BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — McLeod Bethel-Thompson is somewhere he’s never been before, and yet in a strangely familiar place.

Nine months after entering the 2022 CFL season as the Toronto Argonauts’ starting quarterback, and four months after helping the Boatmen win the Grey Cup, Bethel-Thompson is back in a role he has grown accustomed to over the past dozen years: Competing to be QB1.

He’s doing it in a league that’s barely a year old, with a team that officially represents New Orleans but will play its home games in Birmingham.

The United States Football League is the sixth league the man known as ‘McBeth’ has signed on with since he came out of college football as an undrafted member of a 2011 QB class that included Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and a bunch of ‘who’s that?’ guys. Jake Locker, Nathan Enderle and T.J. Yates haven’t stepped on a field in years, but MBT is still slinging — and still determined to get to the NFL.

To achieve that objective — however unlikely it might be for a guy who turns 35 this summer — Bethel-Thompson first has to win the starting job for the New Orleans Breakers. To do that, he has to beat out two guys whose voices hadn’t yet deepened when McBeth first put his signature on a pro contract.

Competition is nothing new for Bethel-Thompson. In fact, last year was the only time since he left high school in 2005 that the starting QB job was his to lose from the outset. Every other year, every other camp, every other tryout — more than two dozen in total — he began the competition somewhere between longshot no-hoper, training-camp arm and projected backup.

At Breakers camp, Bethel-Thompson is competing against two guys in their early 20s: Davis Cheek from Elon University and Aqeel Glass from Alabama A&M. The latter is a two-time winner of the Deacon Jones Award as the top football player at historically Black colleges and universities.

Although head coach John DeFilippo recruited Bethel-Thompson, he’s not anointing him as the team’s starter.

“That’s just not the way it’s going to work,” DeFilippo says. “He’s going to have to earn what he has, just like everybody else here.”

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Bethel-Thompson, whose football journey makes him the walking definition of a journeyman. Since coming out of Sacramento State in 2011, he has tried out for seven NFL teams (one of them, his hometown San Francisco 49ers, three times) and also suited up in Arena Football, the United Football League and Spring Football.

His past six seasons with the Argos have been stable by comparison, but in only one of those years was he the presumptive starter. Every year before 2022, he had to compete against higher-paid and more highly touted quarterbacks, from Ricky Ray through James Franklin and Nick Arbuckle.

While not ranked behind Glass and Davis, Bethel-Thompson isn’t yet ahead of them. On the second day of Breakers camp, one of his passes was intercepted. As he threw his arms up to convey frustration, DeFilippo chewed him out for not chasing down the interceptor.

“I’m very appreciative of that,” MBT said afterwards. “I don’t want this given to me. I want to be able to earn it.”

Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was named one of the CFL’s top performers in Week 8 after a three-touchdown effort in leading his team to its first victory of the season against Winnipeg.

Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson was named one of the CFL’s top performers in 2019 Week 8 action after a three-touchdown effort in leading his team to its first victory of the season against Winnipeg.

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The most recent time Bethel-Thompson stepped on a football field, everything was on the line. It was the 2022 Grey Cup game in Regina, with his Argonauts up against the two-time champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Winnipeg led early in the fourth quarter when Bethel-Thompson’s throwing hand slammed into the shoulder of pass-rusher Jackson Jeffcoat. His thumb was dislocated and bones were fractured in the collision. No longer able to grip the ball properly, Bethel-Thompson stayed in the game for three more plays, improbably completing a 26-yard pass that set up a field goal.

He then watched from the sideline as his backup, Chad Kelly, put the Boatmen in position to score a touchdown that ultimately gave them a 24-23 victory.

A week after the championship game, Bethel-Thompson had surgery on the right hand. Three pins were inserted and a hard cast was placed on his wrist. Throwing was out of the question.

The recovery process took several weeks longer than anticipated, leaving him at about 80% of his normal grip strength when Breakers camp opened.

He characteristically puts a positive spin on the situation.

“It’s a hand again,” he says with a smile. “For a while there, it wasn’t a hand.”

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After leading the CFL in passing yards and being the only starting quarterback not to miss a game due to injury, Bethel-Thompson became a free agent last month. He could easily have extended his career in Canada, either with the Argos or another team looking for a savvy veteran QB.

But heading back over the border was simply not an option. Bethel-Thompson was unwilling to spend another year away from his partner, Chinaka Hodge, and their precocious toddler, Aziza. Hodge’s burgeoning, high-stakes career as a writer and showrunner in the entertainment business has her working out of Atlanta for now.

Bethel-Thompson’s agent put out feelers in the United States, and the quarterback got a call from DeFilippo, new head coach of the Breakers. The former NFL offensive co-ordinator was quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016, when Bethel-Thompson was in training camp with the Super Bowl-bound team.

“I follow the history of football,” the man known as ‘Coach Flip’ says. “When you have a combination of first-time head coach, first-time general manager and rookie quarterback, things don’t go very well for you. I’ve seen that play before. I did not want history to repeat itself. What I felt was best for our team was a chance to have a veteran quarterback.”

Accepting the opportunity meant Bethel-Thompson would turn his back on big money by CFL standards. The league’s highest-paid player, Winnipeg QB Zach Collaros, makes more than $600,000 Cdn. Bethel-Thompson, who was paid about $400,000 last year, passed for more yards than Collaros and came out on the winning side when the two went head-to-head in the Grey Cup.

The USFL is paying players — even quarterbacks — about $53,000 US, plus a housing allowance. DeFilippo had hoped to find extra money for MBT, but it was not approved.

“I don’t think you should do it,” the coach told Bethel-Thompson. “Go make your money up north.”

After talking it over with Hodge and Jim Popp, the USFL’s head of player personnel — who, as Argos GM, had brought MBT to the CFL in 2017 — Bethel-Thompson made an unconventional decision. Keeping his family together was sufficient reason to accept a massive pay cut.

There was another factor as well. Despite the fact he has mostly been a backup or a training-camp casualty over the past dozen seasons, Bethel-Thompson has never abandoned his NFL dream.

The 10-week USFL season will end just as NFL camps are opening. About 50 USFL players attended NFL training camps last year; a couple of dozen spent time on NFL game rosters, and one — USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin — made the Pro Bowl after returning kicks for the Dallas Cowboys.

Read the rest of the original story here.