He was 230 pounds when he came into the league, and Bo Lokombo still weighs thereabouts. But he’s a lot lighter these days, no longer carrying a massive chip on his shoulder.
The Abbotsford product wasn’t drafted after four seasons playing linebacker with the Oregon Ducks, a shoulder injury sending him tumbling down the charts, and he ended up playing three seasons with the B.C. Lions before trying his hand at the NFL again.
He bounced around the practice rosters of the Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers for all of 2017, but found himself back in B.C. this year. The 6-3, Congo-born defensive player showcased his ability to be an elite defender, recording a team-high 87 total tackles, four sacks and two interceptions — the latter two numbers leading the linebacking corps — and was the team’s nominee for Outstanding Canadian.
“The first couple of years, coming out of Oregon, my initial thought was ‘Oh my god, I’m at Oregon, I’m playing D1, I want to go to the league,’” said the 28-year-old.
“So when I got hurt and had to come to the CFL, I was a little bit mad at myself, like ‘what did I do wrong?’ So I came in with the attitude, the wrong frame of mind, the wrong mindset, the first couple years.
“Coming back was crazy. Football, in general, it’s a lot of up and downs. So be able to come back and play for the home team was great for me. I had one of my better seasons this year because I was so focused.”
Lokombo took his NFL experience to heart, integrating the lessons he learned into his day-to-day approach to the game. He trained — hard — and came into last off-season with a fresh mentality, with specific personal goals. It paid off.
His 71 defensive tackles ranks only behind corners T.J. Lee and Garry Peters, despite only starting the past five games. He’s made some game-changing plays, including his first two career interceptions in back-to-back games against Montreal and Ottawa in September.
“I wanted to go down to the States and prove myself, and prove that I could play with the big boys,” he said. “(The NFL experience) humbled me. If anything, it taught me that it’s all business. They’re going to make moves and decisions for the team’s best interest.
“It’s a big business, and it’s really hard to get into, because it’s such a small (amount of players) and such a high demand. You can be replaced in a heartbeat. That’s probably the toughest thing. No one is really special.
“You really have to work hard, and have a little bit of luck on your side, too. So when I came back this fourth year, I took it all in. And that’s why they see a big change in me. I’m a more focused Bo.”
Lokombo helped a defence missing future Hall of Fame linebacker Solomon Elimimian into a ball-hawking, high-pressure unit, as B.C. led the league in pass knock-downs, tied for tops in interceptions (21) and sacks (45).
Big, fast and strong, Lokombo’s versatility allowed Lions’ defensive coordinator Mark Washington a degree of freedom in his play-calling.
“The word I think about when I think of him is ‘maturing,’” said Washington. “He’s getting more and more mature every day, physically, mentally, and I think his life is starting to round out a little more, and that just allows him to come here and play.
“He’s starting to become a better football player because he’s thinking the game. Physically, he’s always been freakish. But now, you put that with the maturity and the mind, and now you have the development of a very good football player.”
Elimimian, who will suit up for Sunday’s playoff game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after being sidelined since Week 6 with a wrist injury, echoed Washington’s sentiment.
“He’s a talented player, an athletic player, and one I think we’ve done a good job incorporating into this defence, and using his skill set,” Elimimian said. “Whether it’s sacks, interceptions, tackles, he can do it all. He just keep progressing. The sky’s the limit. He can be as great as he wants to be.”
The same can be said of the defence as a whole. Their monumental task — no Western squad has crossed over to the East and made a Grey Cup — begins against a team that topped the league in net yards (405.6) and scored 28.5 points per game, third-most in the CFL.
The Ticats (8-10) averaged just over 30 offensive points against the Lions (9-9) in their two meetings this season, with B.C. making an epic comeback in the only overtime game of the year, winning 35-32, then following it up with an epic thud the following week at Tim Hortons Field, losing 40-10.
For a team that went 2-7 on the road, and averaged 30.2 points against away from B.C. Place, Sunday represents a huge challenge.
“I think a lot of people are going to count us out. The odds are against us,” Lokombo said. “Obviously, we haven’t been good on the road. But it’s different this time.
“It’s never been done before, but this team is so relentless, we’ve grown so much over this season. If any team could do it, it’s probably us.”
Sunday | East Semifinal
B.C. Lions at Hamilton Tiger-Cats
10 a.m., Tim Hortons Field, TSN, TSN 1040 AM
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