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By Mike Sandrolini
PROVISO | Warren Moon, Joe Theismann, Doug Flutie, Ricky Williams, Chad Johnson and Mark Gastineau are among some former NFL stars who once played in the Canadian Football League.
Perhaps Jameer Thurman will one day take a similar route.
The Proviso West product found out Saturday that he made the active roster of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, who start their 2017 season on the road at Ottawa this Friday night.
“I’m excited,” said Thurman, 22, who’ll be a weakside linebacker for the Stampeders. “They threw a lot at me learning the plays and all that. I started off slow, but I started to pick things up and then I started going with the flow. Then I just took it from there and did the best that I can performance-wise in the preseason games to showcase my talents.”
Thurman ended up north of the border after stints in both the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears’ rookie minicamps didn’t work out. He signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in April and participated in their rookie minicamp. He later took part in the Bears’ minicamp. A Bears fan, Thurman relished the opportunity to be in their minicamp even though he wasn’t invited back.
“It was great,” he said. “Being from Chicago and being the hometown team, it was a dream come true to actually be there at Halas Hall, have meetings there and practice and all that. It was a great experience that I’ll never forget.
“Neither team wanted me so I talked to my agent, trying to see where there was interest. We already talked about the possibility of once (NFL) teams weren’t calling back. My agent went ahead and reached out to some teams. Calgary called me a week or two later after the Bears minicamp and said they wanted to sign me.”
Thurman (6-foot, 225 pounds) came into the Stampeders’ camp late—Calgary signed him on May 28. He not only had to learn the defensive playbook, but adapt to the CFL, which has several noticeable differences from American NFL football.
There are 12 players on the field, rather than 11. CFL teams have three downs to make a first down, as opposed to four. CFL and NFL teams score similar amounts of points for touchdowns, field goals, point-after conversions and safeties. However, CFL teams also can score a single point (or what is called a rouge) when a team kicks the ball into the end zone by any legal means (other than a field goal) and the receiving team doesn’t return, or kick, the ball out of its own end zone.
CFL defensive players also have to line up a yard behind the line of scrimmage, while NFL defensive players can line up right near the line of scrimmage.
CFL playing fields also are longer than American football fields (110 yards compared to 100) and wider (65 yards compared to 53.5 yards). End zones in the CFL also are 20 yards long, compared to 10-yard end zones in the U.S. In addition, the goalposts in the CFL are on the goal line while goalposts in the U.S. are in the back of the end zone. (The NFL also had its goalposts on the goal line until 1974.)
But as a defensive player—defense is spelled defence in Canada—Thurman said the biggest adjustment he’s had to make is that a receiver can get a running start behind the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. If a receiver times it right, he can be running at full speed as the ball is snapped, giving the receiver an advantage over a defensive back or linebacker covering him.
“It’s kind of hard when you have passing responsibilities and guys are already running full speed before the snap of the ball,” he said. “The other one is the defense has to be one yard off the ball. The field is way wider and longer. The goalposts are in the front of the end zone so in goal line situations you have to be aware of that as well.”
Thurman made quite a first impression with the Stampeders in his CFL debut versus the British Columbia Lions on June 6. During the second quarter, he stripped the ball from Lions’ quarterback Keith Price deep in B.C. territory. The ball rolled into the end zone where teammate Derek Wiggan fell on it for a touchdown, which is called a major in Canadian football. The Stampeders won the game, 23-18.
“I knocked the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and then one of our d-linemen recovered it,” Thurman said.
He also put together a solid game in the Stampeders’ second preseason matchup, a 36-35 triumph over the Edmonton Eskimos, recording four tackles (tied for third highest on the team for that contest).
“They (Calgary coaches) just said I’m doing good, just keep improving,” Thurman said. “The second game, I did pretty good and we ended up winning by one point. A lot of the starters played the first half so I didn’t play defense until the second half. But I was on special teams and I did a pretty good job.”
A four-year starter at Indiana State—better known as the alma mater of basketball Hall of Famer Larry Bird—Thurman finished his collegiate career as the 11th all-time school leader in total tackles (340). He also accumulated seven forced fumbles, 28 tackles for loss, five fumble recoveries and five interceptions. He starred for then-coach Famous Hulbert and the Panthers the last time Proviso West made the IHSA Class 8A playoffs (2012). In addition, Thurman was a standout wrestler, placing third in the state in his weight class during his senior year.
“He makes things look easy and he’s growing,” said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson. “He’s a very fluid and smooth athlete and could be a real good answer at linebacker for a long time.”
Now that he’s officially part of the team, Thurman hopes he’ll have more of an opportunity to get used to the culture and the city of Calgary.
“I haven’t had much of a chance to experience life in Calgary yet because at training camp we’ve been to two places: the stadium where we practice—we have our meetings and stuff—and then we go back into the dorms where we sleep at,” he said. “But I’ve seen pictures of downtown and it looks really nice and I look forward to going down there and enjoying the scenery sometime.
“The weather is similar to Chicago; it can be cold or cool one day and be real hot the next. We’re kind of by the mountains up here, but for the most part it’s just like back at home.”
The Stampeders’ regular season consists of 12 games and ends in mid-September.