One successful drive preceded Frankie Hickson’s dazzling debut with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
In the spring of 2022, Hickson hit the highway and headed to Atlanta, where the Green and White had scheduled an open tryout.
The past 2 ½ years had been trying for Hickson, who had not played a game of organized football since rushing for 120 yards for the Liberty Flames against Georgia Southern in the Cure Bowl on Dec. 21, 2019.
“I was pretty much leaning towards retiring completely,” Hickson recalls, “and going the coaching route.”
Then he took an inter-state route and everything changed.
Hickson was so impressive during his workout that, while driving back home to Forest, Va., he received a quick follow-up call from a member of the Roughriders’ player-personnel department.
“On the way back after that exhausting day, I get a call and it’s Paul Jones,” Hickson says of the Roughriders’ assistant general manager. “He’s kind of adamant about getting more information about me. I’m kind of thinking, ‘This is a very, very good thing right now.’
“He was talking about calling my old college coaches — one of them being Kent Austin, who has done amazing things in Saskatchewan — for more information. I kind of figured right there that things had turned my way.
“I probably had to wait another 24 hours. I got home to Virginia safely and by the next morning, about 11 o’clock, they were sending the contract to me. It was such a quick turnaround because that was also two weeks before training camp.”
After turning more heads at camp in Saskatoon, he made the CFL team’s roster and was ultimately named the Roughriders’ rookie of the year after rushing for 633 yards. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry, with one of those rushes being a 63-yard touchdown.
“I went from staying at my parents’ house and having just the stuff that I had from college and my parents looking out for me,” Hickson says. “Now I’m a professional athlete who’s getting an opportunity to go to a free-agent camp. You literally take every day as a blessing and you make the most of it.”
That he did, especially when it was time for the route-running and pass-catching drills in Atlanta.
“Things just felt way easier than they had felt the last time I had played,” Hickson says. “You have to remember that I hadn’t played since being in a bowl game in 2019. Then I go all the way to 2022 and it’s like nothing has fallen off. If anything, it’s better than it was before.
“Now, for the 2 ½ years that I’ve been in the dark, all I’ve done is work and grind and work on my craft. I’ve seen these things come to fruition in front of my eyes. So I did kind of have an ‘aha!’ moment. That’s how I had confidence going into training camp.”
The confidence was buoyed by a head-turner of a pre-season debut. He rushed for a team-high 47 yards on six carries on May 31 against the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“The holes just felt wide-open the whole game,” Hickson says. “I didn’t have a lot of carries, but it felt like I had taken another step.”
Examples such as this underline the value of the open tryouts, such as the five sessions that the Roughriders have scheduled for 2023.
This year’s free-agent camps are to be held in Cincinnati (on April 2), Los Angeles (April 8), Dallas (April 16), Fort Lauderdale (April 23) and Atlanta (May 6). (For more information, visit https://www.riderville.com/open-tryouts/)
In past years, the Roughriders have been able to add valuable contributors such as Hickson and two linebackers of note — Derrick Moncrief and Sam Eguavoen — after they attended open tryouts.
“We’re trying to uncover the diamonds in the rough,” Roughriders assistant GM Kyle Carson says.
“There’s a never-ending pool of undiscovered talent out there. The workouts are designed to discover players who, for whatever reason, have been overlooked by the NFL or maybe teams in the CFL. For some reason, maybe they didn’t have a great combine or a great pro day and somehow slipped through the cracks.”
Sort of like Hickson, who has shown that he can slip through a crack in the line of scrimmage and take off for, say, a 63-yard score.
On that play, and on other occasions, he demonstrated an ability to hit top speed — and the hole — within a split-second. It often looks as though he has been shot out of a cannon.
“The point of the game is to get from Point A to Point B,” Hickson explains. “There’s a lot of guys who can do a whole bunch of different things to get from Point A to Point B, but ultimately the fastest way to do that is by going straight.
“You don’t make football harder than it has to be. It’s a numbers game and it’s an effort game. As long as you and your coaches are on the same page and as long as everybody is giving the same amount of effort, that’s why you see me being shot out of a cannon.
“Ultimately, when all 46 players and the coaches are on the same page, that’s when we win. It all goes back to knowing who you’re fighting for, which is Rider Nation and Regina and Saskatchewan.”
A city and a province that were not on his radar until one career-changing day in Atlanta.
“After being told ‘no’ so many times, you kind of feel that it’s time to just take it and run with it,” Hickson reflects. “I took every day as if it was my last because it could be my last. But I also came into that camp with an expectation that this was it. That was where I was supposed to be and when I was supposed to be there.
“Everything worked out perfectly — how it was supposed to be and how God intended. There’s a great confidence that you can go into a designated path towards good and, regardless of what happens in this life — the ups, the downs, the side-to-sides — as long as you stay consistent, your time will come.”