May 13, 2024

The Long Road Back For Kurleigh Gittens Jr.

EDMONTON – It’s been a long road back for Kurleigh Gittens Jr., but the end is almost in sight.

The star wideout has been slowly working his way back from a hip injury that cost him the final eight games of the 2023 season. However, for Day 1 of Elks Training Camp, the 26-year-old was already a full participant and showed signs of being the same player who was named the 2022 East Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

“I feel good. It’s always a pleasure just being out here playing football,” Gittens Jr. said after practice. “I’ve been working my (butt) off this offseason just trying to get back to myself, and I felt good today, but I know every day is just going to be a work in progress. I’m just thankful just to be able to be out here with the guys.”

If you ask his quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson — who connected with Gittens Jr. to the tune of 81 receptions for 1,101 yards and five touchdowns when they played together with the Toronto Argonauts in 2022 — he certainly liked what he saw on Sunday.

“He looked amazing,” Bethel-Thompson said. “I called Kurleigh back when the trade went down and I just asked him, ‘are you good to go?’ He said yes. When Kurleigh says that, there’s no doubt.”

The Elks quarterback knows what type of player the former Wilfried Laurier Golden Hawk can be. Gittens Jr. has all the athletic talent you want in a star receiver, but he pairs it with a mental toughness and attitude that is highly sought after in professional football. Bethel-Thompson’s experience over three seasons in Toronto with Gittens Jr. gave him all the reassurance he needed to know that he’d be throwing the wideout passes once Training Camp began.

“He has a special dog about him, an inner kind of perseverance,” Bethel-Thompson said.  “There’s an inner strength that sits inside. You can see it through his eyes, and I knew when he said that (he’d be back), his word is his bond and he would be ready to rock by the time were going.”

For Head Coach Chris Jones it’s all about managing expectations. In his experience, when a significant injury takes a player out of action, there is a much rehab to be done mentally as much as there is physically.

“He’ll tell you he’s 100 per cent, and he’s been cleared and all that, but there’s that mental part of the game where it’s like, ‘can I really turn this thing loose?'” Jones said. “I’ve seen him at his very best, and saying that he’s 100 per cent, I don’t know if that would be accurate.  However, his 90 to 95 per cent is pretty doggone good, I promise you.”

Kurleigh Gittens Jr. (#19) poses with fellow star wide receiver Eugene Lewis (#87) on day 2 of Elks Training Camp

Gittens Jr. was once again back on the  field for Day 2 of Training Camp, and looking no worse for wear from an intense opening day. He was firmly slotted in with the first team of receivers — alongside Eugene Lewis, Kyran Moore, and Dillon Mitchell.

The unit has all the ingredients necessary to leave defensive backs and defensive coordinators waking up in the middle of the night. The mix of an East Division Most Outstanding Player (Lewis) and a Most Outstanding Canadian (Gittens Jr.) — alongside the CFL leader in yards-after-catch (Moore) and a big-play threat who averages 16.2 yards per reception in his career (Mitchell) — is about as dynamic a group as there is in the league.

Gittens Jr. agrees, but he knows his health and hard work will play a large factor in turning that sentiment into fruition.

“To me personally, I think we got the best receiving corps in the league. Obviously saying it, is just saying it though,” Gittens Jr. said. “For us, we’re just going to put in the work each and every day to just get better and everything else will work out the way it’s supposed to.”