Dave Stala remembers studying film when he was a Montreal Alouette, focusing on the sure-handed Ben Cahoon, wanting to imitate moves showcased by the veteran slotback.
Stala, a two-time Vanier Cup winner from Saint Mary's University, was seven years younger than Cahoon when he entered the Canadian Football League in 2003, a year when Cahoon set a record for Canadians with 112 receptions.
Now 31, in his third year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Stala is the Canadian slotback in the spotlight, getting better with age, and the one doing the mentoring, too.
Tied with Als receiver Jamal Richardson, Stala leads the CFL with seven touchdowns, making him the first Canadian in 18 years to lead the league in that category. Calgary Stampeder Dave Sapunjis last did it with 15.
Stala studied Cahoon's game thoroughly during his time in Montreal and admired the connection between Cahoon and quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
"When I was a youngster in the league, Ben helped me out a lot, because we had the same body type, so he could teach me, and we would hang out and golf together, too," said Stala. "But years later, I've become the older guy, and we've got younger guys here, so here I am helping them."
A lasting lesson learned in Montreal is bearing fruit for Stala now. As Calvillo began to age, he started a new diet free of gluten and dairy. Stala noticed how the changes were helping Calvillo, so he went on the same plan with the same trainer from Montreal. Instead of the regular pasta he enjoyed, he learned to substitute pasta products made of corn or rice.
After playing an average 2009 season in Hamilton in which he caught two touchdown passes, Stala returned to Montreal in the off-season and worked out with Calvillo.
"We would do everything together – catching balls, doing drills, running, lifting, everything," Stala said. "A.C. was on the diet for two years before me, so I would talk to him and learn all about that. He's been a huge help to my career."
Stala has lost about 14 pounds on the diet and it continues to energize him. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound pass-catcher feels quicker and lighter on his feet, particularly since a broken foot hobbled him greatly toward the end of his time with the Als.
"There comes a point for a veteran player when you're going to get it or you're not, and for Dave, he really could have not committed himself, and his career honestly would have been over," said Calvillo, now 39. "You have to give him credit, there are a lot of guys who play for four to five years and they wash out. He's made a huge commitment to extend his career and become a better player."
Stala, who was born in Poland but raised in Hamilton, has 26 catches for 339 yards so far in 2011 and was the Canadian player of the week after grabbing five for 107 yards and two scores versus the Als on July 29. He enters Monday's Labour Day Classic against Montreal already having more touchdowns than he has ever had at the end of any of his seven previous CFL seasons.
"He was a very good player back then in Montreal, but now he's a very good pro," said Ticats head coach Marcel Bellefeuille, who was also briefly Stala's receivers coach in Montreal. "He studies more film more, takes care of his body more and understands his role on the team."
"And with Arland Bruce leaving, someone else had to step up and take that role. Dave has stepped up and filled it."
With a crop of young receivers in the fold for the Ticats this season – all imports – Stala has been instrumental in helping them adapt.
"Dave helps me out in so many ways with the nuances of the Canadian game," said Ticats rookie slotback Chris Williams. "He's got seven touchdowns already this year, so you know his connection with Kevin [Glenn]is working."
Stala attributes much of his recent success to the chemistry he and quarterback Kevin Glenn have achieved. Glenn adds that the two spend a lot more time together off the field now, always sitting beside together in meetings, even getting family together outside of football.
"When you start to take that to the next level and you're not just football teammates but you're actually friends, stuff on the field really becomes second nature," Glenn said. "I know what he's thinking now."