By: Santino Filoso
Vancouver born and raised, today’s guest, Mike Vilimek, played RB and LB in high school before going on to set school records at Simon Fraser University. Drafted with the second of two 1st round picks the Renegades held in the 2002 CFL draft, Vilimek played for 3 years in Ottawa before signing with Montreal as a free agent in 2005.
As a Vancouver native, did you get out to a lot of Lions games as a kid?
Yes. My most memorable was the 1994 Grey Cup, when the Lions faced the Baltimore Stallions. I was only 15 at the time and was offered a pair of tickets at the last minute. After Lui Passaglia kicked the game-winning field goal for the Lions, the building erupted. It was a great experience.
You played university football at Simon Fraser, setting a school record for most rushing yards in a game with 315. What do you remember about that day?
Often when a back sets a rushing record, the game is a blowout. Not in this case. We were in a close back-and-forth match-up with Humboldt State University. We ended up needing every one of those yards to beat them 37-34. I also surpassed the SFU single season rushing record that game so it was a very special day for me.
The Renegades selected you 2nd overall in the 2002 draft, did you feel any pressure being drafted so high?
Not really. All the excitement of the team’s inaugural season plus the fact that every player on the team was a first-year Renegade lessened the focus on rookies like myself. That being said, I had success running the ball in our first pre-season game which I think probably set higher expectations for me than being drafted 2nd overall did. Unfortunately, that success in the pre-season didn’t translate into opportunities to carry the ball in the regular season.
During your time in Ottawa you often were the lead blocker for Josh Ranek, who was nicknamed “The Little Ball of Hate”. As a FB why did you enjoy blocking for a guy like that?
Josh got that nickname because every time he touched the ball, he ran with it like he was angry. And he had a lot of success doing it. Off the field, he was very polite, no ego, and was one of the nicest guys on the team. Blocking for a guy like that is always fun.
A lot of people blame the Renegades ownership for being a distraction to the team, did you ever feel that way?
Not really. I can’t say it was ever a distraction to me as a player. However, I left for Montreal as a free agent after the 2004 season, so I never experienced ownership under the Gliebermans. But if you ask players from the 2005 season, they may have a different story.
Throughout your career you were a special teams ace, making numerous tackles on kick coverage. What’s the trick to containing a dangerous returner?
Usually a dangerous returner is going to be faster than you, so the only way to contain him is to use the sidelines, your teammates, and by keeping proper angles. You can’t allow him to turn it into a foot race because you’ll lose.
How did you pump yourself up before a big game?
Some guys like to listen to music or yell and jump up and down. My routine was more about visualization. I’d walk through the game in my mind and visualize the plays I would make. That way when the game started I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
What was the best hit you ever gave and the worst you received?
The best hit I gave was in a game versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. I lined up as a slot receiver just outside the defensive end. The play was designed to come wide to my side so at the snap of the ball, the defensive end came up field thinking he had a free run at the QB. He never saw it coming. It was one of those hits where the guy goes airborne. For the rest of the game, I could see him looking where I was lined up before each play.
The worst hit I received wasn’t one of those highlight real hits and it’s not the kind of hit many fans would even notice. When you’re in a pile of people and someone gets a running start at you, the momentum from the hit has no where to go but to be absorbed by your body. Those hits hurt the most.
In 2005 you signed with Montreal and went on to become a goal line specialist, scoring 5 TDs that season. Did you do anything differently that year or was it just a case of the coach giving you an opportunity?
I never got much of a chance to contribute as a ball carrier with Ottawa. I had success running the ball in the pre-season three years in a row, (interestingly enough against Montreal, who I would eventually sign with as a free agent) but that pre-season success in Ottawa never transferred to opportunities in the regular season. In my first year with Montreal, they simply gave me the chance, and I ran with it, literally.
Where do you feel is the toughest stadium in the CFL to go in and get a win?
Definitely BC Place. In my years with Ottawa and Montreal, we never once got a win at BC Place, regular season or playoffs. We could beat BC at home, but never at their place. Some blamed the 3 hour time change where a 7pm kickoff meant teams from back East were playing starting a game at 10pm. I don’t really buy that, but I don’t have a better explanation either.
When I arrived at SFU as a freshman, that happened to be the number that was available. After the success I had at the university level, I wanted to keep the same number. Fortunately I was able to get #35 as both a Renegade and as an Alouette.
Are there any losses that still haunt you?
Yeah. The 2005 and 2006 Grey Cup games. I got to play in two Grey Cups in my CFL career, but ended up retiring without a ring. Any professional athlete will tell you retiring without ever winning the ‘big one’ is tough.
Since you retired, what have you been doing for work?
I’m a Director at Oracle, one of the largest enterprise software companies in the world. I lead a team responsible for the global go-to-market strategies and activities for Oracle’s HCM Cloud solutions.
Did you still keep in touch with any other former Renegades?
Not as much as I used to. It pains me to say, but most of the updates I get now come from Facebook.
Any plans to return to Ottawa and catch a Redblacks game?
Ottawa is a great city, especially in the summer. I haven’t been back since I stopped playing but I hope to make it back soon. I’d love to take in a Redblacks game. Even with the renovated stadium, I’m sure it would bring back a lot of memories.
Thanks for your time Mike and hope to see you in Ottawa soon!
– All images via Scott Grant and Google