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Soward becomes CFL lightning rod after alcoholism cuts his NFL days

November 22, 2005|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

R. Jay Soward is far from Jacksonville, but not so far from controversy.

He finished his second season in the Canadian Football League Sunday, going out with a flamboyant stunt when he caught a 43-yard touchdown pass for the Toronto Argonauts, then stopped at a concession stand near the end zone for a bag of popcorn -- only to watch Montreal rally to win.

It was a move Soward, a former USC standout, said he modeled after Keyshawn Johnson, but the outcome wasn't what he hoped. The Argonauts' 33-17 loss stopped them a game shy of the CFL's Grey Cup championship game -- and left some people wondering if Soward's antics inspired the Montreal comeback.

"I felt this game could be a life-changing event for me if things could go right," Soward told reporters afterward.

They didn't.

Soward, now 27, watched his NFL career slip away through the bottom of a bottle after becoming the Jacksonville Jaguars' first-round pick in the 2000 draft.

"I would wake up every morning, the bar would open at 6 a.m., and I'd go buy a fifth of Hennessy and a fifth of Alize," he said in a telephone interview earlier this season. "I'd mix it together and drink it all day."

He was a millionaire back then. Now the NFL money is gone, along with his first marriage.

"I was a hardheaded kid who was 22 years old and had $2 million," Soward said. "It's a lot of pressure. It got to me. I crumbled."

For the past few years, he has been trying to put the pieces back together.

Soward dodged trouble for so long, it was as if he believed he could always outrun it by reversing field or blowing by a defender.

Cornerbacks couldn't catch him, but cognac did.

"The NFL told me, if you don't stop drinking, we're going to take away your money, take away your career," Soward said. "They did."

Suspended indefinitely by the NFL in 2002 for multiple violations of its substance-abuse policy -- including a positive test for marijuana, Soward said -- he is two seasons into an up-and-down comeback with the Argonauts that began after he underwent repeated treatment for alcoholism.

"This has been a blessing, just the opportunity to play football again and do something I love to do," Soward said. "I had to find myself. I had to take a little more responsibility for myself.

"I've been to so many rehabs in so many places. My last facility in Anaheim was the best. They said, 'Whoever you are, you're just a drug addict and an alcoholic to me. You're not R. Jay or a star or any of that.' "

Soward, who has a daughter with his ex-wife, now lives in the Toronto area with his girlfriend DeNeesha, with whom he has a young son, Reuben. He has not been a star with the Argonauts, but he has shown flashes of his big-play ability.

Last season, Soward caught 15 passes -- five for touchdowns, including a 67-yard scoring play. This season, hampered by a shoulder injury and briefly left out of the lineup in part because of CFL limits on the number of "import" players, he caught 22 passes for five touchdowns.

"He brings a real deep vertical threat to the game. He can fly," said Greg Mohns, the Argonauts' assistant general manager, who was responsible for securing permission from the NFL and Jaguars to sign Soward.

A Jaguar spokesman said the team would have no comment on Soward.

"The NFL, they're still trying to help me," Soward said. "Jacksonville, they're bitter. I don't blame them. They invested a lot in me."

Toronto has been satisfied with the chance it took.

"He was doing really well the first year when it got to a point when we felt maybe the demons were tugging on him," Mohns said. "We pulled him in and sat down with the head coach, myself and the GM and had a heart-to-heart. He got the message."

Mohns said Soward has done "a great job."

But it is not a particularly high-paying job in a league where Mohns said a typical salary is $40,000 to $60,000 Canadian for players other than starting quarterbacks.

"I probably make the equivalent of a California teacher," Soward said, adding that the $2-million signing bonus he earned with the Jaguars after being taken 29th overall in the 2000 draft is long gone.

"I put it in bad mutual funds, thinking I would play in the NFL a long time. I would lose $75,000 in a week," he said.

"Every day was like my birthday. I was like a kid in a candy store, spending a thousand dollars a day. I'd go buy clothes, buy 10 pairs of shoes. I could do it, so I did, that was my attitude."

The Jaguars, exasperated by his chronic tardiness, sent a car to pick him up for practice every day, but the failed drug tests, late arrivals and lame excuses took their toll. The erratic behavior and performances that frustrated coaches at USC were even more unacceptable in the NFL.

"I failed a test for marijuana initially," Soward said. "I stopped smoking marijuana and picked up drinking heavily. I was getting suspended, and every time I got suspended, I would drink, and then you can't go to work.

"Everything was going haywire, and then you drown yourself in drinking."

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