No quit in Ticats' working class heroes

A never-say-die outlook on their pro football dreams makes new Tiger-Cats Dave Stala and DeAndra' Cobb true sons of Hamilton — one literally and the other spiritually.
DeAndra' Cobb, left, was in the process of applying for a job as a prison guard when the Ticats came calling. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

A quick question for Dave Stala and DeAndra' Cobb: Don't either of you know when to quit?

Apparently not. And that's what makes two of the newest Tiger-Cats true sons of Hamilton — one literally and the other spiritually.

Together they've supplied key moments that have the Ticats sitting at 2-1 in the early going of the 2009 CFL season, and if you don’t think that’s significant consider the last time Hamilton was better than .500 was 2004.

Both could have been forgiven for giving up the pro football dream.

Stala used to be a rising Canadian star in the CFL, but when he hauled in the clinching touchdown against Winnipeg at home last Saturday night (and promptly fell into the waiting arms of about a half-dozen delirious local folks to whom he gave the ball) it marked his first major score in over two full seasons.

The last time he'd seen the end zone was as a Montreal Alouettes slot back in Game 18 of 2006 — a year he caught 38 balls in what was itself an injury shortened ride.

A bad foot problem in early 2007 put him on the sidelines for all but two pass completions, and there were none in 2008.

But there was no quit. And when Montreal, Edmonton and Hamilton offered contracts for this year, he went for it and chose to come home to the Hammer, where he’d attended Cathedral High School.

"It’s a livelihood, it’s something I do," said Stala, 29, basking in the early afternoon sun after a practice at Ivor Wynne Stadium and trying to come up with an explanation for his still being here.

"This is the greatest job that anyone could have throughout their lifetime. I don’t think an injury is going to hold me back from coming out here."

It’s a living

If there’s one way DeAndra’ Cobb can truly relate to the people of Hamilton it’s through his willingness to do what it takes to make a living.

Cobb missed two full seasons of football after being cut in the NFL, but he didn’t just sit around in Las Vegas wondering about what might have been.

"[I was] just working. Trying to fit in to society," he says, laughing softly. "Wherever I would find the work, I would do it."

That included working security in a number of different high schools. And he would clean out the trash in stadiums or offices.

"I was trying to feel out and try to find my place, filling out job applications," he says. "Wherever I was accepted I was going back."

When football came calling again, Cobb was in the process of applying for a position as a prison guard, something he thinks he might go back to when his playing days end, be that next week or 10 years from now.

Whoever hires him is going to get a guy who knows the value of a day’s work.

Idling in the NFL

It helps that Stala had a banner 2005 as part of his six years in Montreal — a season that saw 83 balls caught for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns. Still, there were not one, but three injuries to contend with.

Stala says the first and second time (MCL strain followed by the foot injury) were the worst, but when he hurt the same foot again "you’re just like ‘OK, you’ve gotta fight it out and work hard every single time,’ and that’s what I did this off-season."

As Stala ran off to the Cats’ dressing room, Cobb came by trailed by the Hamilton PR head who was juggling multiple interview requests for his new star.

A former Michigan State standout kick returner, Cobb was suddenly in the spotlight following a 175 total-yard performance (including the winning touchdown) in his rookie debut the week before at B.C.

When you add what’s now two CFL appearances to the Las Vegas native’s pro career you get five total games in five seasons, including three starts with the Atlanta Falcons in ’05 as a returner. In 2006 there was a year on the reserve list with Jacksonville and then two seasons of nothing.

Same question: Why didn’t he quit?

"For me, football is something I did, all day, every day," says Cobb, and he’s a quiet man so you have to lean in to catch the words. "Football was always one of those things, when I wasn’t playing it was hard not to be depressed about it."

So he and his wife and parents went looking for one last shot, finding the chance at a series of free agent camps held this spring in California.

Odd jobs

His dad, Ernest, took over as Cobb’s agent and workout advisor and by the time the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos got a look the runner felt ready.

They both passed. Then Hamilton came along.

"I almost missed the Hamilton workout because I had some pro scout thing I did the day before and I was tired and sore and I woke up the next day and it was like, ‘Let’s do it anyway. Let’s cover everything.’"

Good thing, too. Because the series of odd jobs he was taking to make ends meet at home ended when Ticats general manager Bob O’Billovich called with an offer for a spot at training camp.

A pre-season injury to Kenton Keith, a couple of first-game bumps to Tre Smith and Terry Caulley and, voila, instant starter.

Happiest of all might be Cobb’s wife, who can finally get some sleep at night.

"Believe it or not, I play the game of football so much in my head, I jump," Cobb says, and he means that literally. He just jumps. Out of nowhere. "My wife will catch me jumping in my football head. Or even in my sleep I would just jump because that’s what I’m dreaming about, playing football."

Never saw Hamilton, Ontario, Canada coming in that dream, you can bet. But he’ll take it.