Two years ago, DJ Lalama was part of a mostly anonymous subset of CFL players best known to their families and friends.

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This article was published 18/9/2020 (615 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two years ago, DJ Lalama was part of a mostly anonymous subset of CFL players best known to their families and friends.

He was a hard-working Canadian linebacker destined to make a career out of special-teams work, with a backstory similar to many of the homegrown players drawing league entry-level salaries. He was constantly scrapping and clawing to stay relevant.

Chosen with the 70th and final pick of the 2016 CFL Draft by Edmonton, Lalama went back to the University of Manitoba after his first pro training camp and then, a year later, signed with the Montreal Alouettes. There, he caught on as a practice roster player before making his playing debut at mid-season. He ended up with 15 appearances, registering 10 special-teams tackles.

Returning for training camp in 2018, the optimism he felt at the start of his sophomore season was quickly shattered when he suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder while blocking during a controlled scrimmage. The pain — "like someone threw a knife in your shoulder blade," he says — was as awful as his career prognosis. His shoulder was a mess.

DJ Lalama played seven games for the Bombers in 2019. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

DJ Lalama played seven games for the Bombers in 2019. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

Consulting with Winnipeg surgeon Dr. Peter MacDonald, Lalama was told his season was over with a minimum of six months of tough rehab work ahead. A frank discussion about a return to football would come later.

"For me, it was, ‘Let’s chalk this up as a loss, like it is,’" says Lalama, 27. "‘I can learn from it. I can grow from it. I can let the rest of my body heal, make sure my shoulder is 100 per cent ready. And then I can really attack the 2019 season the best I can.’ And that’s kind of what went into it and again, you know, I have a kinesiology degree (from the U of M) which helps, and I have a great local support system (of) professionals that have helped me.

"It was never a matter of if you’ll get back; it was just appropriate timelines."

Then, eight days after the surgery came a blip on the timeline no one could have expected.

"Out of nowhere he was starting to black out. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t walk to our bedroom and he almost fell into the wall," remembers Lalama’s fiancée, Carley Vocadlo. "We didn’t know what was happening and I said, ‘We have to go to the hospital.’"

What followed was a hasty trip to Pan Am Clinic to be treated by MacDonald, who diagnosed a post-surgical blood clot and ordered an ambulance to take Lalama to St. Boniface Hospital.

By then, the former Bisons star was unresponsive, suffering what he calls a "mini-cardiac arrest." Doctors at St. B confirmed the rare but dangerous outcome.

Lalama (left) and Andrew Harris are collaborating on a new flag football league in the city. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lalama (left) and Andrew Harris are collaborating on a new flag football league in the city. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Sure enough, it was a pretty decent-sized blood clot and in my right lung. (The doctor said) nine out of 10 people that have this, we’re not having that conversation... because it’s too late," says Lalama. "So, obviously, God was watching out."

Once stabilized, Lalama was prescribed blood thinners that would guide him through the next nine months of recovery and injury rehab. Further tests established he had an underlying condition called Factor V Leiden, which makes him 15 times more prone to blood clots.

All of that had that to be considered if and when he returned to the field.

"Obviously, it’s not part of what you’re bargaining for when you sign up for surgery — to get a rare complication like that," says MacDonald. "But he’s a very determined guy and once we made the diagnosis of the blood clot and the course of action, he was bound and determined to get back to football."

Adds Vocadlo: "It was something we talked about and we’d seen multiple doctors and blood specialists to go over, if he ever does go play football again, what needs to be done, what precautions need to be taken. Is it safe? We didn’t want something like this to happen again…

"It was something he had really thought about and he didn’t get to play the (2018) season that he wanted to play, so of course I was supportive of it. It’s something he really wanted to do and he’s done it since he was a kid. It was his dream to be in the CFL. Once we met with the doctors, they gave us the soft OK and he got right back into training."

Lalama, a fitness aficionado who has served as a strength coach since he was an 18-year-old, threw himself into workouts. Medical clearance to return to football coincided with a contract offer from the Blue Bombers and the realization of a childhood dream in the spring of 2019.

He was playing in his hometown again, although the euphoria was short-lived. Lalama suited up for seven games for Winnipeg, registering one special-teams tackle, before being cut from the active roster. The Bombers wanted him to accept a practice-roster spot; Lalama asked for his release instead.

He had decided to bet on himself, casting for a better opportunity, but that didn’t mean explaining his decision to Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea came easily.

Lalama now consults with more than 200 athletes and has created an online presence in the form of DJ47. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lalama now consults with more than 200 athletes and has created an online presence in the form of DJ47. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I think there’s a mutual respect there and it was a very emotional chat when I decided to part ways," says Lalama. "But he wished me the best and he said, ‘Not a lot of guys have the balls to do what you’re doing. And I commend you for it and I wish you well.’"

Two of his closest friends on the team, slotback Nic Demski and running back Andrew Harris, urged him to remain before the Alouettes stepped up with their pitch.

"I could have stayed, could have played special teams," says Lalama. "I could have contributed in some way, shape or form and obviously, Andrew and Nic let me know that I could have a (Grey Cup) ring around my finger now... for me, it was, ‘You know what? Do I really just want to play special teams for the next five, six years, if that’s how long my career lasts, or do I really want to give this thing a go?’

"And I didn’t know that Montreal would work out the way it did, I didn’t. But what I did know is (Bombers standout linebacker) Adam Bighill is one hell of a football player and I have a lot of respect for him and I’m not going to start over him."

Back in Montreal, what might otherwise have been a quiet return to his old club in his accustomed role as a special-teamer suddenly throttled warp speed when he was thrust into a starter’s role for an injured Chris Ackie at Will (weak-side inside) linebacker for two games and for one game as middle linebacker Henoc Muamba’s replacement when the Als wanted to rest their star defender.

Lalama responded in breakout fashion, finishing an 11-game stint with the Als with 25 defensive tackles, including a career-best 10 tackles and his first career sack in a 42-32 win over the Ottawa Redblacks on Nov. 1 to earn CFL player-of-the-week honours. In the same game, he added a special-teams tackle and filled in for injured long-snapper Martin Bédard.

It was a revelation for Als head coach Khari Jones. When the six-foot, 222-pounder re-signed with Montreal for 2020, Jones and defensive co-ordinator Bob Slowik had him pencilled in to replace Ackie, a Canadian who opted to join the Toronto Argonauts in free agency.

Lalama has recruited a number of professionals in the fields of massage, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, sports psychology, nutrition advice, joga and speed coaching as part of his new enterprise. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Lalama has recruited a number of professionals in the fields of massage, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, sports psychology, nutrition advice, joga and speed coaching as part of his new enterprise. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

"His practice and his play, he just gives it everything he has, every day," says Jones. "You have to admire those guys. We felt comfortable putting him in the game, anywhere and everywhere. Especially when he first got here, he was primarily special teams but we put him in and he would do the job to the point where at the end of the season, he was the guy. Playing Will linebacker, we felt good with him in the game; we knew that he was going to make plays."

When the CFL finally returns in 2021, the Als expect Lalama to be hungry for a starter’s role.

"I see him competing for the job, for sure, and that’s one of the things we talked about going into this season," says Jones. "A guy like him, he doesn’t want anything handed to him. He just wants to be able to compete, and I appreciate that."

Lalama’s work ethic extends beyond the gym and the football field.

Previously, a gig that began as a sponsored athlete for Bodylogix, a Winnipeg-based all-natural supplement outfit, had morphed into a position as the company’s athlete relations manager. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his hours declined at his off-season job, he turned to another passion: coaching and training elite athletes.

He responded to calls for help from local football and hockey players by setting up online training programs, usually for no fee. Demand for his services increased to the point where he is now consulting with more than 200 athletes and he created an online presence in the form of DJ47 at djlalama.com, which is billed as a virtual one-stop shop for athletic needs.

To that end, Lalama has recruited a number of professionals in the fields of massage, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, sports psychology, nutrition advice, joga and speed coaching to aid his cause. He says it’s his way of giving back for all the coaching guidance he received earlier in this athletic career.

More recently, Lalama’s fitness work has expanded to in-person sessions with various teams.

"The DJ47 stuff really just started as helping kids and slowly but surely it became every Friday, Saturday, Sunday after Bodylogix hours, I was programming for kids," says Lalama.

None of this surprises Vocadlo, who says DJ has a natural ability to lead.

"He’s a go-getter — that’s a good word for him," she says. "He’s always trying to better himself. He makes people around him better."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.