FOOTBALL: Heerspink finding a home with B.C. Lions

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 8, 2009 

VANCOUVER B.C. - It's 30 minutes after the second win of the season for the BC Lions and the players' locker room is a happy place to be on a late Friday night.

Laughing, singing, dancing, and smiles fill a room loaded with several tons of humans. A convincing 35-20 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders has the players' minds off a rough start to the season. This could be the springboard they need after dropping four of their first five games before knocking off the Roughriders on Friday, Aug. 7. at B.C. Place.

In the corner of the dressing room former Lynden Christian High School standout Daren Heerspink is trying to soak in his first regular season win at home as a professional football player while trying to wiggle out of his soaking wet shoulder pads.

"Winning cures a lot," Heerspink said. "As you can see the attitudes are up, guys are having a good time, things like that. It's a good feeling. It'll cure your ills."

It's been just more than a month since Heerspink, 26, inked a two-year deal with the Lions of the CFL and Friday's game against Saskatchewan marked his fourth as the starting left tackle on the offensive line. He's still adjusting to differences in the Canadian style of play - larger field, 12 players on each side instead of 11, three downs instead of four, among other things - but he's improving.

"Each game I feel like it's getting better and better," Heerspink said. "This game was better than my last one and I expect the next one to be better than this one. I have high standards for myself and I'm hoping it keeps going that way."

Against Saskatchewan on Friday the offensive line allowed just two sacks, a far cry from the nine the Lions gave up in their season opener against the Roughriders before Heerspink's arrival.

"He's learning and he's growing," Lions' coach Wally Buono said. "He's helped us, that's what it comes down to. He's a good kid and for him I think this is a tremendous opportunity."

Heerspink's route to the Lions reads like many of the import players on CFL rosters. The 6-foot-6, 315 pound lineman from Bellingham was a standout at a smaller college - in this case Portland State University - who got a taste in the NFL, but couldn't quite lock down a roster spot after getting caught in a numbers game.

He'd had drawn interest from CFL teams as a college senior prior to the 2008 NFL draft, but signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. He spent time on Miami's practice squad during 2008 season and then joined the St. Louis Rams earlier this year.

He took part in the Rams' organized team activities and minicamps this spring, but when they drafted offensive tackle Jason Smith out of Baylor with the second overall pick in this year's draft, he knew his chances of playing there were slim. He was waived on July 1.

"It's different here than the NFL," Heerspink said in a phone interview. "It's difficult to explain. I don't know if I've really had that welcome to the CFL moment yet. With the Dolphins I was going up against Joey Porter in practice every day. He's an all-pro and one of the best linebackers in the world. That was kind of my welcome to pro sports moment. There's a lot of talent here though, and playing here is a lot of fun."

Heerspink's introduction to football north of the border has been bumpy at times. Along with learning the playbook virtually on the fly, he's had to adjust to the speed of the CFL's defensive ends and defensive lineman who line up four or five feet off the line of scrimmage. Playing predominately without a tight end by his side to help out with pass protection has also been different. It's left Heerspink scrambling at times.

"Defensive ends in the CFL are a lot like outside linebackers in the NFL in terms of size and athleticism," Heerspink said. "There's a lot of speed on that field and a lot of what we are doing is reading the defense to figure out where everyone is coming from."

Heerspink's steep learning curve has been eased by his experience at Portland State. With the Vikings, he played in a run-and-shoot style offense under coordinator Mouse Davis that prized pass protection. He got comfortable playing in a two-point stance and it's served him well with the Lions.

"Daren is an intelligent guy," Buono said. "But the learning curve is picking up all of the different options that exist at your position. It's all of those things that you can do in practice, but it isn't until you see it and do it within the speed of the game that you really pick it up. There was no other way than to throw him in the fire. He was here for a week; we thought he'd picked up things well enough mentally, so we put him in. At the end of the day you have to start somewhere."

Veteran offensive lineman Bobby Singh has also helped Heerspink make the move to the CFL. The two Portland State alums share a collegiate bond even if Singh graduated nearly a decade before Heerspink.

"We have the Portland State thing so it's been great to have another Viking here," Singh said. "He knows I have his back. But I wouldn't really say I've taken him under my wing. To say that suggests that's something he needed and that's not the case. Daren fit in here right away. He's a heck of a tackle."

As the Lions starting left tackle he's also been getting more attention from the media. That's something he hasn't had to deal with before. So far it's been mostly positive.

"When I was with Miami and then with the Rams I was a pretty anonymous player," Heerspink said. "Now I'm at a place and in a position where people want to know what the left tackle has to say."

Playing in front of a hostile crowd has also been a change. His first start came against the Edmonton Eskimos in Edmonton on July 16. The Lions won 40-22 in front of more than 33,000 people. It was the first regular season game Heerspink had played in since college.

"It takes a little time to get used to the ebb and flow of it again," Heerspink said. "Edmonton has passionate fans, a real hostile crowd, and it was fun to be a part of that for my first game. I understand it. People pay good money to see their team play well and win. As a professional football player that's what you are paid to do."

Four games into his career with the BC Lions and it's pretty clear that Heerspink is enjoying himself, even if he does have to cross the U.S./Canadian border nearly every day during his commute to work. Once the celebration had died down after Friday's game against Saskatchewan it was time for Heerspink to get ready for the drive back home to Lynden.

"The border can't be that busy at midnight, can it?" he said.

Reach Joe Sunnen at joe.sunnen@bellinghamherald.com or 756-2862.

Reach JOE SUNNEN at joe.sunnen@bellinghamherald.com or call 756-2862.

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