MARTINSVILLE, N.J. -- Not a bad first season in the Canadian Football League for Jamaal Westerman, the former New York Jets linebacker and a standout at Rutgers who enjoyed a star-studded debut year north of the border.
Team MVP. Team Defensive MVP. Top Canadian in the Western Conference. Runner-up up for the top Canadian in the league. Named to the Western Conference's All- Star team. Voted by coaches and fellow players as a CFL All-Star, equivalent to the NFL and their All-Pro award. It was a great year for Westerman, his 17 sacks for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers pacing his team.
Westerman's journey from Rutgers to the NFL and now the CFL began in 2009 when he signed with the Jets as an undrafted rookie free agent. He made the squad and began contributing right away on special teams. From there, he worked his way onto the Jets two-deep and eventually spent three years with the team.
He left as a free agent in 2001 to make stops in a few other NFL cities, eventually finding himself cut last August by the Cleveland Browns in training camp. Workouts would come but no one signed Westerman, who kept himself in shape in New Jersey at TEST Sports Clubs, where he also works training defensive linemen and linebackers preparing for the NFL Draft.
There was always the chance for Westerman, whose family moved to Ontario when he was in high school, to return to Canada and play football in the growing league. Turns out that this past year was the right time and place after contemplating a move to the CFL for several seasons.
"I always thought I'd be up there at one point. I played high school up there, my brother played up there.t When I was cut in camp, I had a couple workouts, teams had been calling me. I really enjoyed my visit to Winnipeg, meeting the GM, the coordinator, coaches – it felt like a good fit for me to play at a high level," Westerman told Metro on Tuesday.
"I felt it was the right time, could have done it earlier. But it was the right time with my wife, daughter. I had an opportunity to go up there, play at a high level. And it was a good group of guys."
What would follow was a culture-shift for Westerman. The CFL is played with 12 men on the field for each team. Motion by receivers is allowed in ways that it isn't in the NFL. The field is longer and wider. Somedays, the team would fly charter, sometimes not. The schedule sometimes lined up three games in 15 days, something not even a high school athletic director could fathom.
But Westerman loved it, raving about a league where "there are some really good players, where the quality is really high. I was in the league – the NFL – for six years. This is good football we are playing up there."
He likens the atmosphere more to a college game, citing a real community feel to the game as opposed to the corporate culture found in the NFL. He gets recognized by fans when he goes out to dinner with teammates and routinely is thanked for coming to play in Winnipeg.
No word on if these fans pick up the tab on his meal.
"It's been great, good crowds, a great atmosphere. They really get behind you," Westerman said. "I'm just disappointed we didn't bring them a championship, a Grey Cup. Hopefully we can do that next year."
This offseason, Westerman has already begun his workouts with the season just a few weeks over. Perhaps a return to the NFL is in the cards, something that wouldn't be surprising given his production last year. He turns 31-years old this February and still has several years in his prime left.
He will continue his work at TEST with their NFL Draft class as well as his regular workouts to keep in shape for whatever is in store for his career. And he also hopes that Rutgers with new coach Chris Ash might want him to hang around a bit for spring workouts.
"I'd love to meet and see what I can bring, how I can help those young players down there at RU grow," Westerman said. "I've played professionally for seven years. Hopefully I can help them continue their growth."
Not unlike his career, which only continues to grow.