HAMILTON — There is a sign above the home locker-room entrance at Commonwealth Stadium that reads: Once an Eskimo, Always an Eskimo.
And Calvin McCarty seems to be taking it literally.
The Edmonton Eskimos fullback and longest-serving member of said locker-room, where he has spent all 13 of his seasons in the Canadian Football League, is playing in his 200th game Friday against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (5 p.m., TSN, 630 CHED).
“Two hundred, it’s a lot obviously,” said the elder statesman of the Eskimos roster. “In a young-man’s game, it means a lot. Its not something you think about when you first come in, but to get there and be up there with some of those names on the list, and see those names up there on the ring of honour and through the Eskimos hallways, it means a lot.”
Not many players ever reach the 200-game mark of their careers. And barely a fraction of those who do are running backs.
But McCarty has beaten the odds, after arriving on scene as a tailback out of Western Washington, via Biose State.
“I don’t think if I came in as just a straight tailback, I would have made 200 games. So just being versatile, being able to do different things within the roster,” said McCarty, who was drafted in the fourth round (27th overall) in 2007 by the only club he’s ever played with. “It’s longevity, availability and just being asked to do different things throughout your career.
“Obviously, some of the production is easier to see early in the career with catching and running, and a lot of it now is blocking and being in certain places on certain plays and just affecting the play differently. But production is definitely up there, it’s a young man’s game and if you’re not producing it’s the team’s job to find someone better than you to replace you. Every year.”
Over the first 199, McCarty rushed for 1,607 yards and 16 touchdowns on 334 carries, while adding 2,005 yards and 12 more touchdowns on 262 catches. And while he still has one of the best sets of hands on the team, he is relied heavily to block on offence and special teams.
“When I first started playing some fullback, I had no clue what the steps were, I was late off the ball,” said McCarty, who will tie Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams at 200 games played for seventh on the Eskimos all-time list. “And now, all those little things that I was learning then that I didn’t think would apply to me at that time have become huge factors for me at this point in my career.
“So, staying open, man. You can’t be a closed book. You’ve got to keep absorbing and keep learning.”
The five-foot-10, 215-pound native of Muskogee, OK., who grew up in Surrey, B.C., will turn 35 years old on Nov. 2.
“I’ve wanted to play football since I was six years old. You do the math on it, there’s only nine teams here, 32 in the States,” McCarty said. “So, like, 40 starting opportunities to play fullback. Think about universities, Div. 1, 2, 3, 100-plus kids on teams, NAIA, Canadian CIS ball. How many guys get replaced every season? There’s not a lot.
“So as long as the body’s there and the mind’s there, I feel like the mind’s always going to be there. I’m always going to want to play. But I can’t say there’s been an off-season where I thought about not coming back, especially once we got to that Grey Cup.”
The 2015 championship stands as the pinnacle of McCarty’s career, as the first and only time he’s hoisted the trophy.
“I didn’t think about retiring, but finally getting there after nine seasons? Yes, you did it, but now you’ve got to do it again,” said McCarty, who will become the 107th player to earn the Title of Mr. 200, and does so in a year when the 107th Grey Cup is up for grabs.
To put it in perspective, around 10,250 players have been recorded as participating in at least one game since 1936, with those going on to play 199 more representing just 1 per cent of the total.
And of that select group, only three players before him were running backs who spent their whole career in the backfield: Jeff Johnson (234), Chris Szarks (223) and George Reed (203).
“Really, I remember that first pre-season game, and that second pre-season game to make the team,” McCarty said. “I remember just being out there, man, and having fun.
“The Grey Cup, the Moncton game (Touchdown Atlantic) in 2010, even in 2008 having my first start (at tailback) at home was another big one.
“And then having another start a couple weeks later in B.C., where we won provincial high school championships. So there’s been a lot of memorable ones. I think when I get a chance to sit down and collect some archived film, I can relive some of those memories.
“But for now, it’s horseblinders on. You don’t look up, just take the next step and keep going.”
ESKIMOS MOST CAREER GAMES PLAYED
274 Rod Connop – OL
268 Sean Fleming – K
254 Dave Cutler – K
237 Chris Morris – OL
217 Blake Dermott – OL
213 Larry Wruck – LB
200 Henry Williams – KR/PR
199 Calvin McCarty – FB