Saunders gets fresh start with Bombers

Jalen Saunders has endured his fair share of challenges over his football career, faced with the kind of obstacles that for many would have been enough to hang up the cleats.

After a few tumultuous years, which included a slew of injuries and a car accident last spring that derailed a comeback and nearly claimed his life, Saunders sees a bright future ahead of him. He maintains he’s in good health and spirits, ready and able to contribute meaningfully on the field, despite not having played a game since suiting up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats back in 2018.

<p>Newly-signed Blue Bombers receiver Jalen Saunders hasn’t played a game since suiting up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats back in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Peter Power</p>
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Newly-signed Blue Bombers receiver Jalen Saunders hasn’t played a game since suiting up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats back in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Peter Power

“I miss being on the field. But I’m definitely ready to go,” Saunders told reporters in a phone conference from his home in Sacramento. “Last year, it was just, like, a lot of stuff out of my hands at the time. Thank god I’m still here to even just be on this phone call with you.”

He added: “I just want to take the time these next few weeks to the next few months and dedicate it straight to the field and put my blessings back on showcase.”

Saunders will get the chance to do just that this season after signing a two-year contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Monday. The 29-year-old joins a projected starting rotation at receiver that also includes Greg Ellingson, Rasheed Bailey, Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky.

If Saunders can regain his former magic from when he was with the Ticats, the Bombers would be adding a notable threat through the air that could make up for some of what’s lost with the departure of last year’s league-leading receiver, Kenny Lawler. In 25 games with Hamilton, split between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Saunders reeled in 121 catches for 1,909 yards – an average of 15.8 yards per reception – to go with six touchdowns.

“Really gritty type of guy. I just like to leave my play on the field, that’s the best way to put it,” Saunders said when asked to describe himself as a football player. “I don’t like to leave my players hanging and I’m real big on coaching and taking my coaching into the field. When I get out there and the coach is asking for me to do a certain route for a player or I need you to go give me a first down or we need a score right here, I’m going to do it at the best of my abilities and I’m gonna get the job done. That’s where I’ve always been, regardless of size, speed, any of that type of stuff.” What followed, beginning in his last season in Hamilton, was a stretch of serious injuries and bad luck, both on and off the field.

Saunders had his 2018 campaign cut short after he suffered an ACL tear in his right knee during a Labour Day game against the rival Toronto Argonauts. He decided not to play in 2019 because he wanted the extra time to recover, only for the 2020 CFL season to be cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He would sign with the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks in 2020, which was being run by former Ticats head coach June Jones, but spent the entire time on injured reserved before the league went belly up. He inked with the Redblacks the same year, and again for the 2021 season, but the car accident led to his retirement last June.

Saunders said his injuries were relatively minor – a fractured leg and banged up hip, but nothing torn – and that he remembers everything about the accident.

“I was in Atlanta taking my cousin to the airport from my grandmother’s – her residence was nearby the airport. I was on a two-lane highway and a drunk driver was asleep on the highway in the second fast lane and I ended up running into him and the car behind me hit me. It was pretty crazy, to say the least,” he said.

“I just got things back rolling through rehab two months down the line and I was back on my feet doing everything I needed to do. I was able to go last year by November, but Ottawa was out of the playoff race. I was ready to go but wanted to take the time off to get my leg fully healed.” Saunders is ready to put that all behind him, and he looks forward to reuniting with Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros.

The two played together in 2017, developing a strong chemistry with one another. In fact, it was in reaching out to Collaros over the winter that he got a better picture of the possibility in playing for Winnipeg, on an offence he’s admired from afar the last couple of years.

“What I’ve been seeing is we can dial up the run, hit guys over the head passing-wise. The thing about Winnipeg is they get guys the ball in different types of spaces, or you can be creative in how to get them the ball,” he said. “It’s not one-dimensional…it’s very sporadic; you don’t know what’s going to happen. On the very next play, anyone can have the ball and do anything.”

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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