Riders' Brendon LaBatte set to resume CFL career after injury scare
Don’t get the wrong idea: Brendon LaBatte couldn’t be happier to return to the field with his brothers on the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ offensive line.
That said, there’s a bigger picture to consider as LaBatte works toward making his long-awaited season debut on Saturday against the host Toronto Argonauts.
It has to do with quality of life.
That’s the main reason why the 33-year-old Weyburn product underwent surgery this summer to fix a bilateral core muscle injury — also known as sports hernia — which had bothered him for about a year and a half.
LaBatte was initially hurt in the final game of the 2017 regular season and had been trying to fight through it ever since. He still managed to play all 18 games — and one playoff contest — last season en route to being named a CFL all-star for the sixth time.
“It felt like a bit of a dead leg (when trying to push off),” he explained. “It was kind of wear and tear that a lot of athletes (have) that would be the end of their career.”
LaBatte had the injury repaired by a specialist in Philadelphia, Dr. William Meyers, who’s a leading expert in the treatment of core muscle injuries.
Prior to the procedure, LaBatte wondered if his career might be over.
“That’s kind of where I thought all roads were leading, to be honest,” he continued. “(Offensive line) coach (Stephen) Sorrells was a big advocate for me, and (strength and conditioning) Coach (Clinton) Spencer. They went to bat for me. We looked into this guy down there, seen all the other people he has worked with and been able to fix. I signed up to go down there and go through the process.”
LaBatte wasn’t sold on the procedure at first but he warmed up to the idea when the discussion turned to life after football. Dr. Meyers informed LaBatte that he would have a tough time with any sort of physical activity unless the damage was repaired.
“As soon as I heard that, it was a no-brainer,” said LaBatte, who was initially hesitant to undergo surgery for the first time in his career. “I told him, ‘If I’d lose 60, 70 pounds, is that going to help?’ He said, ‘You’re not losing 60, 70 pounds on that. You won’t be able to train consistently enough.’ That was the realization that the following day I had to let them cut me open.”
The Riders supported his decision, even though it came with no guarantees.
“We certainly want him to get right for the season but, if that didn’t happen, then we want him to be healthy for his life after football,” head coach Craig Dickenson said. “I think he has a couple more good years in him. I think he (agrees) but that was one of those injuries where he was concerned about it because it just never seemed to go away. But it’s finally gotten to the point where he feels better and he feels like he can be productive.”
LaBatte’s motivation to rejoin the Riders should not be underestimated. The competitor in him wants the opportunity to leave on his own terms instead of retiring due to injury.
“That was probably the biggest bad taste I had in my mouth,” he said. “But to be fixed up and be able to function later on in life right now is a good feeling for me. It feels good to be able to bend over and put my feet into my pants and not have (pain) in my groin.
“Actually, that was one of the worst things. Any time I had to pick my leg straight up it was right in my hip flexor. It was a pinching in there. (It’s nice) to get that fixed and to just be able to enjoy every-day life again and be able to come out here and work at perfecting the craft again.”
LaBatte actually had designs on getting back sooner after a brief return to practice in July. However, another groin injury delayed his comeback.
“Three weeks after I had the surgery I actually tore my adductor again,” said LaBatte, who had a minor followup procedure in early September. “They were able to drain the fluid that was just sitting in there. I’ve been better ever since that happened.”
Indeed, LaBatte was back in his familiar spot at left guard during Tuesday’s practice. That meant Dariusz Bladek shifted over to right guard, where he’s now competing with Dakota Shepley.
Despite the domino effect, Bladek was quick to welcome LaBatte back into the fold.
“He’s a hell of a player,” said Bladek, who insists he was “just keeping the seat warm” for the man affectionately know to his teammates as Blue.
“He’s a tough SOB. I always knew (he’d be back) so it was one of those things where you have to be able to move around and be able to play wherever you’re needed. It’s fine.”
The Riders’ offensive line has been mostly solid this season despite several moving pieces due to injuries. The fact that they now have to find room for one of the most decorated linemen in the league is one of those nice problems to have.
“We have a really good offensive line,” said quarterback Cody Fajardo, who referred to LaBatte as one of the “dads” on the O-line. “It really doesn’t matter who you plug in but, any chance you get to play with an all-star like Blue, I’m excited. I know he’s really excited to get back out there and to hit another colour other than green.”
LaBatte made it clear that he’s setting his sights on the guys in double blue, but Dickenson isn’t ready to make any promises for Saturday’s game in Toronto.
This next couple days of practice should tell the tale.
“Blue brings a lot of experience but he hasn’t played for a long time,” Dickenson noted. “He’s going to be rusty so we want to make sure he’s successful when he does play. To throw him out there to the wolves early may not be the best decision. But we’ll see how he does tomorrow.”
Whether he dresses Saturday or not, it’s clear that LaBatte’s presence is a welcome development. Not only is he a skilled player, LaBatte brings plenty of intangibles to the room.
“He’s a tough guy and he plays through a lot of injuries,” Dickenson added. “The other thing with Blue is he just loves the game and he has a certain energy about him that guys just gravitate towards. To have him out there, even if he’s not playing but healthy enough to practise and be involved with stuff, is really good for our team.”