The way things have worked out for Ricky Foley, he might hardly recognize this weekend's appearance in the 100th Grey Cup as part of the same season.
Not long ago, he was feeling devastated. Feeling lost on a football field was not something he was used to. He wasn't exactly at war with Argo defensive coordinator Chris Jones, but they were not seeing eye to eye for a good chunk of 2012. While things are rosy now, it wasn't always so as Foley attempted to learn a new way of playing football, in a position he hadn't seen before.
Now, with the season's biggest game just ahead, Foley is once again feeling like a productive part of the Argonaut defence. To get here took a lot of hard work on his part and on Jones' part.
"There was a point where I couldn't have been more frustrated if I had tried," Foley said, shortly after his team's last full practice before Sunday's game. "I was at my wit's end."
When Jones took over as the DC in Argoland, a new assignment was born for Foley. Used to lining up on the edge of the defensive line and flat out going after quarterbacks - something he was quite good at - he was now asked to play a dropping lineman kind of style, heading backwards, not forwards, into the linebacking corps in pass coverage.
|Difference in philosophy|
"We got into it a few times. We're both competitors. We're both fiery guys. But we left it at that. We sat down and we had long two, three hour meetings and we hashed things out. I think the team's better for it and I know I definitely feel better in this system as a player for it."
- Argos defensive end Ricky Foley about defensive coordinator Chris Jones
His comfort zone was gone. His confidence waned. He didn't like it. At all.
"It was pretty frustrating to start the season how I did. It was a lot of stuff that I'd never done before. I expected a whole lot out of myself. It was frustrating. It was annoying."
He and Jones were at odds. The defensive coordinator needed Foley to adapt. Foley wasn't sure he could or even needed to.
"We got into it a few times," he recalled. "We're both competitors. We're both fiery guys. But we left it at that. We sat down and we had long two, three hour meetings and we hashed things out. I think the team's better for it and I know I definitely feel better in this system as a player for it."
That's a major improvement over the way Foley viewed things early in the season. After a poor performance in a game in Montreal, he was feeling - as he said - at his wit's end. Watching film of the game, Foley could hardly believe what he was seeing.
"I just remember watching film after the game and how timid I was, and how unsure I was about what I was doing. And that's not coaching, that's just me not being comfortable with it. I was just...that was rough. It was like... I don't play like that."
"It's one of the most embarrassing feelings as a player. When you look timid, if you're unsure, if you're not aggressive...." He stopped mid-sentence.
The root of Foley's struggles, it seemed, weren't in his skill set. He didn't feel as though his physical abilities were eroding. However, after nine years of playing defensive end (both university and pro) he laboured over changing his mind set. The conversion was not easy, not easy at all.
Part of getting the job done came in those head to head conversations he had with Jones.
Did it ever get heated?
"Honestly, yeah," said Foley, after a knowing laugh. "There was a moment where it was man-to-man and we just had to kind of.... A lot of the stuff we said, we were saying the same thing. We had to just kind of explain to each other, like 'coach, this is how I feel and this is why.' There were probably some assumptions made on both sides. Like I said, those three hour meetings... we talked about everything from growing up and where he came from. And I think me and Jonesy have a lot better understanding of where we're coming from now. It's been pretty good the second half of the year."
Clearing the air, working hard and just the passing of time have led Foley to a better place.
"There's just a lot of subtleties to this defence and the kind of stuff that might be second nature to a guy who plays linebacker," he said. "Me, not really having ever played it before it's like 'I don't know the subtleties' so sometimes I felt like what would be taken for granted, I just didn't know. Now, I know those."
Down the stretch of the regular season, Foley came up with a couple of 6 - tackle games. Threw in a couple of sacks, too. In the playoffs he registered a sack against Edmonton and had two tackles against the Montreal Alouettes in last week's Eastern Final. If those stats aren't quite so eye-popping, it might not matter. As long as his assignments lead to someone in the defensive front seven making a play.
"The level I'm at now I definitely feel confident," he assured. "I'm not thinking out there on the field. I'm just reacting. If you're thinking and not just reacting, you're not going to be successful."
That's obviously a better feeling than the ones of confusion and anger that prevailed earlier in the season. It stands in stark contrast to the summer months, when Foley battled thoughts that might have had him questioning whether the Toronto Argonauts were really a team on which he belonged.
"You know, those thoughts creep into your head every once in awhile but you can't allow yourself to think that way," he reasoned. "You start thinking that way... if you're not there mentally, you have no chance.
Yeah... it was a rough season, that's all I can say. All that aside, if we get this Cup... who cares about personal stuff, for right now, you know? If we get this win (Sunday) all that's erased."
As have been the days where he and Jones had an uncomfortable co-existence. Even then, there were the seeds of a broader understanding between the two.
"First thing he told me at training camp," recalled Foley, "I won't forget it. He said 'I see a lot of myself in you.' He was saying how he's too hard on himself and how he expects perfection and how I do as a player as well."
Then came the turbulence. And now? "We're cool as hell right now," he said of Jones.
"One of the first guys I looked for after we won the Eastern Final. He wasn't trying to celebrate that much and I couldn't find him 'til I got to the locker room. I was like 'where's Jonesy, where's Jonesy?"
He found him. Somewhere along the way this season, Ricky Foley also found a new version of himself.
A freelance broadcaster and writer, Don is also the in-stadium announcer for Toronto Argonauts home games. A familiar voice to Toronto sports fans, he hosted the morning show at The FAN for more than 10 years. Follow Don on Twitter @CFLLandry