It took nine days of training camp, but the CFL's injury bug has found its way to Winnipeg.
Six players across the league — four with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — suffered torn Achilles tendons in the opening days of training camp. The league-wide number is now up to seven as Blue Bombers defensive halfback/strong-side linebacker Mercy Maston tore his right Achilles in the final minutes of Sunday's practice. Maston got tangled up with a receiver and immediately called for medical attention. The 28-year-old had season-ending surgery Monday morning.
"It almost breaks my heart because I know how much we put into this game. I know how much work we put in. I know how much work I put in and I know how devastated I'd be. My heart goes out to him. Literally, he was guarding me on that play," said wide receiver Rasheed Bailey.
"It's a hard pill to swallow because I know how much work he's put in. But this season will be dedicated to my dawg, my boy... I promised that boy, this season is definitely going to be dedicated to that guy."
After a brief stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Maston joined the Bombers in August of 2019 and appeared in three regular season games and all three playoff matchups. He played a crucial role in the defence's dominance in their Grey Cup run, registering 13 tackles, a sack and an interception in the postseason.
Defensive back Josh Johnson paid his respects by wearing Maston's No. 7 uniform at practice Monday.
"Obviously, losing a guy who was slated to start and very effective for us is tough. It is pro football, pro sport, you got to be able to be resilient in terms of a coaching staff and figuring out the roster, but you guys know me by now, the personal side is not easy," head coach Mike O'Shea told reporters.
"You got a young man who waited a long time to get back on the field like all these other guys and to me, he was such an integral part of our run last year. A very effective player, a hard-nosed guy, I love his personality out there on the field. Certainly, that will be missed."
The Bombers wasted no time in finding a potential replacement for Maston. Despite having now 26 defensive backs in training camp, the Bombers felt they needed to add a veteran to the mix so they made a trade with the Toronto Argonauts Monday morning to acquire American defensive back Alden Darby in exchange for American offensive lineman Terry Poole.
Darby is a 29-year-old out of Arizona State who appeared in 43 games, 40 of which were starts, with the Argos over the course of three seasons. He has 137 tackles, one sack, eight interceptions, and three touchdowns to his name during his time with the Boatmen. In 2019, Darby registered 56 tackles and five interceptions in 17 games. Even though he's making the trip from Toronto, CFL protocol will require Darby to quarantine for four days before he can join his new team.
"The No. 1 thing for us is you got a guy who's got experience. He's started a pile of games in the CFL in the secondary," O'Shea said.
"He understands CFL offences, route combinations, width of the field, spots of the field that are hot. He understands a lot of that stuff. We will have to take some time to get to know him exactly and figure out where exactly we want to put him and how that looks. It's still training camp, so he understands that he's going to come in and have to compete too and that he's a little bit behind."
The Bombers secondary already had some question marks heading into 2021 as they lost a pair of 2019 all-stars in Winston Rose (Cincinnati Bengals) and Marcus Sayles (B.C. Lions) in the offseason.
"You could put it that way, but also I see it as an opportunity to step up and rise to the occasion," said veteran corner Nick Taylor, who was also a teammate with Maston in Edmonton in 2018.
"In 2019, there were questions and they threw a few people here and there and we came together and we put in the work which we'll have to do (this year). This year, we have to start fast. It's 14 games, we can't come out shaky. We have to get in line now and get it going how we need it to go. But definitely, nobody wants to be the weakness of the team. We're going to keep striving to help the d-lineman, the linebackers, and carry our part."
In addition to Taylor, a 33-year-old from Florida, the familiar faces in the secondary include corner Mike Jones, safety Brandon Alexander, as well as Johnson, a four-year CFL pro who signed with the Bombers in the offseason. Even before Maston went down, it was a group that needed to find some rookies that can contribute.
"I just want to encourage (the rookies)... If you're better than me, go out there and prove it and take it, that's no problem," Taylor said.
"Of course, I want to be out there, but I'm going to help them with tips from what I see. I'm not going to hold back just because I want to be out there. If I see something that can help them, I try to help them as much as possible because at the end of the day, we have to be the best unit we can possibly be and withholding information isn't going to get us to the ultimate goal of playing on Dec. 12 in Hamilton."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.