WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Malik Clements came off the football field after almost four hours of practicing on an unseasonably cold, windy and rainy Canadian spring day and he was smiling.

And what a smile it was – toothpaste commercial-caliber the linebacker didn’t get by accident. More about his affinity for perfect pearly whites later. 

Malik Clements. Photo by Judy Owen.

The native of Danville is at training camp for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the back-to-back Grey Cup champions of the Canadian Football League.

“From the outside looking in, you see it and you want to be part of a winning culture,” Clements said last Friday after Day 2 of camp. “You could tell that they have a tight-knit group. They had a lot of guys come back.”

Clements, 25, was signed by the Blue Bombers on March 4, two weeks after being released by the CFL’s Edmonton Elks following an injury-marred 2021 rookie season.

He played just seven games after tweaking a hamstring, then strained a pectoral muscle. He recorded seven defensive tackles and two on special teams.

The Elks went 3-11 in a season shortened to 14 games from the regular 18 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team then cleaned house, hiring a new dual head coach and general manager who overhauled the roster.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

Undaunted by his release, Clements acted as his own agent and sent film to the Bombers. It was enough to give the 6-foot, 228-pound hopeful a chance to crack the championship squad (11-3 in 2021) that’s based in the prairie province of Manitoba, north of North Dakota and Minnesota. 

Having a Plan B and embracing hard work are traits Clements learned growing up in Danville. 

His mother, Shara, was a single parent to Malik and his two brothers and sister while working at the Goodyear tire manufacturing plant.

“She worked hard so we never needed for anything,” he said. “We always had a roof over our heads and food on the table.”

She then married Wesley Hall, who blended his three sons into the family. The couple also had a daughter together, so eight kids filled the home. 

“I’m family-oriented. There’s never a dull moment in the house with all those kids running around,” Clements said, with another bright smile. 

He did most of his running on the football field, excelling as a wide receiver and safety at George Washington High School. It was there he also discovered a career option off the field. 

It started with advice from his Danville dentist, Dr. David Childress, and orthodontist, Dr. Bryan Spurrier.

“They used to joke around with me all the time saying, ‘You know, you shouldn’t play football, you should be a dentist, be an orthodontist,’ because I guess football is hard on the body,” Clements recalled. 

His high school offered a certified dental assistant program, so Clements signed up. 

“I absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “Giving people smiles on their face after they take their braces off, it brought so much joy to me. It was like another passion and I fell in love with it.

“I always thought, ‘You know, if football didn’t work out or football worked out, once football ends I could go the dentistry route.’ That’s still my plan.”

In high school, he immediately caught the attention of college scouts. He was rated the No. 46th prospect in Virginia and No. 124th safety in the 2015 class by ESPN.com

He drew some interest from the University of Virginia and coveted Virginia Tech, although neither made an offer. After committing to the University of Cincinnati, he turned down an offer from Liberty University.

Two factors played into his decision to go to Cincinnati.

The Bearcats’ defensive end coach was Robert Prunty, who hails from Chatham near Danville. 

“We were really close and I kind of felt comfortable going to school where he was at because I already knew him,” Clements said.

He also wanted to spread his wings outside his home state.

While he initially played safety for the Bearcats, he transitioned to linebacker in his senior year. After graduating, he prepared for Pro Day in Denver but didn’t get drafted by the National Football League and only had a rookie tryout with the Detroit Lions. 

He admitted that not reaching his dream of playing in the NFL – and earning “life-changing money” to help his family – sent him into a “depressed state” for two to three months, time he spent at home in Danville.

He eventually started training again and went to camp at the Spring League in Atlanta in early 2019. 

A few months later, he turned his sights back to dentistry. He got a job at the dental school at the University of Chapel Hill at North Carolina, commuting an hour back and forth from Danville. 

In December 2019, his football dream was reignited. He caught the eye of a scout for the Elks, who saw him at one of the CFL club’s tryouts. He signed for the 2020 season and later moved to Cleveland to train, living with his girlfriend he’d met at university.

Just like most people around the world, his plans got turned upside down because of the pandemic and the CFL canceled its 2020 season.

Clements remained in Cleveland, working at Amazon and a dental office while training. He finally hit the field with the Elks last August when the CFL began its shortened season. 

It was an eye-opening experience for someone who had watched just one CFL game on TV, the 2018 Grey Cup. His friend Kevin Brown from the Bearcats was playing for the Ottawa Redblacks, who lost the title match to the Calgary Stampeders. 

“That was like the only game I watched in the CFL, so I didn’t know much,” Clements admitted. “I’d never been to Canada. Once I signed, I was kind of curious and interested in being able to go to a new country and pick up a whole new game of football.”

He also had to educate his family on the rules and nuances of the fast-paced game compared to the NFL. The CFL features three downs, 12 players on the field instead of 11, a longer and wider field, and receivers who can be in motion before the ball is snapped. 

“I would tell Virginia players that the CFL is a great league to continue your passion of playing football,” he said. “It’s this falsified agenda that the CFL isn’t competitive, but that’s not the case.”

His parents got a TV package showing CFL games and were also able to see him play a couple of games in person. He hopes they’ll be able to watch him suit up for the Blue Bombers after the start of camp took a brief twist. 

He arrived in Winnipeg on May 14, the day before main training camp was to start. However, the collective bargaining agreement between the CFL and its players’ association expired that night with no new deal. Players went on strike the following day for the second time in league history. (The first was in 1974.)

Clements is staying in a dormitory and used the extra time to study the playbook. Veteran players also ran informal practices. A new contract was tentatively reached May 18 and camp began the next day. 

The Bombers were supposed to play their first of two pre-season games on the road against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on May 23, but that game was postponed until May 31. 

The team’s first exhibition game is now its May 27 home tilt against Clements’ former Edmonton team. Just under 100 players are participating in Winnipeg’s camp, and cuts to 75 must be done by 10:59 p.m. CT on May 28. 

Clements is one of nine linebackers in camp, including veterans from last season’s top defense. He wants to be part of the team as it aims to extend its 2019 and 2021 championship run into a three-peat at the 109th Grey Cup in Regina, Saskatchewan, in late November. 

“Like I was telling all the coaches, I’m here to be the biggest help as possible, whether that’s special teams, defense, wherever,” he said. “I just want to win games. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, a former CFL all-star linebacker and the league’s 2021 Coach of the Year, was asked for his impression of Clements. 

“When we put on the [Edmonton] film, he just was a guy who showed up on film all the time,” O’Shea said. “So, that kind of style of play is something we liked.

“Now how it fits here … I just thought he probably deserved another chance.”

Judy Owen

Judy Owen has been a print journalist for more than 30 years, starting as a Winnipeg Sun newspaper reporter in 1988. She’s carved out a freelance writing and editing career since 2001, including covering...