Is this Bowman's last ride?
MONTREAL – Henoc Muamba typically arrives at the Montreal Alouettes practice facility early in the morning, around the same time as the team’s quarterbacks. The linebacker watches film on his own before the sun rises, quietly planning how to terrorize opposing quarterbacks rather than pester his own pivots as they too study in the next room over.
And then Friday morning, Vernon Adams Jr. walked into Muamba’s study with that cool and joyful strut characteristic of Adams when he’s around his teammates – like the 26-year-old has a bit of good news he can’t wait to share with someone.
“We we’re talking, and then [Adams] starts telling me, ‘Hey, you usually do this a lot better than this linebacker did right there [as they watch film together],’ ” Muamba says. “He didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t a session where I was asking him to come in. But people recognize things like that. It goes along way. Little things like that.”
This week, the CFL named Vernon Adams Jr. an East Division All-Star at quarterback. He threw nearly 4,000 yards this season and led Montreal to its first playoff appearance since 2014.
On Sunday afternoon, Adams will start his first playoff game as a professional quarterback when the Alouettes host the Edmonton Eskimos in the East Division semifinal. His maturation under centre in 2019 is remarkable. But Adams’ numbers and highlight-making ability are secondary in Muamba’s mind when weighed against subtle, yet intentional, moments of leadership that continue to truly define Adams’ first season as a starting quarterback.
“He serves,” Muamba says of Adams.
In August, after Montreal’s defence stopped a late Toronto Argonauts drive to win Touchdown Atlantic, and while his teammates celebrated victory, there was Adams gathering and carrying armfuls of gleefully discarded Alouettes helmets. The quarterback was carrying so many, he had to lay the helmets back down so he could go live on TV and learn he had been named player of the game.
“This isn’t about me,” Adams said at the time, proudly gesturing to his celebrating teammates, while their helmets lay at his feet. “This [win] belongs to the defence.”
Or another significant moment: Immediately after Adams recklessly and dangerously swung a helmet at Winnipeg linebacker Adam Bighill, television cameras captured Adams walking down the line by Montreal’s benches, apologizing to his own teammates. Adams then led the Alouettes to their greatest-ever comeback that day.
“He puts others before himself,” Henoc Muamba says of his quarterback.
Alouettes receiver DeVier Posey recognizes the selflessness of a leader, too. Posey has seen it before: He watches Adams inside Montreal’s locker room as closely as he watched Ricky Ray inside Toronto’s locker room during Posey’s CFL rookie year in 2017. Back then, during pregames, Ray would sit at his locker, coffee in hand and foot propped-up, quietly re-reading Toronto’s game plan.
Now, Adams is usually listening to music – currently it’s Ballin’ by Mustard ft. Roddy Ricch – and playfully signing and dancing around the locker room. In Posey’s mind, the way to compare Vernon Adams Jr. and Ricky Ray’s disparate routines is to find the same calmness and confidence that flows through both quarterback. Posey sees the connection, and feels it.
The receiver knows it’s never about ‘me’ with Adams, it’s only ever about ‘we.’
“There is this constant push: We can do this, we can score," says Posey of Adams’ approach with this teammates. "It’s part of the reason we had all those late comebacks and clawbacks to overtime wins because a guy like that is calling plays, and a guy like that is not giving up. You feed off that.”
After four seasons of almost predictable dreadfulness, the Alouettes are back in the playoffs and have caught the attention of CFL fans with sensational wins against Toronto (twice), Calgary (twice) and that unforgettable September fightback against Winnipeg.
And every big Alouettes moment appeared to be punctuated by some heroics from Adams, then followed by the young quarterback happily tossing himself into the arms of his teammates.
“I don’t know what he’s chasing,” says Posey with a knowing smirk. “I figure it’s a championship.”
Right now, some of Adams’ own motivations are buried underneath short, cursory answers. Nothing rude or abrupt. he has turned down some media requests this season to focus only on his craft and only on his teammates.
At this point in the season, what are the ingredients that build chemistry to create big moments?
“It’s Week 22. The chemistry is already there,” says Adams. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’re good.”
Adams continues to be accountable in front of cameras and microphones when he needs to be, and always open to giving praise but never really yearning for it. So how will he feel Sunday walking out in front of over 20,000 Alouettes fans, all longing for playoff success?
“I’m going to be super excited, maybe a little butterflies; but hey, it’s nothing new.”
That’s not entirely true; this season continues to be full of new experiences and new things for Adams. His football career felt destined to be itinerant and unremarkable: Montreal, Saskatchewan, Hamilton, and then back to Montreal.
Adams was good enough to be part of the supporting cast, but no one was sure if he'd ever be good enough to be the headliner. That’s all changed in Week 1 when projected Alouettes starter Antonio Pipkin was injured and Adams took the reigns and never let go.
But Muamba has wondered to himself why everything is different with Adams now. So the linebacker asked his quarterback that question as the two drove through Winnipeg earlier this season.
"I visualize a lot more," Adams said simply.
Muamba played with Adams in Saskatchewan and thinks the quarterback's development is so much deeper: The man has learned to embrace the moment.
“I’ve seen so much growth in who [Adams] is off the field, and it’s correlated to the type of player he’s become on the field as well: Extremely calm, poised and controlled," Muamba says.
"He is in a leadership position."
Adams is the starting quarterback of a professional football team, and he’s about to make his first professional playoff start.
But he’s not worried about himself. Early in the morning, days before the biggest game of his pro career, the starting quarterback of the Alouettes would rather to check in on his teammates, and tell them they matter.