It took him five years, eight teams and three leagues, but Chris Armstrong thinks he finally may have found a home in pro football.
Give the Baltimore CFLs' speedy slotback this much: He knows about persevering.
"Being released by New England [last year] made me take a different approach to football," Armstrong said. "I decided if I was able to get back in the CFL, that's where I would try to stay.
"I'm 27 years old. Time passes you by. If I'm going to make a name for myself, I need to do it in the next four or five years."
Armstrong has, indeed, made a name for himself in half a season in Baltimore. Going into tonight's game at Memorial Stadium against the Sacramento Gold Miners (3-5-1), he ranks third in the CFL with 883 receiving yards and with eight touchdowns. He has had five 100-yards-or-more games and three multi-touchdown games.
The nickname he carries here is the one that fits best: Playmaker, as in big.
Nine weeks into the season, he is quarterback Tracy Ham's go-to guy, the man the opposing team must stop if it's going to beat Baltimore. Last week, in a 28-16 victory over the Shreveport Pirates, Armstrong had four catches for 126 yards, producing most of the damage in backup quarterback Shawn Jones' passing game.
Interestingly, the Ham-to-Armstrong pass combination has its roots in Edmonton, Alberta, where Armstrong was an Eskimos receiver in 1991 and 1992 and Ham the franchise quarterback.
Ham remembers Armstrong arriving in Edmonton as a wide receiver and leaving as a slotback.
"The Canadian game is an inside-out game," Ham said. "You work inside out. You want to get an inside guy to understand he can stretch the defense quickest from that position.
"Chris has knowledge of what to do. Knowledge with speed is dangerous."
Armstrong played 20 games in Edmonton, catching 54 passes for 1,114 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, he was released late in the 1992 season, and played the last two games for the Ottawa Rough Riders.
"Coach [Ron] Lancaster and I did not see eye to eye," Armstrong said of his abbreviated stay with the Eskimos.
Rejection was not exactly new to the Fayetteville, N.C., native. He was forced to skip his senior season at Fayetteville State in 1989 for academic reasons. Based on his performance with the Arena Football league's Washington Commandos in 1990, he got a late invitation to the Washington Redskins' training camp that summer. Too late, it turned out. He was cut.
His itinerary took him to Edmonton the next two years, then to the New England Patriots' training camp in 1993. Armstrong felt he earned a roster spot on special teams. Bill Parcells determined otherwise.
Next stop, Las Vegas and the CFL expansion Posse. Armstrong attended rookie camp for three weeks, then was sent home with veterans when the CFL Players' Association filed a grievance with the league. Befitting Armstrong's luck, coach Ron Meyer called June 9 to say he no longer needed the 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver.
A week later, Armstrong showed up in Baltimore's camp. After he ran a 4.41-second 40-yard -- on wet grass at Towson State, he signed a one-year contract with an option.
He has been a godsend to the CFLs' no-huddle offense with a team-high 38 catches and a 23.2-yard average gain. His best game was a seven-catch, 224-yard performance with two touchdowns Aug. 10 against Hamilton.
"Any receiver who gets big numbers has to have a quarterback who goes to him," said Baltimore coach Don Matthews. "Chris has produced big numbers. What he brings is size and speed -- he's got 4.4 speed and he's big."
He also has new-found incentive. Every time Armstrong looks in his locker at Memorial Stadium, he sees a double-picture frame of daughter Brittany Nicole, 19 months old, who is home in Fayetteville.
"That's my reason for being here, my focus," he said, holding the frame. "In order to provide for my daughter, I've got to do the job right here."
He says he would be happy to make a career here instead of the NFL.
"Would it be nice to go there [to the NFL]?" he said. "It'd be nice from a financial aspect. But would I leave Baltimore on a hunch? No. The team's been good to me, the guys have been good."
-! For once, it seems like home.
Sacramento vs. Baltimore
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: 7:30 tonight
TV: Ch. 2
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)
Site: Memorial Stadium
Line: Baltimore by 7
TV/Radio: Ch. 2/WJFK (1300 AM)
Records: Sacramento 3-5-1; Baltimore 6-3.
Last week: Sacramento tied the B.C. Lions, 15-15; Baltimore beat Shreveport, 28-16.
the sidelines: Sacramento coach Kay Stephenson is 9-17-1 in his second CFL season. He won a World League title with the Sacramento Surge in 1992, and was 10-26 with the Buffalo Bills from 1983 to 1985. Baltimore's Don Matthews has a career record of 102-62-1 in 10 CFL seasons.
What Sacramento has to do to win: Control RB Mike Pringle, keep QB Tracy Ham from getting into his rhythm. On offense, turnovers have cost the Gold Miners. They have given up 38 sacks -- more than four a game -- and thrown 15 interceptions. QB David Archer, who threw for 6,023 yards last season, reached the halfway point this season with 2,587.
What Baltimore has to do to win: Cash in touchdowns, not field goals, when it gets in the red zone. The CFLs can only squander so many opportunities before it comes back to burn them. They need a good game from Ham, recovering from a torn quadriceps muscle, and workhorse Pringle. And the defense must rise to the occasion of playing a potent offense for the first time in three weeks. The pass rush will be critical.
Injury report: Sacramento -- RB Mike Oliphant (thigh) is out. Baltimore -- SB Shawn Beals (hamstring) is out; QB Ham (thigh), NT Jearld Baylis (biceps) and RE Elfrid Payton (knee) will start.
BOutlook: After a four-week diet of Eastern Division also-rans, the CFLs face a formidable Western opponent. This is the game Pringle has been waiting for since Sacramento traded him in May. Pringle rolled for 232 yards last week and appears to be at his grinding best. With Ham coming back from his injury, look for Pringle to get the ball often -- and deliver. The key could be whether the Baltimore pass rush reaches Archer, who stands tough in the pocket.
MEET THE GOLD MINERS
History: The Gold Miners became the CFL's first U.S.-based franchise on Feb. 26, 1993. They went 6-12 in their first season, establishing the league record for a first-year team.
Ownership: The team is owned by Fred Anderson, a fourth-generation Sacramento native and founder of Pacific Coast Building Products Inc., one of America's largest privately owned companies.
Key players: QB David Archer ranks seventh in passing efficiency with 2,587 yards, 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. SB Rod Harris is the big-play receiver with 43 catches and eight touchdowns. He also ranks second in punt return yards, including one for 102 yards. FB Troy Mills is the leading rusher with 432 yards and a 6.8 average. DT Willie Fears leads the team in sacks with five and LB Maurice Miller in tackles with 42.