Maybe it was the tow-truck driver who showed up with a beer belly and no football experience.
Or maybe it was the endless parade of guys who starred at Timbuktu-U and insisted they’d make sure-fire pros, if only given a chance.
For whatever reason, Winnipeg Blue Bomber general manager Brendan Taman has never been a fan of holding free agent camps.
That’s about to change.
Two weeks from today, the Bombers will hold the first of five wide-open tryouts, and the first in Taman’s nine years with the team.
“I won’t turn anyone away,” Taman said. “This is a cattle call.”
And if you have a horseshoe stashed in the right place, a stud like Buck Pierce might show up.
That’s right, the B.C. Lions stumbled upon their promising quarterback at a free agent camp in Portland two years ago.
An unheralded pivot out of New Mexico State University, Pierce learned of the camp on the Internet, drove up from his home in California and immediately caught the attention of Lions boss Wally Buono.
“I’m not saying it happens all the time, but it happens,” Buono said. “There’s two reasons why you do 'em. You have players that you’ve targeted, and you work them out. And then you have the Buck Pierces that just show up. He just kind of fell into our lap.”
Today Pierce is the envy of every other team in the CFL, a backup quarterback whose team doesn’t miss a beat when he plays. And it’s only a matter of time – or another injury to Dave Dickenson – before he’s the Lions starter.
Of course, for every specimen like Pierce at these shows, there is a herd of three-legged cattle with absolutely no meat on the bones.
Or, as Taman puts it, “500 guys that probably shouldn’t be thinking football is their career.”
“People always want to point out the Pierces,” Taman said. “But you don’t want to know how many names you don’t point out. It’s endless.”
Like the guy Taman had at his last camp, with the Lions back in '97 or '98.
“A tow-truck driver that had never played football,” Taman recalled. “Never, ever. Not good shape. No, no, not good shape. He didn’t make it through the camp.”
Teams charge a tryout fee, usually $50-$100, in an attempt to not only cover costs, but discourage the delusional.
“We do it more just to keep all the riff-raff from coming,” Buono said.
But thousands remain undaunted, flocking to try out for teams they’ve never heard of, chasing a dream they can’t let go of.
Some are athletic enough, having played college ball in the past. Some are just out on a lark.
“They’re there for a million reasons,” Buono said, recalling a college professor who used to show up, year after year. “Every year we came, he’d come and work out for us. He was like a 45-year-old guy.”
SWEARS BY CAMPS
Buono swears by the camps, having found several players over the years, including receiver Tony Simmons and defensive back Ryan Phillips.
Calgary found receiver Marc Boerigter at one.
The Bombers, too, have a decent history with these things.
Former player personnel guru Paul Jones used to run them in the deep south, finding Juran Bolden, the star defensive back, and K.D. Williams, the flashy linebacker, in '95.
Over the next several weeks they’ll look for the next diamond in the rough in Atlanta, March 31, Jackson, Miss., Apr. 1, Dallas, Apr. 21, Cincinnati, May 5, and back in Atlanta, May 6.
"What do they always say? ‘You’ve gotta always turn over as many rocks as you can,’ " Taman said. "Going into this year we’re not going to be able to say we didn’t try this or we didn’t try that.
“Maybe we can unearth another Buck Pierce.”