HAMILTON — Life in the corporate world did not feel like a bad existence for Avon Cobourne.
After he asked for his release from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in February, the 33-year-old running back began selling insurance, by appointment, in Orlando, Fla. He did not care about Hamilton’s coaching changes and player acquisitions. He did not jump when some teams called with offers. Cobourne says selling insurance was new, and it was exciting because he still had to earn something. And thank God it was not a desk job.
“You have to go out and [make a sale], it is on you,” he said. “It is on you.”
But a little part of Cobourne’s identity had slipped away, like it does with every athlete when they move away from the field. He still felt like Avon Cobourne, with the big smile and the big swagger; but less like Avon Cobourne, the 1,000-yard rusher and two-time Grey Cup champion.
“That is something that I had to adjust to, having a real-life boss that really has never done anything that I’ve done, on my level,” said Cobourne, who rushed for 961 yards last season, giving him 4,262 yards in a six-year CFL career.
When an offer came from Hamilton came late last week — after running back Martell Mallett, the man who replaced him, tore his Achilles — it just felt right to come back. A reported salary of $150,000, was probably persuasive, too.
On Monday, Cobourne was at Ron Joyce Stadium, on the campus of McMaster University, smiling with his pads on. He looked a little thinner than his 205-pound playing weight, and he said he had begun digesting the new playbook.
“It is pretty complicated because there is like three different ways to call one play,” Cobourne said. “And you have [quarterback Henry Burris] who has been in the offence [with head coach George Cortez in Calgary from 2007 to 2009], and he is going to call it any way he wants, and I only know it one way right now.
“[Burris] will call it the third way, and I’ll be like, ‘OK, what [play] do I got?’ And that is what quarterbacks hate, the ‘What I Got?’ guy. But I’m that guy right now.”
Cobourne will not play in Hamilton’s first pre-season game against Toronto at Ivor Wynne Stadium Wednesday night, but Burris expects him to acclimatize quickly.
“The one big difference is Avon, he has been such great receiver in this league, also along with his running ability, his blocking ability, his leadership ability, he brings that to the table as well,” Burris said.
Cobourne said his immediate priority is studying, and igniting his muscle memory on the field.
“You run and and [exercise], but it is always different when you come to training camp because it is a whole lot more running, it is a whole lot more changing directions, and it is competitive, and your body is not used to changing direction that way,” he said.
“But once you get here, if you’ve got [the competitive fire], it is going to come out of you. Once you see one guy doing something, now you’ve got to go and do your thing.”
Cobourne left his insurance job for a third championship, and said the only thing that will keep him from the 100th Grey Cup — apart from Hamilton not advancing to the game in Toronto on November 25 — is the birth of a second child, due sometime that month.
“[Hamilton centre] Marwan Hage said I’m going to have a great season this year,” Cobourne said, “and end it off with a big win and a nice big [championship] ring for my wife.”
But there was little of Cobourne’s characteristic bluster Monday; instead his expression and his demeanour was genuinely joyful.
“I still know I have to do what I have to do, and come out here and perform,” he said, still smiling, “or it is the next guy up.”
Cobourne looked like a man who has realized, at the end of the game, athletes too are simply ordinary people in ordinary life. He just wants to seize a couple more minutes under the lights.
“I’m a very humble guy. This is an opportunity that most people don’t get, and I’m blessed for [Hamilton] to call me, and I’m humbled.”
And, for one day at least, it was easy to believe him.