos wasn’t all about warm and fuzzy feelings though. As a seasoned veteran past the 30-year old threshold, Muamba has become used to addressing the question of his potential decline and saw Toronto as the best place to silence those critics.
“I could be 40 playing with a defensive line like the one that’s going to be in front of me and still be looking good,” he smiled.
After a year off, Muamba feels like he’s in the best shape of his life and a loaded contingent of pass rushers in Charleston Hughes, Cordarro Law, Odell Willis and former NFLers Shane Ray and Kony Ealy will help him maximize that window.
He’ll also be reunited with fellow Canadian linebacker Cameron Judge, the player he beat out for Most Outstanding Canadian in 2019, who was once assigned as his designated rookie to mentor in Saskatchewan.
Muamba has taken great satisfaction in watching Judge blossom from afar and sees immense potential for their team up.
“I’m excited to be able to play with him, to have seen the development that he’s experienced over the last few years,” he said.
“The sky’s the limit for the linebacker corps and like I said, spoiler alert: we’re going to look good. Myself and Cam and anybody that lines up behind the type of line that’s in front of us.”
That success should inspire the next generation of Argos off the field, just as Muamba was once inspired. In an act of beautiful symmetry, his signing was announced in conjunction with an agreement with the Peel school district and the linebacker hopes to fill the stands with young converts in his own mould.
“Hopefully there’ll be some opportunities for the kids, that I’ll be able to be a part of the kids’ lives. It’ll turn into some opportunities for them to come to games, as well as the mentoring aspect of it,” Muamba explained.
The next generation’s Most Outstanding Canadian might be in that group waiting to be inspired, so long as the league’s dalliance with the XFL doesn’t cost the protection of Canadian content at it’s core.