As CFL kicks off season, Toronto QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson is keeping his dream alive

McLeod Bethel-Thompson always had a big arm, but he didn't learn how to be a passer until he joined the CFL. John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There is a part of an NFL practice when identities are meaningless. It's just a group of quarterbacks taking their drops in unison, throwing footballs simultaneously to receivers scattered across the field. For those precious few moments, throughout 13 separate tenures with a half-dozen teams, it was easy to project McLeod Bethel-Thompson as an elite NFL quarterback.

The ball left his hand differently, even in comparison to established teammates such as Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, Tom Brady in New England and Sam Bradford in Philadelphia. It sliced through the air with a unique level of zip, distance and even sound. After seeing it, an observer might look back at the 6-foot-4, 236-pound quarterback and wonder.

How is that guy not a starter?

A big arm allowed Bethel-Thompson to flip a football 76 yards in high school. It procured him time with 20% of the NFL's teams. And it got him bounced from each opportunity, he says now with irony and regret. The last was a failed minicamp tryout with the Jets in 2017, a moment that left him with a choice: retire or accept an offer to join the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. He chose the latter. And that's where Bethel-Thompson learned the passing skills he needed to pair with that arm. When the CFL's 2022 season opens this week (Montreal vs. Calgary, 9 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN+), he'll be entrenched as the Argonauts' full-time starter.

"I really feel like I kind of self-destructed myself out of the NFL," Bethel-Thompson said recently by phone. "No one ever told me I couldn't play, talent-wise. I was kind of dealing with some life crisis stuff and wasn't emotionally ready to do it.

"Coming up here was to kind of resurrect myself and try to figure out a new identity as a football player."

Neither the Elias Sports Bureau nor ESPN Stats & Information tracks player movement among leagues, but there haven't been many quarterbacks as well-traveled as Bethel-Thompson. He played college football at both UCLA and Sacramento State. Undrafted and largely unknown to the NFL in 2011, he made stops in both the Arena League and United Football League (UFL). His NFL journey included multiple stints with the 49ers, Vikings, Dolphins and Eagles, and a quick one with the Patriots. When the CFL canceled its 2020 season during the COVID-19 pandemic, he stayed sharp in The Spring League.

He thought his career might end in the summer of 2015, when the Dolphins released him after he threw four interceptions in 34 passes over three preseason games. He had aged out of the NFL's practice squad eligibility rules at the time, and an opportunity with the Eagles in 2016 left him little chance of beating out starter Carson Wentz or veteran backup Chase Daniel.

He had not risen beyond the third spot on the depth chart and never appeared in a regular-season game. With all the downtime, he mindlessly buried himself in the weight room, performing squat sets designed for players at other positions. Seeking to reconcile his disappointment, Bethel-Thompson sought opinions. One stood out, he said. Years after the Vikings released him for the final time, in 2014, he heard a biting assessment from a Minnesota assistant coach through a third party. In basketball terms, he was a player who would win the dunk contest but couldn't play 5-on-5.

"I threw the ball too hard," Bethel-Thompson said. "I wish someone had told me that at the time, and I would have worked on it. So now I try to tell as many young quarterbacks as I can, especially the strong-armed ones, and tell them those stories. You start building it up and saying, 'This is my ticket, this is the way I'm going to make it. I can outthrow everybody. Let me show them that.' It's almost like your biggest strength is your biggest weakness. You start relying on it and you don't become a passer.

"You have to develop other parts of your game. Develop it on the move. Develop it at different angles. Change speeds. Just like a good pitcher. And that was something that wasn't told to me. I was just charging ahead, doing more squats and throwing the ball harder each day."

Since arriving in Canada, Bethel-Thompson has stopped the heavy squat routines. He lost 16 pounds to facilitate better movement from the pocket. And he was willing to work through the multiyear process it typically takes an American quarterback to adjust to the CFL game, using that time to calibrate his velocity and remake his body.

Some parts of the CFL were made for a player of his skills. Until a recent change in the field hash marks, CFL quarterbacks would be asked to throw the ball 45 yards to the sideline to complete a 5-yard out pass. Other facets of the Canadian game, such as learning how to read a 12-man defense, simply take time.

Bethel-Thompson spent most of the 2017 season on the sideline, got eight starts in 2018 and 13 in 2019 before taking over full time once the CFL resumed play in 2021. He led the Argonauts to the Eastern Final, and now, at age 34, the team is pinning its Grey Cup hopes on his newly calibrated arm.

"He's played in a lot of places down south and bounced around to multiple systems," coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. "I think it helps him. In his second year, he picked it up from his first year, and this year he's really going to take the reins. We've seen him much more comfortable in training camp."

The Argonauts are hedging their bets, of course. Another NFL journeyman, Chad Kelly, has impressed many Canadian observers and is likely to be Bethel-Thompson's backup. Dinwiddie said "Mac's our guy right now," but he made it clear that Kelly has a chance to be a future starter.

Bethel-Thompson hasn't ruled out a potential return to the NFL -- "Every offseason I throw with NFL guys, and I still haven't met one that can outthrow me" -- but he knows the CFL is probably his best and final chance to be the player he has always thought he could be.

"The transition to come up here, to humble yourself, to be a rookie again," he said, "and I don't say it with an ego or vindictively, but a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL couldn't do it. It's just too hard of a transition. ... I know that I can still hang [in the NFL] if need be, if the opportunity comes.

"But here, this is just about me becoming my best self and playing that one game where I can say, 'That was me. That was really me.' And I still haven't even come close."