E.A. Sports Today

Making his case

Former Valley Cub Heath finding a place in CFL, looking to build on big first season, eyeing Grey Cup

T.J. Heath (with ball) was a late-season and effective part of a ballhawking Winnipeg Blue Bombers defense that led the CFL in interceptions and takeaways. (Photo by Scott Grant)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD – All T.J. Heath ever wanted was a shot, a real, fulltime shot in somebody’s secondary to show he could really play this game.

After abbreviated stops with several NFL teams, the former Alexandria star got that shot in the Canadian Football League and in his first full season in pro football he didn’t disappoint.

He had seven interceptions for two teams last season (thanks to a midseason trade), tying Blue Bombers teammate Maurice Leggett for most in the league. If he hadn’t had so much prior time in the NFL he might have been the league’s Rookie of the Year. As it was, he was a CFL all-star, the equivalent of being an NFL All-Pro.

Now that he’s about to leave for his first preseason camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and “actually having a lot more fun than I did when I was in the NFL” he wants to take his game — and the Bombers — to the next level.

“For the longest, in the NFL, all I wanted was an opportunity to get on the field, not as a special teams guy, but as a guy who could play a position just so I could show you all I could really play defense,” he said the other day over lunch at Brad’s Bar-B-Q, his dad’s place in Oxford. “It was always the politic thing, always kind of shooting me this, shooting me that.

“I finally took a chance on the CFL and they allowed me to do that. And now I’m being able to show not only CFL teams but NFL teams this is what I’ve been trying to show people I can do all along. I’m just finally getting the opportunity.

”Coming out of college everybody wants that shot at the NFL. I’ve got (numerous) opportunities — five years worth being on different teams and being able to learn and contribute – but it’s always been a point for me to let it be known I can actually play this game with the best of them. The CFL gave me that opportunity. I wanted to do it in the NFL, but — who knows — maybe I might get another opportunity back if I keep playing this way.”

For now, though, all his focus is on the CFL and getting the Bombers to the Grey Cup.

Heath started the season in Toronto and had five interceptions in 10 games. The Argonauts traded him to Winnipeg for a quarterback — on his birthday, no less — after he had his best game of the year (7 tackles, 2 INTs). He went through all the post-game interviews and then was taken aside and broken the news.

“It kind of hurt my heart” at first, he said, because of all the work he’d put in with the Argos, but he was leaving a team that wound up finishing last in its division for a playoff contender. It took him a couple days to get acclimated to his new surroundings, but soon he was fitting into a similar style defense that became the most opportunistic in the league.

He had two more picks as the Bombers led the CFL in interceptions (30) and takeaways. They made the playoffs for the first time in five years, but lost to the BC Lions in the first-round West Division semifinals 32-31 after leading 28-12 in the third quarter.

“We got a taste of the playoffs and that feeling (of losing) hurt because we made it so far and we knew we could’ve beat that team; we’d beaten them (two) times before,” Heath said. “That game let us know we’re capable of way more.

“Coming into the season we’ve got a mind frame we’re going to the Grey Cup. Our general manager is putting together the best possible team to get us there, especially on defense. I think it’s going to be a good season, especially with the new things we’re going to do this year. When you look at it on paper … it looks very, very bright. I’ve been itching to go back for two months now.”

After that kind of debut you can imagine the question he’s been asked most since last November. What do you do to top last season?

“When I went up there (last year) I wanted to do exactly what I did,” he said. “I wrote down a list of goals and I achieved everything I wanted to achieve on that list.

“This year, I’m not really trying to top it. I just really want to be a better player. If that’s me leading the league in picks again, so be it. If that’s just being a more solid player as far as being a better teammate or communicating, so be it. I don’t really try to focus on the numbers part of it because that’s not always guaranteed, so going in I just want to be able to say that this year I’m going to be a better player than I was last year.”

Cover photo by Johany Jutras.

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