“Mighty Mouse lives on, but I kinda took a new alter ego, Underdog. He’s the new guy on the block.”
Chris Garrett has never been the biggest player on the football field. The question of how he could produce as a 5’8″ running back has followed him since high school, but just like the Mighty Mouse tattoo on his leg, he’s always flown to the top, not just surviving but excelling.
He left high school as the all-time leading rusher at Virginia’s Stonewall Jackson, then announced himself nationally soon after he arrived at Ohio University in the fall of 2006. With the Bobcats 2-3 and desperately needing a MAC win, Garrett took center stage. He received a Western Michigan punt at his own 12-yard line and 88 yards later was in the end zone. The win that followed started a seven game win streak that carried Ohio to a first ever MAC East title.
“That’s what catapulted me to making my name more known,” Garrett says now. “It made people realize, ‘This little guy can actually play.’ That’s one of my best plays and helped jump start my career, per say.”
That punt return led Garrett to a 3rd Team Freshman All-American season as a returner and launched an Ohio career where he held ten school records by the end of his senior season.
For Garrett, the records and attention were nice, but their greater benefit would be the attention he was getting from the next level. He got a chance to show his stuff for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010, but the end of preseason meant the end of his NFL season. Before he could even consider a possible future without football, he got a call that revealed the next step.
“I made the most of that opportunity, but things didn’t work out the way I wanted. I got a call from Winnipeg as soon as I didn’t make the Buccaneers. It was pretty much an up-and-down type thing when I first got to the CFL just to adapt to the game and the speed of it and stuff.”
Garrett joined the Blue Bombers as the third string running back, and it was probably for the better. For those not familiar with the Canadian game, the rules aren’t quite like the football you’re used to. One of the big things viewers would notice is the addition of pre-snap movement.
At the :52 mark, you get a good example on one of Garrett’s runs in his time with the Blue Bombers. Two of his teammates move in unison toward the line of scrimmage before the play. The forward movement and multiple players moving at once would both be penalties in American football.
Other than the on field changes, the CFL puts a lot of non-Canadian players outside their native country for the first time. It doesn’t seem like a huge change going from the United States to Canada, but for Garrett there was definitely a settling in period.
“First off, it gets really cold,” Garrett laughed. “In the later months like now it’s going to get really cold, and it’s going to start snowing. Everybody up here is really, really friendly. Some people speak French, and I don’t speak a lick of French. You see different kinds of people that I’m just not accustomed to seeing.”
Regardless of his unfamiliarity with the Canadian people, their culture or their style of football, it didn’t take long for Garrett to decide the CFL game suited him just fine.
“Just to be able to move around pre-snap and be able to do things to manipulate the defense helps a lot because my offensive line is 6’4”, 6’5”, 6’6” and I’m only 5’8” so I can get behind them and just get lost so it’s a real benefit. I think the CFL game helps me showcase my talents a little more.”
It took some time for those talents to get their chance, but the opportunity came in Garrett’s second season in Winnipeg. When the top two running backs went down with injuries, Mighty Mouse took a back seat to the new guy in town.
Never fear, Underdog is here!
If you’re unfamiliar with the cartoon hero, Underdog, he’s just your average dog named Shoeshine Boy. When there’s trouble, though, he heads into a phone booth, adding a cape and turning into Underdog before saving the day.
Just like the cartoon hero’s transformation from Shoeshine Boy to Underdog, Garrett sees himself as an undersized, undervalued player who turns unstoppable when he steps on the field.
And speaking of saving the day, he definitely made the most of his chance when he got it. In eight starts at the end of the 2011 season, Garrett averaged 16 carries for 99 yards, leading the Blue Bombers to the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup.
On the way there, he played a game he’ll always remember.
This One’s for Marcellis
Marcellis Williamson was one of the more popular players on the Ohio football team. The big defensive tackle was known to be fun loving and hard working, and he and Garrett had plenty of memories together.
“We were good friends, and I even still have his controller for his Xbox. We used to play all the time.”
That’s why April 27, 2011, hit Garrett so hard. Williamson was training to make his own run at a pro football career, but that morning he died, suffering a heart attack.
Garrett knew he had to do something to honor his friend and former teammate, and it came at one of the biggest times. Winnipeg was playing in the 2011 East Division final, a berth in the Grey Cup on the line, and he went full on beast mode: 29 car, 190 yd, TD.
“I dedicated that game to Marcellis. I was playing for him that game, and I just went off. That was one of my biggest moments, just to be able to play for a fallen teammate and brother. That was one of my best moments. Just to see a good person go so quickly. That just hurt my heart, so I was just playing for him.”
The performance wasn’t the end of the dedication to Williamson. Garrett was named player of the game that night and sent the game ball to Williamson’s parents in Cleveland.
Cheers and Tears
As Garrett settled into his role as a lead back, he had to get used to the new found attention. Some athletes try to steer clear of fans, but for him this was a dream come true.
“In 1,000 years I couldn’t fathom why someone would buy my jersey and just be happy to wear it. Just to have people ask for autographs and want to take pictures and stuff–as a kid, I’d see pro athletes do that, and I thought it was so cool and I wanted to do it. And for it to be normal now, it’s a loss of words.”
Of course, he’s not the only one who doesn’t know what to say.
“I’ve also had a few people cry when they met me, which is pretty cool in a way. To have somebody cry to see you because they’re overwhelmed and overjoyed, you can’t put a price on that.”
As his star continued to rise and the fans continued to take notice, the Grey Cup game put a bit of a damper on the whole thing. It was easily one of the biggest moments of his sports career, but the end didn’t live up to the rest of the experience.
“It was a week full of fun festivities and just to see the excitement around the game and to actually play in the game, that was one of my top moments as a football player. It didn’t end how we wanted it to, but I do know what it took to get there and I know how it feels to play in the game.”
June 26, 2012
Just as it seemed Garrett was locked in as Winnipeg’s lead rusher, fate dealt him another hand. Garrett tore his left Achilles tendon at practice June 26, 2012, ending his season before it started. The rehab was grueling, and for some players in his shoes that might be the end, but Garrett had a different plan.
“I want to keep playing until I call it quits. I don’t want anyone to call it quits for me. I came back from this injury because I have a lot of football left in me.”
Despite working through the injury and reporting to training camp healthy and ready to go this season, the Blue Bombers decided to part ways with their tailback, putting him on the market.
After a month of availability and uncertainty, the door opened once again.
End of the Rough Ride
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are one of the most well known teams in the CFL. They’ve played in three of the last six Grey Cups and 18 of them overall, and they just so happened to have an opening at running back.
“A lot of guys don’t get that second chance to keep playing football, and fortunately I was blessed enough to get picked up by the Saskatchewan Roughriders and be able to continue living my dream.”
Garrett was signed September 4, and was the lead running back for the Roughriders less than three weeks later. For him that proves his growth hasn’t just been physical.
“Just to pick up the play book and play as fast as I did just showed that I’m a true professional, and people think that guys that play football are dumb jocks, but there are no dummies. Well, there may be a few, but for the most part these guys are really smart. You have to pick up schemes and terminology, and sometimes things switch on the fly, and you have to be able to adapt to it. This is a smart man’s game.”
The Riders are 10-5 and already locked into the playoffs. So, even though it’s been a bumpy ride for Garrett since his East Final star turn two years ago, he appreciates where his career has already taken him.
“I’ve come a long way since being a kid that played at Ohio to now playing for a team that’s pretty good and has a chance to get back to the Grey Cup. So, my journey has had ups and downs like any pro career, but it’s been a fun ride, and I still have a lot of football to play.”
Garrett doesn’t know how long he’ll stay on the field or what exactly is coming next for him, but he’s not one to let things just work themselves out. Always active on Twitter, you’ll commonly see him use the hashtag “TheDeal. So what does it mean?
“How I want people to perceive it is I’m not trying to say that I’m the deal. Anyone or anything can be the deal. You could write a story and be like, ‘Man, that’s the deal.’ It can be used in different contexts and different instances.”
In other words, it is what you make it. What Garrett’s making it is a motto that drives him now and for the future. While he continues his career on the field, he’s working on a clothing line off it.
“It’s going to be really small, and I’m thinking about making the proceeds go to a cancer foundation or a diabetes foundation for each shirt that I sell. So, I’m just trying to find ways to give back for a good cause.”
And that’s not the only cause that thinks Garrett is the deal. He’s already helping kids at his high school through the Chris Garrett Scholarship Fund.
“It’s at Stonewall Jackson HS, and this past year I awarded a student athlete that was going to college this year a grant from me. The grant from me is pretty much saying I know what they’re doing, they’re positive people in the community, their grades are good and they’re exceptional athletes. This year I’m going to expand it to both boys and girls.”
Just like Underdog, the path to get there hasn’t always been pretty. There’s been collateral damage, both physical and mental, but the episode never ends without the hero saving the day, and Chris Garrett continues to prove that lesson can play out in reality too.