‘I’ve got a lot to play for’: How Argos returner Javon Leake has beaten the odds

‘I’ve got a lot to play for’: How Argos returner Javon Leake has beaten the odds

Javon Leake’s face lights up when he talks about his two-year-old daughter, Laylani.

“She knows what (her) daddy does. She’ll be like ‘my daddy’s in Canada,” the Toronto Argonauts’ star punt returner said while discussing Laylani, who lives in Maryland with her mom, after a recent practice.

“She’s real smart. Knowing that I got that, I’ve just got to keep going.”

At this pace, Leake, 25, is going to the CFL record book — maybe as soon as during Monday’s Labour Day Classic against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. After that? Well, let’s not put any limitations on where Leake can go from here, considering the challenges he has overcome.

It’s a huge credit to Leake and those around him that he is living this life rather than something much worse.

The man putting together one of the best punt-return seasons in CFL history has, in his words, “been through a lot.”

“I play like it,” he continued. “I play with a (chip) on my shoulder. I’ve got a lot to play for.”

An excellent story by Emily Giambalvo in the Washington Post, written while Leake was starring at the University of Maryland in 2019, offered a glimpse into his history.

Leake had irregular visits with his biological father Thomas Kelly Jr. before he was killed in a shooting when Javon was in fifth grade in New York. Javon and his mom, Natasha, didn’t find out until two years later.

The man Javon calls dad, Joel Simpson, was in prison for four years from 2016-20 after being convicted of assault and criminal possession of a weapon. Simpson met Natasha when Javon was one and formed a close relationship with him before the adults split up when Javon was in middle school.

Before high school, Natasha and Javon moved to North Carolina with the mother thinking it would be a better place for her son to grow up.

The adversity didn’t stop, though. A teammate at Maryland, offensive lineman Jordan McNair, died of heatstroke after a team workout. The team went through three coaches during Leake’s time at the school as Maryland tried to recover from a tragedy.

And then there was the NFL, where Leake went undrafted and couldn’t crack rosters of the New York Giants, Washington and the Detroit Lions — he dressed for one game with Washington in 2020, playing six snaps on special teams — before signing with the Argos in 2022.

“I hate to say it’s the New York toughness but it’s the combination of my upbringing in New York to be strong, independent and resilient no matter what. I think that rubbed off on him,” Natasha Leake said over the phone from home in Greensboro, N.C. (Javon pays tribute to New York with his Twitter name — @ny_king20).

“Even though (there was) the absence of his biological father and his stepfather, he still had male figures in his life — coaches, friends of the family, parents of other players. He always had somebody around he could really look up to.”

One of those men is current Maryland coach Mike Locksley.

Locksley has coached a number of big names during his time in college football — Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith and Denver Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy, to name a few. He took time to do a phone interview about Leake with a reporter from Canada one day before Maryland played its 2023 season opener. The team is trying to post a third consecutive winning campaign for the first time since 2001-03.

“Javon was one of my favourite guys I had when I came in (as head coach in 2019, Leake’s final season),” said Locksley, whose son, Kai, is a quarterback/receiver for the Ticats. “The things you guys are seeing now, the big-play ability in the return game, those were the same things he did here. He was a tremendous weapon for us.”

Only Leake did it in a different way at Maryland. As Locksley says with a chuckle, “remind him he owes me.”

It was Locksley who asked Leake to be the punt returner on scout team at Maryland. He stayed after practices to catch punts and help the special-team unit. Leake was a kickoff returner — he finished third in the country in kick-return yards in 2019 — and a part of a big 1-2 punch with Anthony McFarland Jr. at running back, but not the regular punt returner at Maryland. In the U.S., with so many fair catches, star players often do not return punts.

“One game, I think it was Michigan, I got in for one (punt return). I fair-caught it,” Leake laughed. “Caught it and got off the field.”

Added Natasha: “When he got to Canada, I’m not going to lie, I was terrified when he told me about punt returns. I’m used to the American version where you don’t have that five-yard (no yards rule). You catch, you get hit, you make the YouTube video.”

On kickoff returns at Maryland, though, Leake tended to make people miss. He opened plenty of eyes with his highlight-reel plays, including at Bare Hill Correctional Facility in upstate New York, just a 45-minute drive from the Canadian border, where Simpson was an inmate. As the Post story reported, Simpson shared a TV room with 60 inmates. Any time there was a Maryland football game, however, it took priority.

“Those aren’t the most pleasant circumstances, you’re around some people that aren’t too pleasant,” Simpson said over the phone from his home in East Stroudsburg, Pa. last week.

“It was definitely a great feeling, especially having strangers who don’t know each other very well, to see them actually rooting for my son. It was genuine, it helped me get through my time. I could escape and see myself in the stadium watching him, cheering him on. The excitement, that was my escape. He’s not aware of that but that helped me. He helped me.”

Simpson follows Leake’s progress on YouTube and social media. Leake makes sure to send him some of his best clips.

“I know he’s doing good now,” Leake said. “He’s proud of me and he’s able to watch me now.”

Natasha, meanwhile, made it to Toronto for last year’s East final. Leake calls his mom his biggest supporter.

“I don’t know where I would be without my mom. I’m real close to her, it’s always just been me and her for a little while. That’s my dog. She’s the reason I’m here.”

After missing 10 games with a hamstring injury last year, Leake is making up for lost time. He already has an Argos record with four punt-return touchdowns — “Man, I wish I had done this my whole college career,” said Leake, who flashed his potential with a key 44-yard return in last year’s Grey Cup win.

Leake needs one more punt-return TD to tie a CFL record co-held by Edmonton great Henry (Gizmo) Williams.

For Argos fans, he is bringing back memories of return greats like Jimmy (the Jet) Cunningham, Bashir Levingston and, of course, current general manager Michael (Pinball) Clemons. He also wears the same No. 32 as another former Argos fan favourite — running back/slotback Andre Durie, an undrafted York University product who went on to have a great CFL career after a bad knee injury in the U Sports ranks.

“I felt like I let the team down last year with the hamstring and this year I wanted to focus on (playing) to my full potential and really showing them that you guys can trust me and I can be a returner and a good one,” said Leake, who acknowledges the no-yards rule makes returning punts way more fun and is, in a way, “like cheating” for the returner.

Added Natasha: “This year, he came in there healthy, he came in there with determination. He felt like it was now or never. … What did he say to me, exactly? He wanted to become legendary. Those were his words. He’s off to a great start.”

Like many CFLers before him, Leake is having success after bouncing around the NFL.

It was a frustrating time, but it’s part of a journey that’s made him who he is today. Maybe today leads to a better tomorrow in the NFL, or maybe he’ll make a good life in Canada — whatever the case, Leake is living in the moment.

“If you followed him for his short (NFL) career here in the states, these teams all passed up on him,” Simpson said. “I was like, ‘I don’t understand, this boy is so talented.’ I don’t know what it is they don’t see. I just told him to keep going and play with that chip on your shoulder like you always did since you were younger … Now, you see that spark again he had when he was in high school and college.”

Added Locksley: “A kid that came from a tough upbringing with a single mom. He knew he had to work. It’s great to see him add value for himself and take advantage of the opportunity to provide a better life for his next generation.”

Back home in Maryland on this holiday Monday, Laylani will get an idea of what this Labour Day tradition means to football fans in southern Ontario. Her dad very well could play a significant role in determining who wins.

Laylani may not know it, but she’s a big reason why Javon Leake is on this stage today.

“When he became a father, I saw a change in him where he realized his life was no longer about him. It was about his daughter,” Natasha said. “Everything he does now, if you watch the games, when he scores or does a great play and they put the camera in his face, he says ‘this is for you, Lay’ or he’ll throw up an L. That’s for his daughter — everything.”

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