Inside the CFL: Alouettes' smallest player proves patience is a virtue

The 5-foot-7 return-specialist James Letcher Jr. spent nearly the entire season on the practice roster before finally getting his chance two weeks ago.

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If James Letcher Jr. could be 6 feet tall for a moment, the first thing he would do is go to a basketball court and attempt a dunk.

“I feel every short person wishes they were tall,” the Alouettes’ new return-specialist, all 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds, told the Montreal Gazette this week following practice. “Every shorter man would dream to be at least 6 feet.

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“I heard that I was too small all my life … regardless of what I do … and I’m not worried about it. It got me here. I kept that chip on my shoulder my whole life, and it will continue. I was told I was too small coming out of college — and I think I had a successful college career. I was told that coming out of high school, and only had a couple of offers.”

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But Letcher’s story is about more than being Montreal’s smallest player.

The 24-year-old rookie from Kansas City spent virtually the entire season on the team’s practice roster, earning about $700 weekly after taxes, living in a downtown hotel the organization makes available with other teammates and hanging with fellow diminutive receiver Tyler Snead — also 5-foot-7, but 180 pounds — while waiting patiently for his opportunity.

That opportunity finally came two weeks ago at Ottawa when Chandler Worthy sustained an ankle injury and was placed on the six-week inactive list.

Letcher, with maturity, has come to realize patience is a virtue, although admitting it wasn’t easy remaining idle. Alouettes assistant head coach and special teams co-ordinator Byron Archambault is glad Letcher stayed the course.

“A player can either lose interest or the team loses interest and patience,” Archambault explained. “We didn’t want to make that move because we knew what we had in our hands and wanted to make sure we kept him. There was going to be an opportunity for him at one point.

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“He understood the process, kept coming in early and putting in the work. He took scout reps and got better. Some of these guys are just dedicated.”

In two games against the Redblacks, Letcher returned 14 punts for 213 yards (15.2-yard average), including a 37-yarder last Monday. He has been limited to two kickoff returns as Ottawa was unable to score touchdowns against Montreal’s stingy defence, but brought one back 50 yards. Letcher is content with his performances, but not satisfied, knowing he left plays on the field.

He’ll play his third game Saturday afternoon (4 p.m., TSN1, TSN5, RDS, CJAD Radio-800, 98.5 FM) against the Edmonton Elks at Commonwealth Stadium.

While Letcher is loath to gaze too far into the future — Worthy, 30, was the East Division’s most outstanding special teams player last season — he also understands this is his moment in time to make a lasting impression. Letcher and Worthy remain close, the veteran mentoring the rookie. But careers are also at stake.

“He (Worthy) has had a nice career and showed everybody who he is,” Letcher said. “But I feel like it’s my turn to show everybody who I am. I’m glad I don’t have to make the final (roster) decision.”

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While it has been only two games, Letcher has displayed an ability to escape from confined spaces and has excellent contact balance, putting his hand, rather than knee, down to keep plays alive. It’s something that can’t be coached, according to Archambault. Letcher also is dynamic, shifty and can make people miss in open spaces.

“He’s a guy you root for,” Archambault said.

Letcher, who ran track and played defensive-back in high school, went to Division II Washburn, where he rewrote numerous Ichabod school records. In 48 games, including 31 starts, he caught 228 passes for 2,992 yards while scoring 28 touchdowns. He scored three touchdowns on kickoff returns — the most in program history — and tied for first with two punt-return scores.

He also graduated with a degree in law enforcement. Letcher’s father, Morris, is a former sheriff who went on to become a fire chief and is now retired. He also played collegiately at East Carolina, was once invited to the Miami Dolphins’ camp and has been his son’s beacon throughout his fledgling career.

Letcher’s stature has galvanized him.

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“Not only to prove them wrong, but to prove myself right,” he said. “I know what I can do. my ability, what I’ve worked for. To go out and show everybody is nothing but a blessing. As much as they tell you you’re too small, it’s not easy tackling a small guy. We’re already at a lower level. When they get that low we can already make our move. They’re not used to being that low.

“I don’t think of it as being a disadvantage. I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve been doing this regularly.”

Letcher spent less than a week at the Kansas City Chiefs’ mini camp last April, solidifying his belief. And while he knew next to nothing about the CFL or the Alouettes, he was ecstatic to learn of another team’s interest; Montreal initially taking notice at last January’s College Gridiron Showcase.

“I’m lucky Montreal found me and am able to show everybody what I’m able to do,” he said.

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