Blue Bombers defender Alex Suber was the defensive player of the week in the Canadian Football League. (Dave Darichuk/Winnipeg Blue Bombers)
Winnipeg's Alex Suber is five feet, seven inches tall, weighs 174 pounds soaking wet and hits like a Mack truck.
That wonderful old cliché is apropos for those of a certain vintage because it brings back memories from 40 years ago of another undersized football player who did great things for the Blue Bombers - Mack Herron.
Herron was a five-foot-five and one half inch back who led the CFL's then-Western Conference in rushing back in 1972, and though Suber works on the other side of the ball as a defensive back, he's as tough as his long-ago brethren.
And yet another example of how the Canadian Football League has offered homes to those who may not fit the NFL's idea of what size you need to be a good football player.
Doug Flutie, Pinball Clemons, Charles Roberts, Jerald Bayliss, Willie Pless - it's an impressive list that goes much deeper than just those most-recognizable of guys.
Sense of competitiveness
What all the undersized CFLers over the years seem to have in common is a highly developed sense of competitiveness - call it a need to prove every day they belonged on the field with much larger players.
"I have an older brother, and we competed all the time," says Suber, on the phone, following a terrific debut in this his second CFL season that saw him pick up his first pro interception and first touchdown on the same play against Hamilton.
"Whether it was PlayStation, or breaking the wishbone at Thanksgiving, we wanted to win."
Suber's competitiveness one-on-one skills saw him limit Hamilton star receiver Arland Bruce III to just two catches in Week 1, and drove the Tiger-Cat so crazy that he punted the ball into the stands in frustration late in the game, drawing a 15-yard penalty. For all that, Suber was named defensive player of the week.
Larry Taylor understands Suber's drive. He's five-feet-six, but that hasn't stopped him from running back kicks and catching passes for the Calgary Stampeders after breaking in with the Montreal Alouettes.
"You can't come into this game as an undersized guy being hesitant," Taylor told CBCSports.ca. "You have to go full speed. Go all out. If you don't, the other guys have a bigger advantage."
What he means by that, of course, is they have the advantage of being bigger.
So, you have to be smarter, and that means study.
"I watch a lot of film," Suber says. "That's something I learned from Kavis Reed (formerly Winnipeg's defensive coordinator, now Edmonton's head coach), who sat me down and talked to me and made me see how important that was."
Taylor says being prepared means you get an edge, especially when you have to run routes against guys six inches taller than you.
That does not, however, mean these guys have always been the underdog.
The Florida connection
When you consider an undersized player your first thought might be of someone who has always had to struggle to make a team. Not so in all cases.
When Taylor got to Belle Glade High (home of the Golden Rams), just north of the Everglades in central Florida, he already had a reputation as a star, size or not. From kids' football on up, he was always top of the heap.
"I pretty much always stood out, right from Pop Warner [football]. Size was overlooked. My reputation followed along with me," says Taylor, who was known then as "the miniature Barry Sanders."
It wasn't until he got to the collegiate level at the University of Connecticut where he really had to start proving what he was capable of in a highly competitive environment on a daily basis.
Coming to Montreal in 2008, Taylor settled in as a returner and occasional receiver, earning special teams player of the year in the CFL for 2009, and winning a Grey Cup. Last season was spent on and off the practice roster of the New York Jets before he signed as a free agent with Calgary for 2011.
There has never been a feeling, in his mind, that he was anything but welcome in Canada.
"This league gives you the opportunity to fulfill your dreams at the professional level," he says. "If you are able to play, they will take you."
Suber, who is from the Tampa area, knew of Taylor when they were coming up in a state where football really is life and everything else is details.
He had the same experience in high school, bringing a big-time reputation along with him from kids ball as an offensive powerhouse. It wasn't until he was a sophomore at Middle Tennessee State that Suber was switched to defence.
And it was there he began to learn about the CFL, and how accepting the coaches are of undersized performers.
Of course, it helps if, like Suber, you can bring a 39-inch vertical leap with you, putting his hands almost nine feet in the air when he goes up with a bigger receiver.
A touch of geography, a touch of geometry
Bob O'Billovich, who has been around the CFL and Canadian football since 1963 as a player, head coach, personnel director and now GM of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, has worked with many of the league's best undersized performers, and he has a couple of theories about why they do well here.
There are the rules, such as having to be a yard off the ball when it's snapped, giving smaller, speedier guys an advantage. It's also a pass oriented game, offering a more wide-open orientation that the undersized thrive in.
And there's the much bigger field, so a "nifty" guy like Michael Clemons, the best all-purpose player in CFL history, and Flutie, arguably the best quarterback ever, were able to operate with impunity.
Then there are the intangibles.
"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for smaller guys who are tough," O'Billovich says. "They've been told so often they are too small [for pro football] they have a little chip on their shoulder, and they're out to prove people wrong."
It's not just kick returners or defensive backs, either. Some of the best undersized players have been found right in the trenches.
Jerald Bayliss, a four-time CFL all-star at nose tackle, was three or four inches shorter and at least 30 pounds lighter than most defensive linemen you'd think about, "but he was as quick as anyone we ever had," Obie says.
Willie Pless, all five-foot-10 of him, was five times the CFL's most outstanding defender as a linebacker, and his number is up on Edmonton's wall of honour. O'Billovich had him in Toronto.
"Willie had tremendous instincts. He made up for a lack of speed initially with a quick burst, he read offences and he knew where the ball would go when it snapped.
"He had tremendous anticipation and intelligence," O'Billovich says.
Not injury prone
It was suggested in a local Calgary newspaper this spring that Larry Taylor was always in danger of a major injury out on the field because of his size. He disputes that, and so does Suber.
Both say they have suffered the same injuries any other football player would have.
"The injuries I've come about are every day, and typical of any sport," says Taylor, who tore and ACL in 2005 and has had sprains, bruises and bumps along the way. "For the most part, I take care of myself, on and off the field."
Besides, being smaller means he can hide behind bigger targets.
Suber believes injuries will happen anyway, "and I wouldn't say it's because I'm a smaller guy."
If there's one thing O'Billovich is concerned about, as far as using undersized guys in the secondary like Suber, is the recent trend to taller receivers and that means when there's a jump ball, there's "no contest."
However, what works against you can also work for you. Because as long as the CFL offers a home to the undersized, Suber will have folks like Saskatchewan's star receiver Weston Dressler to cover.
All five-foot-seven of him.
Bob O'Billovich only worked directly with quarterback Doug Flutie for a year in B.C. when both were with the Lions, but in him he sees the prototypical undersized player welcomed by the Canadian Football League.
And why not? Flutie, who was generously listed at five-foot-10, was six times the league's most valuable player, won three Grey Cups (all as game MVP), threw for 41,355 yards (added another 17,000 in the NFL) and rushed for 6,759 yards himself in a 21-year pro career.
"Doug was like a point guard in basketball, leading a fast break on the CFL field," says O'Billovich, who also had Pinball Clemons with Toronto. "Doug was more dangerous out of the pocket and surveying the field."
All true, but what Obie really remembers was the desire.
"Smaller guys are very competitive," he says. "Doug was one of the most competitive quarterbacks I've ever been around. He had the fire in his eyes and he loved being put in the challenges and situations where he had to make plays to win a game."
How competitive? Flutie was, after all, the first man to drop kick an extra point in the NFL since 1941 when he did it on Jan. 1, 2006 for New England. It was his last ever pro play.
- Malcolm Kelly
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