Before every single Eskimos home game for 11 CFL seasons, Calvin McCarty has recalled what it was like to be a football fan.
He starts off by taking the long way to the locker room when he arrives at Commonwealth Stadium 2-1/2 to three hours before the game. Instead of following the most direct route like the other players, McCarty enters through Gate 2, finds his way to Section C – “For Calvin,” he says with a smile – and sits down for a few minutes to flash back to his days as a youth.
“I’ll look at the names (of former Eskimos stars) around the stadium, see some of the guys warming up, the game-day operations, and kind of feel like I’m one of the lucky fans who get to show up early and then walk down to the field,” said the Eskimos’ 32-year-old fullback. “But I get to put on the gear.”
McCarty has had to show his ID a couple of times to security (because fans aren’t allowed in the stadium until an hour before game time), “but that doesn’t happen too often,” he said.
“Sometimes I’ll have music, sometimes not. I just look around and take it in and flash back a little bit. … I’m a fan first and I love the game and it’s just kind of a way to get my mind right. It’s just a way to put it into perspective for me that it’s a game and to go out there and have fun and play football.
“We’re lucky to play this game,” he added. “It is a kids’ game, it’s a young man’s sport, but it’s kind of a reminder.”
McCarty remembers desperately wanting to play on the field at BC Place when he was growing up in Vancouver and went to B.C. Lions games. Even when his name would go up on the JumboTron to celebrate a birthday, it was a bittersweet experience.
“Like it’s nice to have my birthday up there, but I’d like to be running and scoring out there,” he said.
He later played his high school football games at BC Place and “won a few provincial championships on that field.”
The longest-serving player on the current Edmonton roster, McCarty’s tenure with the Green and Gold has been eclipsed by only 16 Eskimos players in 69 years.
“Obviously, you want to play as long as possible, but there’s a lot of other aspects that go into it,” said McCarty, who recalled his rookie season when he told former teammate Mathieu Bertrand that he wanted to play for 10 years.
Bertrand’s shocked response was to warn McCarty that very few people get to play that long.
“Since then, it’s day-by-day, game-by-game, play-by-play,” said McCarty, who has missed 13 games during the past two seasons because of injuries. “The mind’s good, the body is still good and I’m excited to still have an opportunity, so I wouldn’t say there’s a cap on it or a minimum since I had that talk with Matt Bert. Obviously, you’d like to play for 20 (years), but I don’t think that’s possible in my position. I guess I can’t say ever, but there’s a few (players with long careers) out there.
“Get better every day, learn something new, stay in it,” he said about his current goals. “You can never learn too much, so just try to keep absorbing and learning.
“I love the game and there’s still a lot for me to learn.”
McCarty started out as a tailback, but soon had to learn the fullback position, which mostly meant blocking opponents to protect the quarterback or to open holes for the running back. But he also has become known for making incredible one-handed catches.
“You just make the most of your opportunities,” he said. “If the ball is coming my way, I’m going to do my best to make sure I catch it because they don’t come around too often.”
Asked about his career highlights, McCarty said getting drafted, his first touchdown and the 2015 Grey Cup.
“It was a one-handed catch in that end zone down there (north-west end of Commonwealth Stadium) against Eddie Davis, I’m going to say, from Saskatchewan,” he said about his first TD. “It’s still pretty fresh in my memory like it was a couple of years ago, but really, it was over 10 years ago.
“Winning the Grey Cup is great. I’ve heard it could be addicting. I just wanted a chance to see if that was true and then when I finally got that chance, they were right.”
McCarty’s Grey Cup memories include winning the West Division final against the Calgary Stampeders – “That was a big one” – plus the week leading up to the Grey Cup game, and the stadium and the noise on game day.
“It’s everything,” he said.
He also likes just being in the meeting rooms “and hearing the lingo. It’s just a different level of sport. It can shock people at first, but I love it all, some more than other parts of it.”
McCarty often acknowledges fans in a section near the end zone on field level on his way to the locker room after games. Some may be family or friends; some might be familiar faces because “you see a lot of the same people.”
“If I was a kid sitting over there, I’d want somebody to come sign something for me, too,” he said.
McCarty’s grandmother, Donna Conway, used to call out to players on a first-name basis when he went to Milwaukee Brewers baseball games with her when growing up.
“She was an out-going person,” he said. “I just remember thinking, ‘You can’t talk to these guys like that. I know you don’t know him.’ ‘You know him???’
“It just puts perspective on it for you as a kid. Like, they are humans. I guess she didn’t have to say Mr. Sheffield if she doesn’t want to. And she’s older than them, too, so ‘Hey, Gary!’ Gary works.
“I respect it and I know what it was like for me to be standing on that side and sitting on that side and watching,” McCarty said. “This is a fleeting sport, man. It’s not too often you have an opportunity to play as long as I have and continue to do those things.
“I understand the importance of giving back and the importance of being able to put a smile on somebody else’s face. But, at the same time, it makes me happy to still be able to do it, so it’s a win-win.”