Having waited his turn this season, Alouettes kick returner James Letcher Jr. is making the most of his close-up.
Promoted from the practice roster for Week 17 of the CFL season, the diminutive Montreal rookie has turned heads and left defenders in his tracks en route to Sunday’s Grey Cup against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“My saying is if you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready. So I’m always ready,” said Letcher.
The 24-year-old from Kansas City, Kan., had to bide his time, blocked by the presence of Chandler Worthy who was runner-up as the CFL’s outstanding special-teams player last year. His opportunity finally came Sept. 30 in Montreal’s 32-15 win over Ottawa after Worthy hurt his ankle.
Once the chance came, Letcher knew what to do.
“Special teams is easy when you’ve been doing it your whole life,” he said. “All I had to do is catch a ball and run. I’ve been doing that for years.”
Two games later, Letcher returned a missed field goal 125 yards for a TD in a 35-21 win at Edmonton on Oct. 14. Two weeks later, he ran a punt back 99 yards for a TD in a 22-20 victory at Hamilton in the regular-season finale.
In the Eastern final, he returned a kickoff early in the fourth quarter, returning the momentum to Montreal after Toronto had cut the margin to 24-10.
“He waited a long time for an opportunity and he made the most of it,” said Alouettes head coach Jason Maas.
“There were talks about getting Letcher in earlier in the season just to get him a game to see what we did have and kind of give Chandler some rest,” he added. “But Letcher kept working. It’s amazing when you watch a guy get an opportunity and make the most of it. He obviously has all the ability in the world. But sometimes what guys with ability don’t have is patience. And they get frustrated and they stop working or get disappointed.
“Man, he is such a team guy. He’s fun to be around. He’s a ball of energy and he gets along great with our team.”
Letcher is a smooth runner, able to beat defenders. Some seven Elks had a crack at him on the missed field goal return but were left grasping at air.
“I’m not really track fast. I’m football fast,” explained Letcher, whose fastest time over 100 metres at high school was 11.3 seconds.
Against Hamilton, he accelerated past the first would-be tackler and raced down the sideline before cutting inside to take advantage of a blocker.
The East final TD was essentially a straight-line return with blockers clearing a path down the sideline.
“The easiest return I’ve ever gotten in my life, maybe,” said Letcher. “I didn’t get touched and it’s like everything that we were supposed to do, we did. My teammates blocked very well for me. All props to them because I didn’t have to do anything. I just ran. I just showed half of my speed and everything else was taken care of.”
Letcher, listed at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, lives in the land of the giants. But he says it helps having Worthy as a mentor.
“My first day on the team, he put me under his wing and said ‘Hey I’ve got you. If you need anything, let me know,’ ” Letcher said.
Letcher was carrying a lower-body injury from college when he arrived, so was content to “be on the back burner.”
“As the year got on and I got healthy, I’m like ‘Hey man, I’m eager to play. I don’t like watching [games]. I can watch it on TV.’ ”
But friends and family told him to stay the course and be patient, saying his time would come.
Letcher had a stellar collegiate career at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., the only school that offered him a partial scholarship
He appeared in 48 games, returning three kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns. He also had a school-record 228 career receptions for 2,992 yards – second most in school history – and 29 touchdowns.
The Washburn nickname is the Ichabods, named after Ichabod Washburn, an early benefactor of the school. Washburn takes pain to emphasize the name has nothing to do with Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s “Sleepy Hollow” or the “similarly attired Planters Peanuts Mr. Peanut.”
Letcher attended rookie mini-camp with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, moving on to the Als in mid-May when he didn’t secure a contract.
His parents will be in the stands at Tim Hortons Field on Sunday. But no partner.
“No kids, no wife,” he said cheerfully. “[I’m] single, ready to mingle.”