HEART AND SOUL: Redblacks players work out while waiting for training camp to open

“We’re all anticipating this is going to be over at some point and we’re going to play football.”

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Heart and soul. That’s what the CFL has in its players, many of whom have sacrificed so much in their football journey — a path that is often littered with adversity and heartbreak and more life lessons than most of us could ever battle through.

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And, now, they wait. Training camp should have started Sunday for the Ottawa Redblacks. Four days later, after the CFL walked away from collective bargaining agreement talks, the players anxiously hope for a settlement—something that is fair. Something that doesn’t give them the short end of the stick they’ve been left with too many times in past negotiations. Something that rewards them for their loyalty and sweat equity. Something that recognizes the lifeline and pipeline to the fans they really are.

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Could the dispute end today? Or tomorrow? Yes, it could. As of Wednesday night, they were edging closer to an agreement.

Less than two km away from the stadium at TD Place, at Carleton University, more than 60 Redblacks were doing their thing on a football field Wednesday morning. The players want to be ready. A canceled 2020 season and a delayed start to 2021 aren’t that far in the rear-view mirror. Players want to practise. And they want to play.

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Training camp is when stories are weaved, where players talk about their triumphs and their tragedies, their struggles and their highlights. And they ooze passion for a game they’ve fallen in love with. Training camp is when teammates from different provinces, states and countries come together. All for one and one for all.

“We’re all anticipating this is going to be over at some point and we’re going to play football,” said running back/special-teamer Brendan Gillanders, to Redblack since the 2016 Gray Cup season. “There are a lot of distractions going on off the field right now, but (Antoine Pruneau) and I are trying to shoulder as much of that responsibility as we can so these guys can just concern themselves with learning the playbook. We’re professional athletes, none of us are going to be okay with losing, none of us are going to use this as an excuse. We want to try and get as big of a jump as we can. It’s important for us to come out here and start building the relationship between each other and start acting like a family.”

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It was a busy-in-a-good-way off-season for Gillanders and his wife Sarah. Their son Jacob is eight months old. While Gillanders has some community projects in the works and helps prepare young athletes in the gym, being a daddy has been a wonderful addition to his daily routine.

“I absolutely love being a dad,” he said. “Sarah probably felt like she was ready before me. Jacob’s crawling, he’s a fast little guy; he scoots around the house trying to get into trouble. We have the safety gates up and all the plugs covered. He’s saying ‘Dada,’ he’s saying, ‘Mama.’ He is such a blessing. Life is so fulfilling every single day. You spend eight hours with him and it’s like, ‘Man, when is his bedtime? This is hard work after the training.’ Then 10 minutes after you put him down (to bed), it’s like ‘Man, I want to wake him up.’ It’s one of those things where everyone says you don’t understand the feeling until you become a dad and it’s been 100 per cent true. He makes every day so enjoyable.”

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Defensive back Sherrod Baltimore has been a Redblack since 2017. He’s become a fan favorite and hosted a youth football camp — the Friends and Family Day — earlier this month at TD Place. He has spent the off-season in Ottawa and calls it his “adopted home.” He’s optimistic this year’s Redblacks — with several new faces — will be much improved from teams that won just three games in each of the 2019 and 2021 seasons. He also empathizes with his teammates.

“We’ve got people here with families at home and rent to pay and stuff like that; they’ve got business to take care of,” he said. “So this is tough. Imagine bringing a guy here and telling him to leave his family when he’s got four kids. He just bought a house at home and it’s going on a week now. If they were at home and had a job that was paying the bills and stuff … We’re not just football players, we’re humans, too.

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“We’re trying to keep the team focused. We’ve got something special going here so we have to stay and keep it going. We want to be on top, we want to compete for a championship.”

After two successful seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, receiver Jaelon Acklin signed with the Redblacks as a free agent. He developed an interest in football when he was young; his dad Darin was the head football coach at Liberty High School in Mountain View, a small town in Missouri.

“I’d go watch practice, I always wanted to be like those guys,” said Acklin. “I always wanted to be great. All I thought about was football. I didn’t go on vacations, I didn’t go to prom, I was just always doing football stuff.”

In the off-season Acklin bought a house, near the Ocean Springs beach, in Mississippi. He lived there with his dog Lolo, a Red Heeler named after Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones (Acklin was a state champion in hurdles). A week ago, Acklin made a 36-hour trek by car to Ottawa — with some naps in between the driving.

He’s excited about getting to know his new teammates.

Said Acklin: “That’s probably my favorite part about football — meeting new people, talking to them and learning about their personalities. It’s definitely nice to get out here and play some football with my buds.”

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