A.J. Gass missed being able to see helmets flying around the field in the annual Labour Day Series at the beginning of the month, but at least he’ll be able to return to the field at the end of it.
While COVID-19 turned the Canadian Football League on its head more than the other professional leagues, to the point where the entire 2020 season was finally scrubbed, the pandemic pause is also providing the special-teams co-ordinator of the Edmonton Football Club with a rare opportunity to get back to the grassroots of the game.
Gass will join a host of familiar faces as they help out former teammate and current head coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears Chris Morris with a project now that the high-school and university seasons are also a no-go.
An evaluation camp is being held this weekend to select participants for the Golden Bears Top 120 training camp, which will take place over five weekends beginning in October and running into December.
“Chris and I have been in contact ever since I got back in town. When I have the level of respect I have for a guy like Chris Morris, to be able to go out and work with him, it’s an exciting time,” said Gass, who will join former Edmonton offensive lineman Tim Prinsen and slotback Rick Walters as coaches in the upcoming camps. “I always admire what he did, he was a teacher and a player. So he was doing all those types of things within his school and then coming to practice.
“You just knew he was going to be able to lead a program like he’s doing now. I’m just glad to get out and work with him and see some of this local talent.”
Gass will be working with linebackers, the position he played with Edmonton’s football club from 1998-2007.
“It will be fun. I was coaching high school for 10 years prior to coming up, so I’ve got a good rapport with that age group,” Gass said. “I think I have a decent ability to teach the fundamentals that all those guys need and, obviously, give them a little bit more of that mental stuff that goes on as well.
“So, it’s going to be a good time, I’m excited he gave me the opportunity to help out.”
Getting back out on the field, whistle in hand, sure beats riding out the pandemic on the proverbial sidelines. Especially with what this month typically means to football players, coaches and fans in the province.
“It was brutal,” Gass said of the lack of back-to-back rivalry weekends. “I had never wanted to be at McMahon more than I did on this past Labour Day. It’s been so long just without football in general, and then knowing how special a rivalry that is, it hurts.
“It hurts so bad to not be able to be out there coaching.”
A four-time CFL all-star and two-time Grey Cup champion became the poster boy for newcomers to the Battle of Alberta when in his final year as a player, he catapulted a loose helmet belonging to Calgary Stampeders offensive lineman John Comiskey down the field after a whistle, unwittingly cementing his legacy — not that he condones such actions looking back from a coach’s perspective, of course.
The following year, he kicked off his coaching career as a defensive assistant with the team, before spending the past decade coaching at the high-school level in California.
In 2019, he returned to Edmonton to handle special teams for former teammate-turned-head-coach Jason Maas. But with a coaching change in the off-season to follow, Gass went from questions on Maas’s future, to questions on who will take over as head coach, to where he might end up fitting in the mix.
And almost as soon soon as Scott Milanovich hired Gass back on Edmonton’s coaching staff, the question turned to would there even be a 2020 CFL season at all?
“Obviously, when the team decided to move on from Maas, I questioned where am I going to work, how is it going to work out? You dust off your resume and start making phone calls,” Gass said. “I was fortunate to interview with Scott, had some good conversations and ironed out an opportunity to be here for another season.
“And then, all of a sudden, that season’s now gone. So peaks and valleys were the definition of 2020, so far.”
That doesn’t mean he and his fellow coaches have been sitting idly by at their Commonwealth Stadium headquarters.
“We’re going to break down every opponent, just like we would for a normal year,” Gass said. “Because it’s a new staff, coaches have to get to know one another as far as how we game plan, the things that we do.
“So, for us, it’s an opportunity to continue to grow as a staff and hopefully be able to put everything in play in 2021. Given there was no season this year and there was a lot of opting out going on throughout the league, it’s going to be interesting seeing how all these players fall in coming into next year.”
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
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