Chad Kackert spent his off-season catching footballs in Simi Valley, Calif. He was determined to find ways to contribute to the Toronto Argonauts other than as the backup to running back Cory Boyd.
Day after day, Kackert headed over to his old high-school field to run routes with a buddy who plays quarterback for Azusa Pacific University. Before he left Toronto after last season, Argonauts general manager Jim Barker suggested the 5-foot-9, 198-pound back work on catching the ball – and he took the advice.
Kackert played running back in seven games for the Argos last season, starting while Boyd was out with a concussion. Kackert rushed for 349 yards and four touchdowns, caught four passes for 58 yards and a score, was CFL player of the week once, but also fumbled three times. When Boyd returned midway through the season, Kackert didn't play again. He accepted that Boyd would be the guy if healthy.
Fast-forward to Week 8 of the 2012 season, and Kackert, 25, is getting his shot to be the starting running back for the Argos against the Calgary Stampeders on Saturday.
It comes days after Boyd was cut for failing to do the other things expected of a back (such as protecting prize quarterback Ricky Ray). Kackert's willingness to contribute in any way possible went a long way toward earning him this opportunity.
"With Chad, he's not going to change everything," said Scott Milanovich, head coach of the 3-3 Argos. "But piece by piece, one guy bringing a little bit more for us, we hope it will make a difference."
While visiting his girlfriend in the Toronto area during the off-season, Kackert read on Twitter that some Argos players were doing a small, optional mini-camp, a workout he had not been told to attend. So he asked if he could come. He was the only running back to show up, so he took a load of carries and got good feedback on his route-running.
When the season began, Boyd was the obvious starter. Through six games, he rushed for 447 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but questions arose about his ability to pass-protect.
Last weekend, while he was in Collingwood, Ont., watching wakeboarders, Kackert's phone showed a missed call from Milanovich. For a backup player, phone calls from the head coach are rare. Kackert panicked for an instant as he puzzled over possible reasons. Had he missed a meeting?
He called Milanovich back to learn the surprising news: the Argonauts had cut Boyd and Kackert was the new starter.
"I just wanted to get back, get into my playbook and get ready," Kackert said. "It's tougher doing something without results. Now, I actually get to see my work being put into action."
The Argos also brought back running back Gerald Riggs and placed him on the practice roster.
Is this a high-stakes, one-game tryout for Kackert? Is Riggs in position to get the next shot if Kackert (who has rushed twice for minus-three yards this season) doesn't pan out?
"It could feel like a one-game tryout if I was going to think negatively, or I could view it as my big chance," Kackert said. "I have learned that there are so many guys out there that can play at this level. They might have been a phone call away from being in my shoes right now. So I'm grateful for where I am and for what I have this weekend."
Kackert had his ups and downs in practice this week, impressive runs and exciting catches mixed with dropped balls.
"I told him, 'You're not going to be perfect, and when you make a mistake, you don't have to come to the sidelines feeling sorry,'" Milanovich said. "The last thing you want to do is put so much pressure on yourself that you freeze and you can't play football like you have all of your life.
"We want him to know we're behind him."