Any other year, Sean Whyte would be in Edmonton right now, preparing alongside the rest of his teammates for the start of the Canadian Football League season.
The CFL season is on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however – perhaps even in jeopardy long-term, it’s been suggested – and Whyte, the Eskimos’ 34-year-old placekicker, is back on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, temporarily living with his parents, working out in a backyard shed with weights his father kept from Whyte’s teen years, and kicking balls at his old high-school rugby field.
“I’m just out here kicking on the old Semiahmoo (Secondary) field, like I used to,” he told Peace Arch News.
“I’ve always kicked here in the offseason, even going back to when I was with the BC Lions or with Montreal. It’s funny because you still see the same people walking by – they still cheer for me when I make a field goal.
“I’m glad I have such a great family and I’m able to do this, but I was talking with some buddies and I said that it feels like life is going backwards right now – back living with the parents, kicking at my old field. But they said, ‘Man, it’s going backwards for everybody – this is just normal now.’”
“You get back to your roots a little bit.”
After re-signing with the Eskimos back in 2017 – two seasons after winning a Grey Cup with the Alberta squad – Whyte decided to move to Edmonton permanently, giving up his usual routine of returning to B.C. every offseason. But a few weeks into the pandemic, with the CFL shut down, he decided to pack up and along with his dog, Tucker, make a run for the Lower Mainland.
“I sat around for about a month, but then I saw the weather in White Rock and just thought, ‘I have to get there.’ The fields in Edmonton weren’t usable – there was still ice and snow on them when all this started,” he explained.
“So I just packed up my car with as much as I could and got down here. It’s easier to train, and I just wanted to stay ready in case the season did start on time… and even now, I’m going to stay ready.”
The CFL announced in early April that the season would not start until July at the earliest, and now it seems a shortened season, with an even later start date – possibly September – is more likely. Recently, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie appealed to the federal government for financial assistance, and rumours persist that the league could fold if a 2020 season isn’t played in some form.
A little love for the kicker! Here's the best from Sean Whyte in 2019.
— Edmonton Eskimos (@EdmontonEsks) April 7, 2020
Whyte – one of the most accurate kickers in CFL history – admits that the uncertainty has weighed on him at times during the pandemic, especially considering that his contract is up at the end of this year. Also, Edmonton selected a kicker in the fourth round of last month’s CFL draft – something that didn’t go unnoticed by Whyte, who is coming off a career-best season in 2019.
“(The team) said don’t worry about it – it’s just something for the future, and right now I’m their kicker. But I’m too competitive to be OK with it,” he said. “I’m 34 – I’ll be 35 this year – and how long are they going to keep giving me an opportunity? I know I’m only getting stronger and better, and I think I’ve proven that, but it’s still a scary feeling.
“I was training my butt off so I could have a good year and sign another good contract, (but) maybe the team thinks, ‘Oh, he’s 34, that’s when the body starts to break down’ – that kind of thing. I know that isn’t happening, but I don’t know how they think.”
In the meantime, he remains at his parents’ house, training in the backyard, and running every morning near Crescent Beach. Once or twice a week, he and a few other kickers who live locally – including his backup last year in Edmonton, Greg Hutchins – will meet at Semiahmoo Secondary, staying a minimum of six feet apart and kicking their own footballs.
“I try to help them as much as I can, and they keep me young and strong,” Whyte said. “We can all push each other that way, at least.”
Still, nothing will replicate a game situation – something Whyte misses dearly, he said.
“I play football because I love it. It was my dream as a kid to play in front of a big crowd – it’s just what I love to do. We can practise, practise, practise, but nothing is like a game day. I just want to get out there and compete, and not being able to right now, it’s different – it sucks.”
Frustration aside, Whyte knows he’s in a much better position than some of his CFL brethren – especially those who are currently trying to support families during these unprecedented times.
“Some people have a wife and kids to worry about, but I’m single, and I’m fortunate that I have a family I can rely on for moments like this,” he said. “There are guys going through a lot worse than I am.”
In a worst-case scenario – if the 62-year-old league were to fold – Whyte admits to worrying about what would happen to players’ pensions, among other concerns, though he knows “it’s out of my control” so he’s doing his best to stay positive.
Whyte said he’s spoken with some players who are faced with deciding whether or not to continue playing, or retire and find a new line of work entirely. Already, one of his teammates – defensive tackle Mark Mackie – has retired and is returning to university to pursue a career in medicine.
Whyte – a former Surrey Ram junior player – isn’t wrestling with such a decision, having already gone through that process earlier in his career. In 2015, after being released by the Montreal Alouettes, he was days away from retiring and taking a non-football job before the Eskimos came calling.
That point, Whyte recalled, is when he decided he was “going to play until my leg falls off.”
“Some guys might retire (if this season is cancelled), but not me, man. I already made the choice – I’m gonna play until I can’t play no more.”