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Landry: Masoli taps into the fountain of youth in knee rehab

For Jeremiah Masoli, the glass might be both half-empty and half-full. But you get the distinct impression that the hall-full version of that glass is the one that dominates most of the time.

“The delay, the cancelled season, I feel it just as much as anybody,” says the Hamilton Ticats quarterback, seeing a half-empty vessel as he ponders his absence from the CFL.

“On the flip side of it, it is a little blessing in disguise,” he notes, mindful of his surgically-repaired left knee and the extra time he has to ensure it is absolutely battle-ready when the time comes.

Half-full.

The 32-year-old is on the line from his home in San Francisco, where his journey back to health continues on nearby fields, surrounded by young players who are both testing him physically and providing him with emotional fuel as he prepares for the day he steps back on a CFL field.

That was a day that Masoli thought would have already arrived. Though it has not, he finds himself thankful to be almost back to game-ready anyway.

“I feel really great,” Masoli says cheerfully, when asked if his knee is back to full health. “I’m pretty much doing everything almost at a hundred per cent.”

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With young, hotshot receivers zipping downfield as his targets and speedy defenders pressuring him — “I’m working out with some really good high school kids that got a lot of PAC-12 offers,” he says — Masoli has found that he is passing physical tests continually.

He remembers the first few times he tried some escape manoeuvres as a few of the teenage defensive players flushed him out of the pocket.

“I’m kind of waiting on my knee to give me some kind of (negative) feedback,” he says of those moments, last summer. “But there was nothing there, which is a great sign. It can handle stuff without me having to think about it first. It can just react on its own. That’s where I am with that.”

The teens, it turns out, are giving Masoli more than just physical test benchmarks. They are, just by being themselves, providing him with jolts of youthful energy.

Their exuberance and their hunger remind him of the days when he was a young and learning quarterback, scrambling both on the field and off as he tried to make his way in football without scouts knocking on his door with scholarship opportunities to offer.

That’s a pretty good tonic for a guy who might otherwise be feeling a little worn out by a lengthy rehab process.

“This is why I do it,” says Masoli, explaining that the youngsters have put him in touch with his football roots, emotionally. “I fell in love with the game a long time ago. Just that inspiration, that motivation, to get back to work like these kids do.”

“I kind of see myself in a lot of these guys.”

And perhaps a few of the kids see themselves in the veteran quarterback, too. Masoli takes that end of the bargain seriously, offering advice and tips to the hopefuls.

“I try to impart some recruiting tips, give some inspiration from my own story. Really for guys who aren’t getting recruited. That was kinda the boat that I was in.”

During the last weekend in September, Masoli was invited to be a guest instructor at the Fresno State Showcase (so was free agent quarterback Mcleod Bethel-Thompson), where he could talk to even more college hopefuls, as well as put on his scouting hat. He was impressed by a young quarterback from Long Beach named Nicholaus Iamaleava.

And Masoli found even more rejuvenating energy there.

“I love being around young kids,” he gushes. “They’re just starving for attention, you know? They just wanna say ‘Look at me, I’m workin’, I love football.’ It was good to be around that energy.”

Coming back from a bad injury has been a torturous process for Masoli, dating back to Week 7 of the 2019 season, when he tore the ACL in that left knee in a game against Winnipeg. He’d had a pistol-hot start, looking every inch the odds-on-favourite to be named the Most Outstanding Player as the schedule was reaching the one-third mark. A blockbuster season was shaping up.

Then? Pfft. It was gone.

“It definitely still bothers me, man,” says Masoli, and you can sense the dejection building in his voice. “I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t bother me.”

Then he quickly brightens.

“I’m past the point of just kind of dwelling on it. I’m lettin’ it bother me in a good way, if that makes sense, to the point where it’s just motivation. Fuel for the fire.”

Masoli has been testing his knee while working out with college-bound high school players in San Francisco (Photo: The Canadian Press)

The physical part of rehabilitation has been tough enough for Masoli, but he exuberantly credits the Ticats organization for shepherding him through that part of it with top-shelf professionalism.

“They’ve done a great job with helping me and giving me all these resources out here in the Bay Area,” he says, mentioning Matt Nichol, the Director of Hamilton’s Performance Care Team, by name.

Because of that assistance, Masoli says, he was on target to be at the Ticats’ training camp last spring, had the pandemic not messed with those plans.

“Claire and Mahyar (Claire Toffelmire, Ticats Head Athletic Therapist and Mahyar Dibaji, Assistant Athletic Therapist), they do a great job,” says Masoli, gratefully. “We were on track to be able to at least say I could be out there practicing, doing individual drills for camp. And however it went after that was up to my body and to me.”

The mental part of all of this is another thing altogether, of course. For a guy like Masoli, who’d never ever suffered a severe, season-ending injury before, it has been a grind, all the way back to the days and weeks that followed the injury.

“It was a lot harder than I originally anticipated,” he says of the experience, which saw him on the sidelines and occasionally up in the coaches’ booth, helping the Ticats in any way he could, save for the way he’d become accustomed to as the team’s offensive leader.

“People were telling me the mental hurdle was gonna be the hardest one,” he says, lamentably.

“Geez, were they right.”

But Masoli did engage where he could be helpful, aiding in the impressive emergence of his understudy, Dane Evans, as the 2019 season progressed.

And wouldn’t you know it? As frustrating as his injured status was for him, Masoli’s time on the sideline and alongside offensive coordinator Tommy Condell up in the booth, very likely proved beneficial.

“I think I benefitted a lot in that way,” the 2018 East Division MOP says, finding a positive in his inactivity as a player. “I definitely learned a lot that I wouldn’t have learned if I’d never got hurt.”

Eager to add those new lessons to the trusted ones that have made him a star, Masoli patiently waits for his chance to show everyone — and himself — that he has made it all the way back to the confident, scrambling, creative quarterback that he has been in Hamilton, ever since being installed as the starter halfway through the 2017 season.

The big test for Masoli’s healing knee, he said, is to get into a training camp with his teammates, like linebacker Simoni Lawrence (The Canadian Press)

He says he needs a pro camp and game action to do that.

“I’m still a little cautious about stuff,” he says, referring to those high-tempo workouts with the high school stars.

“The last hurdle for anything like this is just to get out there with some live athletes and actually react to somebody like (Ticats linebackers) Simoni Lawrence or Larry Dean, and get around those guys.”

For the time being, Masoli will keep testing his knee while dodging and darting through a maze of some of California’s best college prospects, but mindful of the day he leaves them behind to come north again.

“I feel like I’m ready for the last step and I’m really anxious and excited to do that,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

WILDFIRES STRIKE CLOSE TO HOME FOR MASOLI

From his home in San Francisco, Jeremiah Masoli can see the weirdly orange sky and he can smell the smoke. There are wildfires burning not far from the city and that can make things nerve-racking, of course.

“It’s close,” he says.

He can’t always take his young children out to play, due to poor air quality. While being inside the city limits means he and his family — wife Vunga, four-year-old son Kennedy and one-year-old daughter Serena — are safe from the flames that have been voraciously chewing through large swaths of California, it’s a dangerous situation that strikes close to home in other ways.

“I’ve got family members that had to evacuate, so it is something serious,” says Masoli. “And my heart goes out to all those victims.”

On television the other night, Masoli saw a man whose story is tragic on one side, inspirational on another.

“A guy lost his house for the third time in a row in, like, the last five years,” Masoli recounts, amazed by the man’s determination. “He had such a good spirit about him, still.”

“He’s like ‘I’m just gonna build my house again, I’m not movin’ anywhere.’”

Perspective is a valuable commodity and Masoli seems to know that.

“With everything going on I still say I can’t complain.”

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