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Archive for Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Ex-Jayhawks Winbush, Smith headed to CFL

April 17, 2002

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Unless you count video games, David Winbush hasn't played football in 17 months.

His senior season at Kansas University ended with a 38-17 road loss to Iowa State on Nov. 18, 2000. Undrafted, unsigned and unwanted, the sixth-leading rusher in Kansas history was out of football.

"It was frustrating," said Winbush, who rushed for 2,608 yards and 22 touchdown in four seasons at KU but saw his pro prospects limited by his 5-foot-7, 180-pound frame. "Last year I watched the games on the sidelines. I wanted to run out there so bad. I was only 21. I thought, 'This can't be it.'"

Winbush, now 22, didn't give up on his dream of playing professionally. With one year left on his scholarship, the running back stayed in school and worked toward his degree in business communications.

He also continued to work out with KU strength and conditioning coaches Fred Roll and Matt Link.

"I just kept praying about it, and it all worked out," said Winbush, who switched agents and was invited to work out for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in December at Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Argonauts liked what they saw and signed the running back to a contract in February.

After graduation next month, he'll head home to Texas to visit his family before Toronto's preseason camp starts June 1. It'll be the Texan's first time north of the border.

"This was furthest north I'd ever been when I got here," he said of Lawrence. "I'm going in the wrong direction."

But his career is finally going in the right direction, as is that of former teammate Dylen Smith. CFL opportunities brought renewed optimism for both players.

Smith signed a two-year contract with Saskatchewan after his senior season, but the quarterback injured his throwing shoulder and was cut during training camp. He's preparing for a second chance this summer.

"It's a lot stronger," Smith said of his arm in a phone interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "I'm probably 90 percent healthy. Hopefully in the next month or two I'll be 100 percent."

Winbush is pulling for his former teammate to make the Roughriders.

"That'll be exciting," he said. "We'll play against each other at least twice."

Winbush has no doubt he'll make the Argonauts' roster. The only drawback is that he won't be able to wear No. 22, which was his number at Kansas. Toronto retired those digits in honor of former CFL standout and current NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

There's not much else the Argonauts won't let Winbush do. They plan to let him return punts and kicks, and he'll have a chance to play in the backfield as well because Toronto lost its top running backs in the offseason.

"They say I have a legitimate chance of starting at running back," said Winbush, who averaged 20.9 yards per kickoff return in college.

Winbush declined to say exactly how much he'd earn in the CFL. The league minimum salary is $28,500 Canadian ($18,014 U.S.).

"At least $20,000 more than that," he said with a smile. "It's good for a rookie. For a single guy with no kids and no responsibilities, it's pretty good."

Winbush is definitely eager to be back on the field, and he won't have to wait long.

The Argonauts play the first of two preseason games June 13 at Ottawa. The season opener is June 28 at Winnipeg.

"That excitement is coming back," said Winbush, whose year off doesn't seem like such a bad thing now. "It happened for a reason. I'll be able to finish school. Hopefully, I can go up there and get something started and get the attention of the NFL, which is the ultimate goal."

Smith, 22, tells a similar story, saying his year away from the game worked out.

He played through pain at times during his career at Kansas, where he passed for 3,562 yards and 22 touchdowns in two seasons. The ache in his shoulder returned during the Roughriders' camp last summer, and playing on the CFL's wider field made it worse.

Unable to play, he went home to California and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his rotator cuff in August. Four months of rehabilitation followed.

Smith's two-year contract was contingent on making the team, so it was voided after he was injured. Back in California, he worked part-time coaching youth sports.

"I haven't watched much football," he said. "This is my first year not playing in a long time. It's frustrating, but it might have worked out for the best, because if I'd played injured it might have gotten worse and ended my career."

Smith plans to sign another two-year contract worth about $35,000 Canadian ($22,123.34 U.S.) per year. This time, he's determined to make the team and see Winbush when their teams meet for the first time on Aug. 16 at Toronto.

"We're excited," Smith said. "He's one of my close friends, so there'll be bragging rights on the line."

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