LEWISTON – David Ungerer III said he’s “nothing but blessed.”
In murky times, the former shifty standout receiver at Idaho who had attended high school 7 miles west in Pullman has reason to feel some amount of certainty in regard to his football career. When the sports world boots back up, he knows he’ll be sporting No. 83 again for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
It’ll be a chance at a professional breakout for Ungerer, who appeared in 10 games as a rookie last season, missing the first two months with a hamstring injury sustained in training camp.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world,” said Ungerer, a common name to boom through the loudspeakers of the Kibbie Dome between 2014-18. “I have a great family around me that loves and supports me. As a kid, winning state championships and playing Division I sports was all I had in mind. And now, I get to continue to do what I love at the pro level.”
Ungerer was the 11th overall pick (second round) in last May’s CFL draft for a team he “prayed” would nab him. It meant he’d be situated closely to family after a prolonged duration of growing up away from them – they were scattered about for various reasons while he was in Moscow. His father Dave, a longtime collegiate coach, had spent a few seasons at Washington State before getting a job elsewhere. His mother, Sylvia, had returned to her native St. Catharines, Ontario (just outside of Toronto), to attend to important family matters.
“My mom’s side of the family is really close to Hamilton, so that’s one of the biggest blessings,” Ungerer said. “I didn’t get to spend much time with them, because we were always moving in the U.S.”
Hamilton had also been in contact longest with the 5-foot-10, 170-pound offensive and special teams captain and all-state Greyhound, who admits he was a notch or two under the radar, and who’d considered early retirement a couple of times midway through his Vandals career.
“I wasn’t really focused; I had lost my drive to accomplish what I wanted to. I let the uncontrollable factors cause the controllables to diminish,” he said. “I remember distinctly before the (2017) Missouri game, thinking, ‘This is my last year.’ Then the second half of the season, things got better for me personally, and I got motivated. I was super focused my senior year. I’m nothing but grateful for my journey at Idaho. I learned so much about myself.”
As a senior, Ungerer lived with Sylvia on the Palouse, which helped him greatly to concentrate on “being the best I can be” in terms of everyday work ethic and academics.
It turned out nicely. Ungerer ended up a third-team All-Big Sky receiver and an honorable mention for his punt returning. Over his career, the sure-handed No. 2 had 1,225 yards on 116 catches, adding 12 total touchdowns. He led the Vandals with 697 yards in 2018 as coach Paul Petrino’s most trusted pass catcher.
The Tiger-Cats were taking note, and Ungerer’s father had assured him the CFL was a legitimate possibility, as it’s been many times before for UI stars.
“My redshirt junior year, I’d heard Hamilton liked me, and that was before I’d earned my citizenship. … I didn’t get it until a month before the draft,” said Ungerer, who impressed at UI’s pro day last year but didn’t hear from many NFL teams and decided against the CFL combine. “So I didn’t know how the process would go. There wasn’t much time (for teams) to see what kind of player I was.”
Ungerer figured he’d land somewhere between picks 25 to 35. But after acquiring proof of citizenship, he saw an article circulating online from a CFL insider that indicated leaguewide interest was rising.
“With the 10th pick, (the Tiger-Cats) took a receiver before me, so I was like, ‘There’s no way it’s gonna happen now,’ ” Ungerer said. “… Then when I heard it was them, I was just happy as heck. My mom and dad were with me, and we were all excited.
“The team we wanted the whole time.”
The Tiger-Cats, despite a slew of early injuries to starters, had a league-best regular season record of 15-3. They finished runner-up to Winnipeg at a Grey Cup underlined by more injuries. Ungerer didn’t play in the final but took in the environment from the sideline.
Ungerer, a traditional slot receiver who often lined up outside, had 44 yards on a pair of receptions and returned two punts for 15 yards. He had an all-time highlight on Nov. 2 against rival Toronto, adjusting to a ball in-flight and making an improbable back-shoulder catch for 36 yards on second-and-long.
“I knew I could play in this league after the first two days of training camp; I knew I had the ability and my style could fit,” he said. “But on the third day of camp, I tore a muscle in my hamstring. So that really put a hold on the start of my career.”
Of his hamstring injury, Ungerer sees it as a “blessing.” He learned how to best take care of his body, and straightened out a training regiment while honing the mental aspect of his game and nailing down the quirks of the CFL rulebook – like the larger field, unusual formations, three downs and the receivers’ running starts, for instance.
“Athletes are kinesthetic learners. I’ve learned my whole life by doing it, but that injury forced me to buckle down on studying, doing extra work with coaches, walk-throughs, and meeting every day,” Ungerer said.
Ungerer soaked in advice from receivers coach Jarryd Baines and was sure to commend teammates Shamawd Chambers, a league journeyman, former Arizona State running back and locker mate Cameron Marshall, and veteran slotback Luke Tasker, out of Cornell, for “giving me some great knowledge and helping me through a tough time.”
“(We had success) because our guys in the organization were close-knit, then everyone just performed on game day,” he said. “There were guys we really needed to be great that got hurt, but the crazy thing is, when another guy came in, we didn’t miss a beat.”
Ungerer resides in Lady Lake, Florida, with his grandmother. While he waits word from the CFL – which has pushed the season back until at least July – amid the spread of the coronavirus, Ungerer has been beefing up his financial literacy, and staying fit and focused, eager for the call to return to Hamilton for a run at a starting role, and perhaps a Grey Cup.
“I’m a lucky individual, and it’s my responsibility to make the most of it,” he said.
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