HEART AND SOUL: the players of the Rouge et Noir train while waiting for the opening of the training camp

“We all expect it to end 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 often fraught with adversity and heartbreak and more life lessons than most of us could ever walk through.

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They waited. Training camp should have started on Sunday for the Ottawa Redblacks. Four days later, after the CFL pulled out of collective bargaining talks, the players were eagerly hoping for a settlement, which was fair. Something that didn’t give them the small end of the stick that has been left to them too many times in past negotiations. Something that rewarded them for their loyalty and sweat fairness. Something that recognized the lifeline and fan pipeline that they truly are. That something became part of a seven-year tentative deal with the CBA reached Wednesday night. It will now require the agreement of the players of the league.

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

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Less than a mile from TD Place Stadium at Carleton University, more than 60 Rouge et Noirs were doing their thing on a football field Wednesday morning. Players want to be ready. A canceled 2020 season and a postponed start to 2021 are not that far off in the rearview mirror. Players want to practice. And they want to play.

Training camp is where stories are woven, where players talk about their triumphs and tragedies, their struggles and their highlights. And they are brimming with passion for a game they fell in love with. Training camp is the time when teammates from different provinces, states and countries get together. One for all and all for one.

“We all expect this to end at some point and we’re going to play some football,” said running back/special team Brendan Gillanders, a Rouge et Noir since the 2016 Gray Cup season. “There are a lot of distractions off the pitch at the moment, but (Antoine Pruneau) and I are trying to take as much responsibility as possible so these guys can worry about learning the playbook. We are athletes professionals, none of us are going to accept losing, none of us are going to use that as an excuse. We want to try and take the biggest leap possible. It’s important for us to come here and start building a relationship between us and to act as a family.

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It’s been a busy offseason in a good way for Gillanders and his wife Sarah. Their son Jacob is eight months old. While Gillanders has ongoing community projects and helps prepare young athletes for the gym, being a dad has been a wonderful addition to his daily routine.

“I love being a dad,” he said. “Sarah probably felt like she was ready before me. Jacob is crawling, he’s a quick little guy; he’s walking around the house trying to get in trouble. We’ve got the security gates up and all the taken covered. He says ‘dad,’ he says ‘mom.’ bedtime? It’s hard work after training. Then 10 minutes after you put him down (in 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 100% true He makes every day so enjoyable.

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

“We have people here with families at home and rent to pay and stuff like that; they have business to attend to,” he said. “So it’s tough. Imagine bringing a guy here and telling him to leave his family when he has four kids. He just bought a house back home and it’s been going on for a week now. If they were home and had a job that paid the bills and everything… We’re not just football players, we’re humans too.

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

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

“I was going to watch 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 vacation, I didn’t go to prom, I was always doing football stuff.

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

He is delighted to get to know his new teammates.

Acklin said: “That’s probably my favorite thing about football: meeting new people, talking to them and discovering their personalities. It’s really nice to hang out here and play football with my friends.

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