‘You can’t force someone to play football’: Riders GM Jeremy O’Day expects to reach out to all suspended players, including Brendon LaBatte

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

With 50 players set to hit free agency on February 8th, the Saskatchewan Roughriders have their work cut out for them when it comes to constructing their 2022 roster.

There are sure to be plenty of new and impactful faces joining the team by way of free agency, trade, the neg list or the draft, but in the end some of the biggest acquisitions might be players whose rights the Riders already own.

At the end of the 2021 campaign, a whopping nine players were sitting on the teams suspended list. Far from ne’er do wells, these were players that either wouldn’t or couldn’t play last season, but have more than enough upside to be kept around.

Asked about the long list of suspended players earlier this week, general manager Jeremy O’Day said there would be conversations about bringing many of them back into the fold.

“Most of them we’ll reach out to and have some kind of contact with them to see what their plans are. The interest has to be mutual,” he said.

“They’re all on the suspended list for different reasons. Some of them chose not to play football anymore and we put them on the suspended list just so we had their rights. Others have indicated that they may play in the future again. That’s an evaluation process that we’ll have to go through on whether, one: they still wanna play, and two: that the team would still want them to be on the team.”

The nine names that will have to go through that decision process are an eclectic bunch. Some, like unvaccinated quarterback Paxton Lynch and aggrieved SAM linebacker AJ Hendy, were added late in the 2021 when their choices separated them from the team. Others including offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson, receiver Sammie Coates, running back Jeremy Langford and defensive back Tony Lippett are high profile former NFL Draft picks who chose to back out of contracts with Saskatchewan due to the conditions around the COVID shortened season.

Other names are much more familiar to Rider Nation, like veteran offensive lineman Takoby Cofield who retired to pursue coaching opportunities and COVID opt-out cornerback LJ McCray, yet one has always stood apart from all the rest: Brendon LaBatte.

The six-time CFL all-star from Weyburn, Saskatchewan has anchored the Riders offensive line since 2012, but deemed the CFL’s COVID protocols too restrictive to participate this season. It was a massive blow to the team’s protection, which proved to be a weak point all season. Fans and media have kept LaBatte’s absence at the forefront of conversation all season and O’Day doesn’t expect that to change.

“I know you guys asked Dickie probably about 10 times during the year, but the reality is you can’t force someone to play football. I think we were pretty clear that Brendon decided not to play this year,” he said.

“I don’t know if you’d keep calling a player that’s told you he is not playing this year and keep asking him if he wants to come back. I don’t know if that’s, that’s the route you go, but he indicated that he didn’t want to play the season due to various reasons. We certainly just moved forward with the players that we had and we’ll revisit it and talk to him at the appropriate time.”

For fans across Saskatchewan, those conversations can’t happen soon enough. If they come to fruition, it may just be the best move O’Day makes all off-season.