On the eve of their biggest game yet, OTTAWA magazine’s Romeo Maione goes behind the scenes with the Redblacks and discovers they have come to love the capital as much as the capital now loves them. Photo above, courtesy of Matt Albright.
Damaso Munoz’s five-year-old son, Damaso Maddix Jr., has some choice words for his linebacker dad: “You better win your next game so I can learn how to make a snowman in Winnipeg.”
Talk about pressure.
The Ottawa Redblacks are only one victory away from playing in the Grey Cup, which Ottawa football fans haven’t seen since 1981.
And while the nation’s capital is a little colder than Munoz’s hometown of Miami, he warmed up to Ottawa pretty fast.
“The fans are amazing here,” he says. “We play for each other but we play for the city more than anything. It would be amazing to bring a championship to Ottawa because it’s been such a dope place to live.”
Munoz is anything but the typical picture of a professional athlete. From his modest Hintonburg apartment to his quiet demeanor, he’s about as far from a cocky superstar as I’ve ever met. And he’s not alone in his humble lifestyle. Many of the players live in small flats, often rooming together, far away from friends, family, and the familiarity of their hometowns. There’s certainly no Cristal, sports cars, or swagger to be seen on this night, only hours before their biggest game.
The unassuming disposition is all the more impressive considering the team has had a season worth crowing about — which was not the case last season.
“When you’re winning, everything is definitely brighter,” says offensive lineman Colin Kelly, noting the mood has improved a lot since last year, when the team won only two games and found itself last in the league.
But the dramatic turnaround doesn’t mean the players party like their NFL counterparts. Right now, it’s all work and no play.
I met Munoz at the Carleton Tavern expecting to have a couple pints, but was surprised to learn the team doesn’t do a lot of drinking.
“We try to stick to a routine during the season,” Munoz said while sipping iced water. A routine, it seems, that includes a whole lot of practice and not that much beer.
When I sat down with Kelly and some teammates for fish tacos and more iced water at Lansdowne’s Local, a waitress lamented she never gets time off when the Redblacks play. The guys were quick to respond, “us either.”
Most players are lucky to get one day off a week, and even then they typically spend it working out at the Lansdowne GoodLife gym. Even players on the practice roster, like offensive tackle Jake Silas, aren’t afforded a ton of free time. But he definitely believes it’s all worth it.
“I was so happy when the Redblacks called me out of the blue. I thought I was going to have to start a regular life,” says Silas, echoing a sentiment common among the players.
Silas, who grew up in a small Michigan farming town, says he’s “been working up to a city like Ottawa.” He went to college in Buffalo, but even that was much smaller than the Canadian capital. He says what he loves most about his adopted city is that “there’s always something cool to do here” and is genuinely surprised to hear that’s not always Ottawa’s reputation in Canada.
Players seem equally surprised that Lansdowne was a desolate parking lot a mere two years ago.
Quinn Backus, a linebacker from South Carolina on the practice roster, said his first impression when he saw TD Place was, “Damn. That’s a damn nice stadium.”
Backus is definitely no fan of Ottawa weather, though.
“When I go outside it’s like getting punched in the face,” he said of the comparatively mild mid-November weather. He gently complained that, “it never gets this cold in Myrtle Beach.”
When the season ends, Backus is returning south to resume work as a guidance councilor at a group home. The job had been sidelined temporarily to pursue his dreams as a professional athlete.
“It’s important to me to be a role model for kids,” he says. “Part of me can’t wait to get back.”
As much as the team loves their adopted city, and as much as they all admit they’re living their dream, some of them do appear a little homesick.
Damaso Munoz says he can’t wait to get back to his wife and son, whom he sees only rarely during the season. Colin Kelly is excited to return to his fiancée in Texas, and Jake Silas to his girlfriend in Michigan.
It’s not true for every player though.
Offensive lineman Matt Albright is originally from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, but says he now considers himself an Ottawan.
“This is where I live now.”