Jeff Reinebold’s past adversity helps Tiger-Cats overcome theirs

Through 16 weeks of the CFL season, teams encountered adversity in their own way. With it, comes the option to succumb to it and let it define your season or overcome it. Opting for the latter, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats special teams unit, led by Jeff Reinebold, have not only survived but thrived after losing star return specialist and defensive back Frankie Williams.

Coming off a 2019 season where he eclipsed 2,000 total return yards and was named the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, Williams showed early in this season that he hadn’t lost a step and was poised to defend his title.  Recording 922 yards and a touchdown in the first weeks of the CFL season, Williams reminded the league what he was capable of; that was until a season-ending injury took him from the field to the sidelines.

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His absence left a sizeable hole at the return position where the Ticats have had numerous years of success in. Additionally, Williams’ injury also impacted the defensive secondary where he had had also made a name for himself, recording 50 tackles and an interception in 2019 and an interception and 25 tackles this season.

While losing a transcendent talent like Williams would be detrimental to any football team, the Ticats never wavered and used Reinebold’s very personal experience with adversity to help him and his team overcome it.

“I’ve had the gift of cancer,” said Reinebold during Ticats Media Day on Wednesday. “When a doctor comes in the room and tells you that you’ve got cancer, now you talk about some adversity? I’ll take a blocked punt over that every day. So it’s about how you respond to it. I remember that moment when it happened and I’m a single father with a 10-year old son and I say, ‘I don’t have any choice. I can’t feel sorry for myself,’ I can’t because I’ve got somebody else that depends on me. So having been through that life experience helped through the challenges.”

Responding to it is exactly what Hamilton did.

Implementing a return-by-committee approach following Williams’ injury with Brandon Banks and David Ungerer operating in the return game, Hamilton was still looking for that game-changer in the backfield. After time passed, they turned it over to Papi White and found exactly what they were looking for.

Since starting at the position, White has been a game-changer. Recording over 100 return yards in each of his last three games for a combined 358 yards, his efforts helped provide a spark against the Toronto Argonauts with a 92-yard punt return. Not surprised with the effect it had on his team, Reinebold understands the importance of special teams from a morale point of view.

“Offensively, we were out of rhythm, out of sync and that’s going to happen,” Reinebold said on the Ticats’ scoreless first half in the Eastern Final. “So when Papi returned that punt, there was all of a sudden this belief on our sidelines that we could. Then when we ran that fake field goal, that was the one that put us over the top.”

Special teams, as Reinebold attests to, is a phase of football that is rarely given the publicity and credit compared to the more ‘glamorous’ offence and defence. Though, he doesn’t care for the credit; Instead, being around the game – the game he has been coaching for nearly 40 years – is rewarding enough.

“They only notice it when it screws up or when it’s really really good,” Reinebold said. “We have a saying: if you want credit, you go to the bank because you’re not going to get credit. That’s just life we live and the emotional payback when you get when you watch Nick Cross, for example, the look on his face when he makes his first tackle, you can’t buy that. For me, it’s not about that, it’s about watching these guys, watching Mike Daly go from 165 pounds into a guy who blossomed into a really really good football player. That’s the payback really and I think it continues to fuel us.”

Reinebold also directs all the success his unit has accumulated this season directly to his players and his personnel as he acknowledges that he hasn’t returned for touchdowns, blocked punts or recovered any fumbles.

“It’s the players. It’s always the players,” Reinebold said. “I think we’ve had 10 different players score a special teams touchdown, that’s phenomenal.”

Facing a Winnipeg Blue Bombers team with the amount of firepower they have offensively and as hungry of a group they have defensively, Reinebold and his special teams will have an even larger opportunity to provide a spark in their own stadium come Sunday.

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