By Perry Lefko
For someone who has only been affiliated with the Canadian Football League for less than two years, quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson has come to truly understand and appreciate its history and, in his own way, is contributing to it with one of the truly special stories so far in the 2018 season.
Bethel-Thompson is 30 years old and has travelled the football world much like a vagabond in search of a home. He appears to have found it in Toronto with the Argonauts.
He has started the Argos’ last three games, leading them to come-from-behind wins over Ottawa and B.C. and nearly doing it against Montreal. He started the Argos’ season third on the quarterback depth chart and claimed the starter’s role with the team 1-5, supplanting James Franklin, who moved up to the starter’s job in the third game after Ricky Ray suffered a neck injury. The team had said coming out of the pre-season that Franklin and Bethel-Thompson were virtually equal.
Collectively, you have to feel good for this Bethel-Thompson, who has never given up on his dream to be given a true shot to prove himself despite the various obstacles, challenges and rejections he has encountered along the way.
“I think it’s true insanity and a true obsession,” he told me after the Argos’ 24-23 win over B.C. in front of a raucous crowd at BMO Field. “I’ve been cut so many times, you question whether it’s meant to be or when it’s going to happen, so that you (try to) take that power away from other people telling you no. It’s hard to be told no, no and no. And that’s why I felt I didn’t have a shot down south and it’s been a blessing to come up here and to a locker room with people like S.J. Green and Armanti Edwards. Top to bottom, they are just awesome human beings and better football players.
“It’s been really beneficial and it’s been like a welcome home. They’ve rebuilt me as a man and as a football player.”
The annual Canadian National Exhibition is going on just outside BMO Stadium and as I walking I saw one of those midway games where a guy tries to guess somebody’s weight and age. Suddenly I thought what if there was a game to guess how old Bethel-Thompson is and how many teams he’s played for in his career?
Bethel-Thompson is listed as having played for or been affiliated with 13 teams in four different leagues – the Arena League, United Football League, National Football League and CFL. In most of the cases, he was a practice-roster player. The body of his work in regular-season games is limited.
The Argos signed him late last year acquiring his rights from B.C., who claimed him after he was cut by Winnipeg. He played in only two games and had a total of two successful passes in two attempts for 10 yards.
Bethel-Thompson has completed 69 of 103 passes for 868 yards, has six touchdown passes and only one interception. Ottawa led 38-20 after three quarters, but Bethel-Thompson chipped away with three TD passes, including the game winner with nine seconds on the clock on a 23-yard end-zone pass to Edwards.
The Lions’ victory wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but Bethel-Thompson once again became the Comeback Kid (even if football terms he’s not a kid). After his first dramatic win, I tweeted he should be called McBethel because it was almost Shakespearean. Now everyone is calling him McBeth.
Bethel-Thompson is grateful to the CFL for giving him an opportunity after exhausting opportunities elsewhere.
“I’m so thankful that it exists,” he said. “It kept my football dream alive and it’s such an amazing, amazing game. You’re talking about 105, 106 years now and so many great people have come through and sacrificed for this game. It’s built a web of karmic energy that’s really beautiful. They’ve sewn these seeds of hard work and discipline and sweat and blood and tears and built this organic [thing]. Marc Trestman (Argonauts Head Coach) says we’re interconnected. This game is so deep. I’m so happy to have been caught by this safety net and by this organization and this league to have a second chance, or a third chance or a 10th chance, whatever you want to call it. Just to walk into this locker room with these amazing men and being coached by these amazing men it’s an honour and a privilege every day.”
A native of San Francisco, California, Bethel-Thompson said he was somewhat aware of the CFL growing up.
“Down south, it’s kind of this mythical thing up north,” he said. “You don’t really hear of or know too much but coming up here and being absorbed again by a league that has so much history with so many good people in it…it’s a special experience and I hope this league continues on for another 100 years and there’s more good karmic energy poured into this. It’s a special, special place.”
To put this into perspective, Ray became a starting quarterback fairly early into his rookie year with Edmonton in 2002 and led his team to the Grey Cup. He has cobbled together one of the greatest CFL careers, winning the Grey Cup four times and a Grey Cup Most Valuable Player Award once. He will be a first-ballot Canadian Football Hall of Famer when he retires. Argos’ quarterback coach Anthony Calvillo became a rookie starter in his rookie year in 1994 and played for only three teams in his 20-year career. Calvillo is a Canadian Football Hall of Famer who has the pro football record for career passing yards.
Calvillo said the fact Bethel-Thompson has stuck it out this long shows his patience.
“He has the passion to play and he has taken advantage of his last two opportunities, which he’s waited a long time for,” Calvillo said. “I think the fact he’s been able to pick up systems has allowed him to make each team. It shows his football IQ is very high and that he has the physical tools to do it.
“He’s been a professional about just being quiet and accepting his role. Now he’s just getting the chance to show it to everybody else. You’ve got to give him credit. You really, really do.”
I asked Calvillo if he would have gutted it out this long waiting for that real opportunity.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “You’ve really got to be in his shoes, his situation. All I can say is he has the passion and believes he could get the job done. Each team he has been on he’s made the team for a reason. It’s just maybe he didn’t have the opportunity. Now he has it.”
Argo General Manager Jim Popp said he signed Bethel-Thompson because of the information gathered from all the leagues in which he has played.
“He’s seen a lot,” Popp said. “Most quarterbacks don’t really start shining in this league until they are in their late 20s or 30 years old. You have the rare examples of Calvillo or Ricky Ray or (Calgary’s) Bo Levi Mitchell. Some [starting QB’s now in the CFL] sat for five years developing or were getting to play when somebody was hurt and they shined and that’s why everybody got interested in them. Even though [Bethel-Thompson] hasn’t been in this league (very long), he’s been through all of that. He understands it. He got in here and played his role.
At one point last year he was the fourth quarterback on the roster. He’s probably here longer than any other player studying film. He’s a film rat. He sits there, he watches, he helps other guys. Players love him. He picked up the game well and studied the game and obviously when you do all those things and coaches watch that for a year and a half there’s a lot of trust.”
Bethel-Thompson said he’s learned over the years that it’s not his place to ask or a question or even think about why decisions are made.
“It’s my job to feed in and pour in and make this about somebody other than myself. To come with a giving attitude and gratitude and live on a moment-to-moment, daily basis,” he said.
“My two cousins, Omar and Abdul, are the reasons I play football. They were the examples for me as amazing human beings and amazing people. They played in high school and I was six years old and they were my heroes. I saw them play and said I want to be those people and do that thing.
“It’s not only about chasing the dream and about how far you can get; it’s about learning life lessons through a game. So many people are going through so many hard things in the world and they have to learn those hard lessons in life. When you get punched in the face in life…that’s different. I get to learn lessons in a game. If you can just open your eyes and experience that on a daily basis, it’s a special, special thing.”
He credited his partner, Chinaka Hodge, an acclaimed poet / rapper / educator / playwright / screenwriter in Los Angeles with whom he’s been with for four years, for supporting him in his football journey and never telling him to give up and get a steady, full-time job.
“She’s been amazing,” he said. “I’ve been chasing this dream for a long time and she’s chasing her dream. She’s just a very special human being. She believed in me more than anybody else. She tells me to keep going and keep chasing and I’m very grateful for that.
“It’s hard (in a relationship bouncing around so much), but the great thing about the CFL is there’s a long off-season and we get to spend time together. She travels for work, too, which almost makes it easier because we can catch each other in a plane or a city sometimes. She pours love into people that are surrounding her and I try to pour that right into her…and we’ve been making this thing go.”