HEART AND SOUL: Redblacks players train as they wait for training camp to open

“We all assume that at some point this will be over and we will 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 often littered with adversity and heartbreak and more life lessons than most of us could ever fight through.

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They waited. Training camp should have started on Sunday for the Ottawa Redblacks. Four days later, after the CFL exited collective bargaining, players were anxiously hoping for a settlement – something that was fair. Something that they have not lost out too often in past negotiations. Something that rewarded her for her loyalty and sweat justice. Something that recognized the lifeline and pipeline to the fans who they really are. That something became part of a tentative seven-year CBA deal reached Wednesday night. It now needs the approval of the players in the league.

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A memo from the CFLPA to its players, tweeted Wednesday night by TSN’s Farhan Lalji, said, “We will notify the league that we have approved a memorandum of agreement that we have ended our strike,” Lalji reported that some – maybe all – teams will practice on Thursday. It sounds like the Redblacks will be among them, possibly in the afternoon if all goes well.

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Less than a mile from Carleton University’s TD Place stadium, more than 60 red-blacks were doing their thing on a football field Wednesday morning. The players want to be ready. A canceled 2020 season and a delayed start in 2021 are not that far in the rearview mirror. The players want to practice. And they want to play.

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

“We all assume that eventually this will be over and we’ll play football,” said running back/special teamer Brendan Gillanders, Redblack since the 2016 Gray Cup season. “There are a lot of off-field distractions right now, but (Antoine Pruneau) and I are trying to take on as much responsibility as we can so these guys can just focus on learning the playbook. We are professional athletes, none of us will accept losing, none of us will use that as an excuse. We want to try to jump as far as possible. It’s important that we come here and start to relate to each other and act like family.”

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It’s been quite a busy off-season for Gillanders and his wife Sarah. Her 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 father has been a wonderful addition to his everyday life.

“I absolutely love being a dad,” he said. “Sarah probably felt like she was ready before me. Jacob crawls, he’s a fast little guy; He runs around the house trying to get into trouble. We covered the security doors on top and all the plugs. He says ‘Dada’, he says ‘Mama’. He’s such a blessing. Life is so fulfilling every day. You spend eight hours with him and it’s like, ‘Man, what time is his bedtime? That’s hard post-workout work.” 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 that everyone says you don’t get the feeling of until you become a dad, and it’s 100 percent true. He makes every day so enjoyable.”

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Defensive defender Sherrod Baltimore has been a redblack since 2017. He has become a fan favorite and hosted a youth football camp – Friends and Family Day – at TD Place earlier this month. He spent the off-season in Ottawa and calls it his “adopted home.” He’s optimistic this year’s Redblacks – with several new faces – will improve greatly from teams that only won three games each in the 2019 and 2021 seasons. He also feels empathetic towards his teammates.

“We have people here who have families at home and have to pay rent and things like that; they have to go about their business,” he said. “So this is tough. Imagine you bring a guy over here and tell him to leave his family when he has four kids. He just bought a house at home and it’s going on for a week now. If they were at home and had a job that paid the bills and stuff… We’re not just football players, we’re people too.

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“WWe try to keep the team focused. We have something special going on here so we have to stay and keep going. We want to be at the top, we want to fight for a championship.”

After two successful seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, receiver Jaelon Acklin signed as a free agent with the Redblacks. From a young age he was interested in football; His father Darin was the head football coach at Liberty High School in Mountain View, a small town in Missouri.

“I went to practice, I always wanted to be like those guys,” Acklin said. “I always wanted to be great. I only thought about football. I didn’t go on vacations, I didn’t go to prom, I just always did football stuff.

During the off-season, Acklin bought a home near the beach at Ocean Springs, Mississippi. He lived there with his dog Lolo, a Red Heeler named after Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones (Acklin was a state hurdler). A week ago, Acklin made a 36-hour drive to Ottawa — with a few naps in between drives.

He is looking forward to meeting his new teammates.

Acklin said: “That’s probably my favorite part of football – meeting new people, talking to them and learning more about their personalities. It’s definitely nice to get out here and play football with my mates.”

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