HAMILTON — For Dane Evans, it was like going back in time to when he was a young boy anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus.
CFL training camps finally opened Saturday and Evans, a quarterback with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, found it very difficult to sleep Friday night.
"I texted my wife (Friday night) and said, 'I don't want to sound cheesy but its like the night before Christmas,'" Evans said following the Ticats' workout Saturday morning. "Man, I couldn't really sleep and got here super early because I still couldn't sleep.
"A little bit of butterflies but they were good butterflies because we're finally back out here. We're finally putting the helmet on, throwing the ball around and doing what we love. It's just a great feeling."
The CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league will kick off a 14-game campaign Aug. 5.
Evans and the Ticats have the distinction of having played in the last game the CFL staged. However, it was a 33-12 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2019 Grey Cup.
That loss tarnished a stellar '19 season for Hamilton, which captured 15 regular-season wins — the most in the club's history — and finished atop the East Division standings with a CFL-best 15-3 record. Evans played a role in leading the Ticats to the Grey Cup game, posting a 9-2 record under centre after starter Jeremiah Masoli suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Both Masoli and Evans will compete for starting duties this year at training camp.
But Evans wasn't the only Ticats' veteran happy to finally be back in pads.
"This is why God put me on Earth, to play football and I'm happy I'm doing it again," said defensive lineman Dylan Wynn. "The feeling of putting on your pads … the first day of the helmet not fitting correctly.
"It's everything and it's good to be home."
But players and coaches will have to temper their enthusiasm to safeguard against the threat of injury, given their extended absence from the game. On Friday came word that six players — four from the Saskatchewan Roughriders, two with the Montreal Alouettes — had already suffered Achilles tendon injuries.
"I firmly believe we have the best organization as far as administration staff and we fully trust them," Wynn said. "They're taking care of us and we're expected to take care of ourselves as professionals.
"It's a two-way street. I love it here because my coaches aren't my bosses, they're my co-workers and as a whole group we know what our goals are. We know where we need to be."
And although Wynn is raring the go, the six-foot-two, 282-pound defensive lineman — who had a career-best 11 sacks in 2019 — knows to keep his hands off Masoli, Evans and the other quarterbacks in camp.
"That's fine but everything else you can't get me to slow down," the gregarious Californian said. "It's just not in my blood, my parents didn't raise me that way.
"You can ask the coaches, they're doing to say, 'Don't worry, it's not a race,' but to me everything is a race."
For Ticats coach Orlondo Steinauer, the league's coach of the year in 2019, it's good to finally put plans into action.
"You've talked about it and practice-planned and then you go out there and actually have it in your hand and then you actually blow the whistle and it means something," he said. "You're not just blowing it and your neighbours are looking at you like you're crazy or something.
"There's meaning behind everything you're doing. It feels great. That's a real generic word but it does work in this situation. It's just nice to execute everything we've talked about."
And with roughly 100 players in camp, there's no shortage of work for coaches to do in terms of evaluating talent. But it's a process Steinauer is looking forward to.
"That's a great challenge to have," he said. "Once you're on the football field, I still think it comes down to making plays.
"You're blocking, you're tackling, you're trying to score touchdowns and prevent touchdowns and make the least amount of mistakes. We can emphasize those even to people who've not seen the 12th man or the wider field."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021.
The Canadian Press