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The road back has been a challenging one for Jalen Saunders.
The veteran American receiver signed a two-year deal with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week. Saunders last played in the CFL in 2018 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, registering 45 catches for 739 yards and two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The year before, the five-foot-nine, 170-pound Saunders was Hamilton's leading receiver with 76 catches for 1,170 yards and four touchdowns. Saunders signed with the Ottawa Redblacks in 2020 before the CFL cancelled that season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saunders was selected by the Houston Roughnecks in the 2020 XFL draft but went on injured reserve before the start of the season. Just when Saunders was ready to return, the league declared bankruptcy so he re-signed with Ottawa in 2021.
But Saunders never got to play for the Redblacks as injuries suffered in a horrific car accident ended his season before it began. Shortly afterwards, Saunders posted pictures on social media of himself in a hospital bed as well as two vehicles with significant front-end damage.
"I'm definitely living a second chance right now," Saunders told reporters from Sacramento, Calif., during a conference call Monday. "Hopefully these next three, four weeks (before start of training camp) go smooth."
Despite the numerous setbacks, Saunders said he feels he's as good now as he's ever been.
"That's never left, it's still here," he said. "I'm ready to go, you can trust that."
Saunders joins a Bombers' team that's been the class of the CFL since 2019, having won consecutive Grey Cup titles. But this year's squad will be different than the one that defeated Hamilton 33-25 in overtime in last year's title game at Tim Hortons Field in December.
Two notable departures this year have been Canadian running Andrew Harris (2019 Grey Cup MVP and top Canadian) and American receiver Kenny Lawler (64 catches, CFL-best 1,014 yards and six TDs last year). Harris and Lawler signed with Toronto and Edmonton, respectively, as free agents.
The Bombers also signed veteran American receiver Greg Ellingson (Edmonton) earlier in free agency.
Saunders will reunite with Bombers starter Zach Collaros, the CFL's outstanding player last season. The two were teammates in Hamilton in 2017 and Saunders said he did reach out to his former quarterback earlier this off-season.
"We have a real good relationship," Saunders said. "We had a good chemistry (in Hamilton)."
Saunders doesn't expect Winnipeg's offence to skip a beat in 2022.
"The thing about Winnipeg is they get guys the ball in different spaces or they can be creative in how they get them the ball," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen the very next play, anybody can have the ball.
"That's the thing I've liked watching with them the last coupe of years."
Despite the setbacks he's suffered, Saunders said he never thought his career was over and his passion for the game has never wavered.
"No, I never looked at it from that point," he said. "No one told me I could not play anymore.
"I took the time to get my body right, get back in super shape. I wanted to make sure everything I had happen, I don't want to have happen again. I personally couldn't have played to the best of my ability in 2019 so that's why I didn't even try to make a return. I was real honest with everyone and myself.
"It (passion) has never left, it just has taken its time and now is the time for me to get back on to the field."
Saunders was selected in the fourth round, No. 104 overall, of the 2014 NFL draft by the New York Jets. The former Oklahoma star appeared in nine games with New York and the New Orleans Saints during his rookie season, recording a catch for seven yards, 15 punt returns for 125 yards and three kickoff returns for 139 yards.
Saunders played 22 games over two seasons at Oklahoma (2012-13), registering 123 catches for 1,558 yards and 11 TDs. He began his college career at Fresno State, recording 80 receptions for 1,527 yards and 15 touchdowns in 26 contests (2010-11).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press