WINNIPEG — J.T. Hassell is ready to prove once again that a birth defect won’t keep him from playing professional football.
The defensive back from Titusville, Fla., who was born with only two fingers on his left hand, joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ practice roster on Tuesday but didn’t stay there for long because of injuries.
Hassell will get into his first CFL game Saturday afternoon when Winnipeg (11-1) hosts the Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-6) in the sold-out Banjo Bowl at IG Field. He’ll likely play mainly on special teams.
“I’ve learned life in general, you have to learn to adjust no matter,” Hassell said after Friday’s walk-through preparations.
“Everybody, we all have problems. Whether it's physical or mental, we all have problems but it's all about how you adjust with your problems. Obviously, I had to work harder than everybody else because of my disability, but at the end of the day it was hard work and my faith in God.”
Hassell, 27, went to South Dakota State and then transferred to Florida Tech. He wasn’t drafted in the NFL but did reach that dream. He played four games with the Cleveland Browns in 2019 and three games in 2020 with the New York Jets.
He had heard about the CFL, but it wasn’t on his radar.
“I just never reached out,” Hassell said. “Actually, I never thought I'd be here but it's a blessing. I don't take it for granted at all. I know I played in the NFL and stuff, but this is an awesome experience for me and I thank the coaches and the staff for having me here.”
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said he didn’t talk to Hassell about his hand. He’s just focused on his skills and his reputation for excelling on special teams.
“He’s a terrific athlete. He has above-average athleticism,” O’Shea said of Hassell. “Obviously, he’s got that mentality that allows him to overcome whatever people have labelled him as.”
Hassell will learn quickly about one of the CFL’s great rivalries when 33,234 fans make IG Field a loud, raucous venue.
Winnipeg is coming off a 20-18 victory over the 'Riders in the Labour Day Classic in Regina. Bombers kicker Marc Liegghio booted a late, career-best 55-yard field goal, which was followed by teammate Nick Hallett’s victory-sealing interception.
Liegghio smiled Friday when he recalled his kick.
“It was a pretty cool experience,” he said. “You’re going out there with all the fans giving it to you. They obviously want you to miss.
“It was pretty interesting, as soon as the ball came off my foot like everything went quiet for a second. Then you just watch it travel and then it went in. And then you could hear our fans erupt because it was still a pretty good mix of blue and green there.”
Liegghio also saved a play when he evaded some charging Riders and got a punt away.
He's looking forward to making more Bomber fans cheer on Saturday.
" (Saskatchewan fans are) coming here and we're going to give it right back to them," Liegghio said. "It's going to be an awesome game and it's always a good experience playing at home in front of our fans."
Winnipeg will have a key addition to its roster when receiver/kick returner Janarion Grant returns after missing two games.
The Roughriders released controversial defensive lineman Garrett Marino on Tuesday. The team will also be without injured defensive linemen Anthony Lanier (head) and Justin Herdman-Reed (shoulder).
“We went from having a real deep D-line to being thin,” Saskatchewan head coach Craig Dickenson told local media after a practice this week. “They know they’ve got to step up and do a good job and I think they will.”
He’s aiming for a close match and a different outcome.
“We’re under no impression that we’re going to go in there and blow them out,” Dickenson said. “We know that’s not going to happen.
“But we hope to keep it a close game, make it a one-possession game in the fourth and, hopefully, come out a little bit ahead of what we did last time.”
SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS (6-6) AT WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS (11-1), Friday, IG FIELD
PAYING RESPECT: The Bombers and Roughriders will observe a moment of silence before kickoff to honour the victims of the James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Sask., stabbing massacre last Sunday. They’ll also have commemorative stickers with “JSCN” on their helmets.
ON A ROLL: The Bombers are 5-0 in their last five games against Saskatchewan, dating back to the 2019 West Division final.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2022.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press