By Herb Zurkowsky
HAMILTON —Jason Jimenez might be the most aggressive, nastiest, meanest, dirtiest, most ornery, vicious, most-reviled, despicable, ruthless player in the Canadian Football League.
And he’s actually a nice guy. But when a reputation has been established, it’s often difficult to change opinion.
Jimenez has spent more than five seasons building his controversial character, leaving a carnage of bodies in his wake. And he has no regrets over his public persona, nor the perception of him that exists in some quarters.
“I have a short list of people that I care about. I’m not here to make friends,” said the six-foot-seven, 320-pound offensive tackle, in his second season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “And none of it’s unfair. I’ve done and said things that give people a perception. I won’t cry over it. Some people get their butt hurt by the way I play.”
In 2007, his second season with the B.C. Lions, Jimenez was involved in a blocking incident with former Calgary defensive lineman Anthony Gargiulo. Jimenez hit Gargiulo with an apparent cutblock, rolling into the lineman’s leg after the whistle.
Although the block was deemed accidental, Jimenez was suspended one game. He appealed and was allowed to play in the West Division final. Gargiulo suffered a fractured leg and never played again.
Last season, Jimenez was fined the highest amount possible under the collective bargaining agreement — reportedly 50% of his game cheque — for a controversial hit on Lions defensive lineman Brent Johnson. Again, it occurred following the whistle.
But Jimenez got the last laugh, so to speak. The CFL changed a rule over the winter — the result of the Jimenez play — making it legal for offensive players to block defenders below the waist after a completed pass.
“I think his reputation’s warranted,” Alouettes defensive tackle Eric Wilson said. “Last year, the commissioner [Mark Cohon] had words with him. There’s not much else you can say. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie.
“He was known as an extracurricular guy in B.C. But I’ve played too long to let it get under my skin.”
Montreal rush-end John Bowman, who goes directly against Jimenez on some plays, offered a different perspective.
“Jimenez plays fair,” Bowman said. “He’s a great player and a competitor. I like going against him. He’s one of the better tackles. We’ve had our battles. He’s won some and I’ve won some.
“There was that hit last year. Nobody likes getting cut from behind, and I considered it dirty. But one play doesn’t determine a career. He’s not the dirtiest player in the CFL.”
But he might be one of the brightest, and that’s a side of Jimenez few know exists. He’s erudite and well-spoken, comfortable in discussing a wide variety of topics that go far beyond the field.
Jimenez earned degrees in political science and criminal justice while attending Southern Mississippi, and has had cursory thoughts of attending law school when he retires.
He speaks English, Spanish and German, can get by in Portuguese, and is in the process of learning Russian and Mandarin, although the exercise is on hold. He has written for the Ticats’ website and has a weekly column in the Hamilton Spectator.
And, before the start of this season, he was one of a group of CFL players who visited earthquake victims in Haiti.
“Never judge a book by its cover,” said Jimenez, 31. “What I do on the field isn’t what I do in person. But I was taught to play a certain way. In the U.S., you’re raised to play in a way that demoralizes a defence. That’s how you get it done . . . because a team needs a solid offensive line.
“There’s a correlation between the offensive line setting the tone on a team. It’s true. It doesn’t matter how good the quarterback and receivers are. If you don’t have the offensive line, the job’s harder.”
As a group, Jimenez said linemen are the smartest players on the field, due to their myriad responsibilities. They must be tough and technically sound, he added. They must understand and execute.
Raised on Long Island, New York, Jimenez and his family moved to Orlando when he was 10. He had limited National Football League stints with Cleveland, Oakland, Green Bay and Detroit before making his way to B.C., where he and fellow offensive tackle Rob Murphy created havoc and misery for years.
Following one game in 2007, Jimenez and Alouettes general manager Jim Popp could be seen shouting at each other as they left the field. Jimenez and the Lions won a Grey Cup in 2006, and he was a CFL all-star two years later.
He worked out for Tampa Bay in 2009, only to re-sign as a free agent with B.C., a contract that would have taken him through this season.
But Lions’ general manager and coach Wally Buono said Jimenez was struggling, releasing him before last season. He spoke with a number of teams and signed with Hamilton, where he was reunited with GM Bob O’Billovich.
It was O’Billovich who brought Jimenez to Vancouver originally. O’Billovich said he wanted more toughness, aggression and experience up front.
“Yeah, a few of those [controversial] things come up. It’s true,” O’Billovich said. “But it’s not as bad as people say. A lot of it is borderline. He’s a hard-nosed, tough guy who doesn’t take any crap. He plays the way the game should be played. He doesn’t go outside the rules or has intent to injure. When you play in the trenches, guys are trying to hit you in the mouth. A lot of things happen.”
Jimenez is one of those guys many hate playing against. But his teammates relish having him on their side.
He brings a swagger to the Ticats, and makes them all somewhat tougher.
“I thought he played on the edge. But that’s his M.O.” said Hamilton centre Marwan Hage, who had some initial reservations when Jimenez was signed.
“He and Murphy had the show rolling … with the extra stuff they did. But that’s his edge and makes him who he is.”