Inside the CFL: Alouettes receiver Cole Spieker's persistence has paid off

“I want people to know that I work hard,” Spieker says. “Keep going. Keep pushing through everything that life throws at you.”

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Cole Spieker has spent considerable time in Wisconsin, so it’s only natural the Alouettes receiver became a fan of cheese, sharp cheddar being his favourite.

Quebec cheese curds are growing on him, he admits, and he consumes some form of the dairy product daily — not that many nutritionists would recommend it become a staple of a professional athlete’s in-season diet.

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Cheese might be Spieker’s vice, but the 27-year-old’s story smacks of persistence. Spieker repeatedly defied the odds to make it to the CFL — everything from enrolling in an NCAA Division-III school, paying to attend an Als free-agent tryout camp in Dallas, spending virtually his entire 2022 rookie season on the practice roster before being activated, and then having to work his way back on to the roster this season, after starting, then being demoted to the practice roster again.

“I want people to know that I work hard,” Spieker told the Montreal Gazette this week after a practice. “Keep going. Keep pushing through everything that life throws at you. I definitely have faced a lot of challenges.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder made his season debut June 23 in Hamilton. He played the following week, against Winnipeg, then not again until Sept. 2 against B.C., relegated to the practice roster — a place that has become his second home. It isn’t so much that Spieker has shortcomings, the coaches insist. Rather, with a group of young receivers and the team struggling to find its offensive identity, it became necessary to see other available options.

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“He had the job and he lost the job — and it wasn’t necessarily his fault,” receivers coach Mike Lionello said. “He had to go down to the practice roster, but not once did he complain. He came to work every single day, put his head down, did the work and always knew what he had to do. When that opportunity arose again, he seized it.”

Heading into Saturday afternoon’s regular-season finale against the Tiger-Cats at Molson Stadium, Spieker has 27 receptions for 345 yards in 11 games, along with one touchdown. Spieker has been overshadowed by Austin Mack — the Als’ most outstanding player nominee — Tyler Snead, Tyson Philpot and Kaion Julien-Grant, when he was healthy. But the native of Brainerd, Minn., has proven reliable and tough, constantly getting up from crushing hits.

Resiliency is one of Spieker’s characteristics, a trait he inherited from his father, Chris, who spent 25 years in the military, rising to the rank of master sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard.

While Spieker was a standout at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse — he was named the conference player of the year as a senior in 2019 — there aren’t many pro scouts scouring Division-III schools for talent.

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“They’ll doubt you right away, seeing the name of your school,” Spieker admitted.

He was willing to attend NFL workouts, but they were cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, he continued training, taking an overnight job at UPS in Madison, Wisc., loading trucks — and getting an hourly wage of $20 — to pay the bills, despite graduating with a math education degree.

In 2021, Spieker attended eight NFL combines, even playing six games in the Spring League. His last resort was paying $200 for a May 2002 open tryout camp the Als conducted in Dallas. It proved to be his best investment.

“I only had a couple of options remaining,” he admitted. “I knew I had to ball-out or it was time to move on. I trusted my training, the work I put in. And I knew I was good enough to play at the next level, so I was willing to pay the money. The challenge is to stand out at these workouts. You only get so many reps, so many sprints. You have to make a splash. You have to do everything right; do anything to impress.

“To get the call back the next day was an amazing feeling. I’ll always remember that day.”

Spieker didn’t make his rookie debut last season until the final game in Toronto. Although the match didn’t affect the standings, Spieker stood out, catching six passes for 105 yards and scoring a touchdown. He also remained active for the playoffs, catching four passes for 66 yards in the East Division final against the Argonauts.

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While this season has posed its share of challenges, Spieker now appears to be a fixture on the roster, called upon more regularly as teams concentrate on defending Mack. Spieker considers himself a solid route-runner with good hands; a physical player capable of blocking.

“He does everything right, especially in coverage,” Lionello said. “He knows exactly what’s in front of him. People will look at a receiver and say he has to be fast, able to jump high. But if you don’t know what to do, you can’t be out there. He knows what to do at every position — and does it very well.

“People might say he can’t run, but he’s deceptively fast.”

Spieker realizes he must do a better job of protecting himself, go down and not fight for that extra yard or two. But he was raised to be tough, admitting some habits are difficult to break.

His other mantra? “Never give up. Give everything you’ve got, no matter what you’re doing.”

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