As Hamilton Tiger-Cats rookie running back C.J. Gable thundered for 118 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day, it was hard to imagine he had been out of football for nearly two seasons, and teams had stopped calling him.
It was then that Gable took the advice of a high-school friend from Los Angeles, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who thought Gable should try playing in Canada. Today, the 25-year-old is the CFL’s fourth-leading rusher (783 yards, seven touchdowns on 125 carries) – and just the kind of multifaceted tailback (46 catches for 536 yards, four touchdowns) the Ticats have needed.
Gable had been a star early in his U.S. college career, playing at powerhouse Southern California, until things went sour between him and then-head coach Pete Carroll. His playing time with the Trojans dissolved, he didn’t get drafted, and his dream career in the NFL fizzled out after a couple of short free-agent stints.
“It ended badly at USC, and I put that on myself. I made some mistakes,” Gable said. “I shouldn’t have said some things that I said – I can’t remember if I said something to coach Carroll or to the media – but I shouldn’t have done it. It probably cost me the NFL, because they couldn’t see me play much any more.”
Instead, Gable got a job as a social worker in a youth group home, was out of football for much of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and missed it terribly. So, Browner told him all about his own CFL experience.
Before Browner signed with the Seahawks in 2011, he spent four seasons in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders, where he won a Grey Cup in 2008 and was a three-time league all-star. It all earned him another shot with the NFL.
“People were saying to me, ‘Man, you’re too good not to be playing.’ And I thought, ‘I have to find a way to get back in it,’” Gable said. “Brandon was telling me it’s great in the CFL, a calm, fun environment – different from the NFL – and you can really enjoy playing football there.
“If an NFL team sees my film here, great. If not, I can have a nice career in the CFL.”
Gable went to a tryout camp in Buffalo and impressed Ticats coach Kent Austin. It wasn’t easy to adjust to the Canadian game, but the tailback was multidimensional and was good at reading defences.
He was also soaking up information like a sponge from veteran Ticats quarterback Henry Burris.
“From the start of training camp, C.J. was always sitting up at the front, really attentive and taking notes, and he’s still taking notes to this day, really hungry to play,” running backs coach Corey Grant said. “We’re asking him to do a lot, and he’s really picking it up now. Not everyone can do it.
“We’ve brought in a lot of different backs, but C.J. really wants it and wants to be perfect,” Grant added.
The Ticats offence calls for a tailback to be a valid receiver in the passing game, not just a check-down guy. He must excel at blocking, running and catching and running routes.
“His improvement has been pretty dramatic, I think,” Austin said. “We really saw C.J. turn when he had a full grasp of the offence and understood terminology and understood conceptually what we were trying to do with him. Since then, his play really [has] taken off, and it matters to him to be really good.”
Gable was named the CFL’s top offensive player for Week 16, and has piled up 346 yards and two majors in Hamilton’s past three games, including back-to-back wins over the Toronto Argonauts that moved the 8-7 Ticats within two points of first place in the East Division.
“The offence is really clicking for me now,” Gable said. “I can just play with no worries, just play free.”