There is no more improbable starter in the 99th Grey Cup game than him. There couldn’t be. The guy is a portrait in misfortune, a one-man disaster film. Yet here he is in the championship game, still looking for that happy ending.
Heaven knows, J.R. LaRose has endured his share of the bad.
“I don’t quit. I can’t quit,” he said Wednesday from a quiet corner in the B.C. Lions’ dressing room. “It hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m here. But once I settle in, I know it will be a great feeling.”
There isn’t a player in the CFL, in all sports for that matter, who hasn’t gone eyeball to eyeball with adversity. Few, however, can hold a candle to what the last three years have done to the 27-year-old defensive back from Edmonton.
It started in June of 2008 with the news his cousin’s five-year-old son had drowned in Devil’s Lake, Alta. A member of the Edmonton Eskimos, LaRose left the team to grieve with his family. Three months later, he suffered a nasty broken leg. His right fibula and tibia were shattered, his career was in jeopardy.
He missed the entire 2009 season rehabilitating and strengthening himself. When he came back, the Eskimos didn’t want him. They said he was too old, didn’t fit into their plans. They cut him loose.
Then his mother died at 57. Then, after signing with the Lions, he broke his right leg again. Then in B.C.’s last game of the 2011 preseason, he broke a bone in his forearm.
Add it up: three years, two tragedies and a litany of broken bones held together by a metal plate, a titanium rod that runs from below his right knee to his ankle and who knows how many screws. Enough to make a metal detector scream like a banshee when he passes through.
And still LaRose refused to quit. Even in last week’s Western final, it was evident just how much it meant for LaRose to be on the field, contributing with his teammates. He took a shoulder hit and momentarily lost feeling in both his hands. After a stint on the sidelines, he was back in the action. It wasn’t his best game but it was enough to help defeat the Edmonton team that had released him.
“J.R.’s been through a lot, from childhood to junior football to not going to university, having his opportunity taken away in Edmonton,” Lions receiver Geroy Simon said. “He’s a fighter. He’s shown a lot of heart.”
LaRose didn’t have much as a child. His mother struggled with drug addiction. Money was tight, university out of the question. Instead of getting into serious trouble, LaRose fell into sports and played football. He won the 2005 Canadian junior football championship with the Edmonton Huskies before signing with Eskimos, the team he grew up idolizing.
He didn’t play in the 2005 Grey Cup won by the Eskimos but spent the following two seasons working his way onto the roster and into the starting lineup. Just when things looked promising, the bottom fell out and LaRose’s life became a series of mishaps and mayhem.
“My mom Bobbie was a warrior,” said LaRose, whose mother was from the One Arrow First Nation. “I think I have her warrior spirit. It’s in my blood. She grew up in the first nations’ residential school system. She struggled with drug addiction. Her addiction caught up to her and wore down her immune system.”
It also gave her son a purpose – to speak out against drug abuse and violence in first-nation communities. LaRose has done that and will continue to do more once his football days are done. Before that happens, he has his heart set on playing in the Grey Cup and winning it. It is the one dream he has clung to when everything seemed lost.
“As a kid, I never thought of the NFL,” he said. “I grew up watching [the Eskimos’]Gizmo Williams and Damon Allen. I wanted to win a Cup.”
And now he’s here, starting at safety and settling into a Grey Cup week highlighted by the Lions’ appearance against the East Division Winnipeg Blue Bombers. For a hard-luck guy, it’s a lot to absorb, and this time it’s good, not horrific.