Ali Mourtada spent all offseason perfecting his kicks from the wider Canadian hash marks but when he arrived at Investors’ Group Field in Winnipeg this week, there were entirely new lines painted on the turf.
From the outside, it would appear that the CFL’s recent rule change was something of a cruel practical joke played on the Blue Bombers’ second-year field goal kicker. The 31-year-old lost his job ahead of the team’s Grey Cup run last season after going 8-of-15 from distance, struggles that were frequently blamed on adjusting to different field dimensions on the fly.
Now that he’s mastered his approach, all the offseason effort was for naught. In metaphorical terms, you could say the league moved the goalposts, but at least those remain in the same spot.
“Part of me wanted [the hash marks] to be wider because I spent so much time out there, but all these things are out of my control,” Mourtada acknowledged following the final day of Bombers’ rookie camp. “Wherever it’s at now, I’m looking forward to getting out there.”
The change is likely to be a blessing for many young American kickers, making for a smoother transition from one style of football to another and a much more direct trajectory through the uprights. Had it happened a year earlier, Mourtada’s first five CFL games needn’t have been so rocky, drawing the ire of an entire fan base and prompting the team to bring in NFL free agent Sergio Castillo to get them over the championship hump.
In this alternate reality, perhaps it’s the kid from Sierra Leone, who battled his way through the Arena football ranks, that hits all five of his field goals and becomes the unsung hero of an overtime Grey Cup victory. The thought is tantalizing, but Mourtada wouldn’t trade his journey for anything.
“I don’t wish it would’ve happened last year. I think last year really allowed me to grow and that’s necessary,” he explained. “Especially as a kicker, you have to go through that. Kind of get forged in the fire and then come out and be strong. I would never change anything because I think that allowed me to become who I want to be and who I’m meant to be.”
The experience allowed him to grow as a person and an athlete — while developing a thick skin for outside criticism — something that caused Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea to take notice. The long-time special teams coordinator saw a player with all the right tools to be a successful CFL kicker, bringing him back for a second season and a shot at the starting job even after so many kicks sailed past the uprights.
“He didn’t get some of the results he wanted, but when you watched the work, you watched the effort he put in, you watched the ease at which he put in that effort, it wasn’t like he was grasping and struggling and changing a bunch of different things all the time. He was just going about his business,” O’Shea told reporters Friday.
“Do you want to see the ball go through the uprights? Yep. That’s the end goal, but I’ve seen other kickers whose process varies daily and they don’t have a real good idea on how to go through the practice week and how to do it professionally. Whereas Ali is at a spot where everything looked just fantastic in terms of how he was going about his daily business and his mindset was spot on.”
“In my mind, when you take that all into account, when you look at the bigger picture and not just on outcome, it’s pretty easy to bring him back.”
As it stands now, Mourtada is in a two-horse race for the kicking job to begin camp, with second-year Canadian Marc Liegghio his only competition. Neither could hold down the place-kicking duties last season and Bombers’ fans aren’t likely to be comfortable with that situation anytime soon, but the early returns on Mourtada’s second chance are promising.
With 80 kilometre per hour winds buffeting practice Friday, the team’s pint-sized redemption story wasn’t blown off course and drew rave reviews from his coach.
“Ali was unbelievable today,” O’Shea stressed. “As I said to him, it can be colder and it can get rainy, but, in terms of wind, that was as challenging a wind day as you’re going to find. He made a very high percentage of his kicks and he looked good doing it.”
While all of Mourtada’s work on the hash marks this spring can be thrown out the window, his training against the elements clearly served him well. The Arizona resident became something of a storm chaser to prepare for his Winnipeg return and felt quite at home in the adverse conditions.
“I’ve kicked so much at so many different fields that when the wind’s blowing, I would know if I wanted to work directly into the wind what field to go to and if I wanted to work with a wind left to right, I knew where to go too,” Mourtada chuckled. “The more practice you get in there, the more you understand the kind of ball that you hit and the better off you’re going to be.”
The same can be said about the storm he endured last season. How much better he’s become as a result is the only question that Bombers fans want answered this pre-season.