WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Malik Clements will soon be playing in the biggest football game of his career – almost two thousand miles from his roots in Danville.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker is competing in the 109th Grey Cup game, the national championship of the Canadian Football League, against the Toronto Argonauts on Nov. 20.
The game is at Mosaic Stadium in Regina in the province of Saskatchewan, which is next door to the Blue Bombers’ home in Manitoba.
There could be history in the making for the Bombers, who are seeking their third straight Grey Cup title – a feat that would be a first for the franchise.
“I’ve been to some bowl games with [the University of] Cincinnati, but the highest championship game in college is the national championship, so I’ve never been to the dance,” Clements said Monday.
“I’m super excited. I wish I could play tomorrow.”
The Bombers advanced to the Grey Cup following a 28-20 victory at home Sunday against the B.C. Lions in the CFL West Division final.
There was a scary moment for Clements on the last play of the game. He got smacked to the turf by Lions offensive lineman Sukh Chungh, who was called for a blind side block.
“Yesterday I was a bit dazed, but today I feel way better,” he said. “Kind of still upset about the whole situation, but I’m OK now.
“I’m 100 percent. I’ll still be able to play, which is all I was worried about.”
Clements called his parents, Shara and Wesley Hall in Danville, and girlfriend Alisia Barclay after the game for some celebratory conversation. He’s trying to arrange for the trio to watch the Grey Cup in person in the open-air stadium.
They better bring parkas, mittens and tuques, the Canadian name for a knit hat.
The forecast for Sunday’s 5 p.m. CT kickoff (ESPN) is a high of around 26 degrees F with a low of 12.
The West final in Winnipeg at IG Field was played in 21 degrees F temps with a light snow falling on the players and 30,319 fans, who delivered loud cheers and jeers that disrupted the Lions’ play calling.
Clements thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I was always the type of person who didn’t like the cold, but yesterday I was amped up to play,” he said. “It was my first time playing in the snow.
“I’ve played in games where there was snow already on the ground. The simple fact it was snowing and I was playing, it was pretty amazing. With my adrenaline going, I didn’t feel the cold at all.”
Clements had four defensive tackles and helped star defensive end Willie Jefferson force a fumble that was recovered by Winnipeg tackle Jake Thomas.
He hopes to contribute as much, or more, in the championship match against Toronto, which won the East Division final against the Montreal Alouettes.
“A little bit more physicality. Just come in with the same mindset each and every game to play fast, physical and clean. The Blue Bomber way.”
It hasn’t taken long for Clements to immerse himself in the three-down CFL game, despite enduring some injuries.
The 26-year-old played for the Edmonton Elks in his rookie 2021 season. He got into only seven of 14 games, a schedule reduced from the usual 18 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had tweaked a hamstring and then strained a pectoral muscle, finishing with 11 defensive tackles and two on special teams.
He was released by the 3-11 Elks in February after the club brought in a new dual head coach and general manager. Edmonton was the last CFL club to go on a Grey Cup run, a league-record five consecutive titles from 1978-82.
Winnipeg signed him on March 4 and he was thrilled to join the two-time defending champions, who claimed the titles in 2019 and 2021. The 2020 season was cancelled because of the pandemic.
“Man, it’s been a grateful experience coming in with a great group of guys and coaches that treat you like family since Day 1,” Clements said. ‘It’s kind of like surreal, just the way that things played out.
“At first it was more so just trying to make the team, then the opportunity to get a couple of snaps once the season started, and then kind of into a starting role. It happened because of injuries, which was unfortunate, but the coaches put their trust in me to help me learn a new system and just try to get me as comfortable as possible.”
One thing Clements did to become more comfortable is change the No. 54 he wore at training camp to a single digit, which he’s always preferred. He was No. 4 at Cincinnati.
The only single number left with Winnipeg was 0 so he took it, although he now says he should have stuck with 54. His roommate, fellow linebacker Les Maruo, is 00.
Although Clements cracked the roster, his season didn’t get off to a smooth start.
The six-foot, 224-pounder suffered a knee injury early in the campaign – the first of two setbacks.
“It’s crazy because, like knock on some wood, but last year was my first time really being injured and actually missing time,” he said. “For it to come again, because I’m heavy on what I eat and how I train and stuff like that, it kind of hit me hard. It was like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’”
The second injury was to a hamstring that kept him off the field for a five-game stretch late in the season.
“This one didn’t really hit me as hard because I had to really understand that I can only control what I can control. In this game of football, injuries come and go, unfortunately. My main thing was getting back healthy and just fit in where I fit in.”
Where he fit in was retaining a starting role on a defense that has been tops in the CFL for the past few years.
“The attributes that he brings, his athleticism, his speed, just the willingness to be aggressive out there, it fits right inside of what we want to do defensively,” Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall said when asked to describe Clements’ contribution.
“There’s a lot of attributes that he brings to the table that makes us a better defensive team.”
Clements also enjoyed his teammates’ company away from the field. A group of them headed to one of Manitoba’s many lakes to fish and he caught seven walleye.
He got to know Winnipeg a bit, too, but admits not having a car hampered his tours.
“Uber kind of adds up so I try to save as much money as possible,” he said with a smile. “I got to go out a bit with the guys. I love the city, I love the people.”
The Bombers posted a franchise-best 15 wins in the regular season (15-3). Clements played 12 games, registering 31 defensive tackles, four special-teams tackles, one quarterback sack, one pass knockdown and one tackle for a loss.
The CFL has 12 players from each team on the field instead of 11 like in the National Football League, as well as a wider and longer field.
“It’s like a college atmosphere. The crowd is nonstop, loud,” he said. “And even if you do go out in the city or the Bombers store, if somebody notices us, they come up and speak. It’s just friendly, nice people.”
He’s not sure what he’ll do after the final whistle blows in the Grey Cup, but he will return to Danville.
Clements has been on a path toward a career in dentistry, with the goal of becoming an orthodontist. He may continue that, but first has something else up his sleeve.
“I’m thinking about starting… well, I don’t really want to say it because it’s a surprise back at home,” he said with a grin.
“I have some things cooking up for community work back in my hometown in Danville, Virginia, but I haven’t decided as far as a job what I’m gonna do.”
See our previous story on Malik Clements before the season started.