Seems like the Ottawa Redblacks aren’t quite done making off-season moves. Early Tuesday morning the team leaked news via their twitter account that they had a major announcement to make and members of #RNation began speculating immediately as to what it could be.
By signing the diminutive 5’ 8″ and 175 pound all-star Chris Williams to a one year deal, the Redblacks have added one of the most dynamic CFL players in recent memory. Williams, a dual threat WR and KR was named the CFL’s most outstanding rookie in 2011 when he broke into the league with 70 receptions for 1064 receiving yards and 6 TDs.
Williams’ sophomore season was just as impressive, as he was named the CFL’s most outstanding special teams player, making 83 catches for 1298 yards with receiving 11 TDs to go along with 5 punt return touchdowns. Who was throwing Williams the ball in 2012? None other than current Redblacks’ QB Henry Burris. If they can quickly re-establish that kind of rapport, TD Place might finally start living up to it’s name.
After the 2012 season, Williams left the CFL following a contract dispute with the Hamilton Ticats and wound up signing with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in 2013. Following a short stint with the Chicago Bears last season, Williams was thought to be a long shot to return to the CFL, as he’s someone who still garners NFL interest, as evidenced by his workout earlier this month with the Cincinnati Bengals. Though he hasn’t played a ton of snaps over the last two seasons, his 101 yard kick return touchdown last year vs the Green Bay Packers shows that his agility and speed haven’t diminished.
GM Marcel Desjardins deserves major props for a) making this deal happen and b) keeping it under wraps until this morning’s email to season ticket holders. At Williams’ introductory press conference Desjardins explained how things fell into place to get the deal done.
Though Williams will have to re-adjust to the CFL, the wider field and recent rule changes should enable him to pick up right where he left off. Plus at only 27 years of age, Williams theoretically should still have his best years in front of him.
From that group, the only WR who returned kicks last season was Jamill Smith. Smith had decent numbers, averaging 20.9 yards on kick returns and 8.6 yards on punts but Smith’s longest return was only 38 yards and he failed to score a touchdown. Though he seems like a great guy and has been very involved in the community, living in Ottawa this off-season and visiting schools with Big Joe and other Redblacks’ players, the Williams signing probably signals the end of Smith’s time with the team.
Chris Williams is yet another game breaker for Jason Maas to scheme with and it seems safe to say that the drops and lack of explosive plays that plagued the Redblacks last season won’t be repeated in 2015. With the Redblacks’ mini-camp set to start next week, it’ll be interesting to see how the battle for roster spots shakes out in Ottawa’s competitive and now very talented WR group.
Every fan base has them, those die-hards who stick with their team through thick and thin. But in most cities, those fans aren’t as well organized or as close as one group in Ottawa. Back before every single fan base in every single sport gave themselves the “Nation” moniker, there was Renegade Nation.
In 2002, six years after the historic Rough Riders franchise folded leaving a gaping hole at Lansdowne Park and in the hearts of their fans, the Renegades returned CFL football to Ottawa. During the CFL’s absence, internet use exploded and across the country online forums like the 13th Man (http://www.13thman.com/) sprung up for CFL fans to preview games, play armchair GM, debate player personnel moves and plan tailgates. Tired of being left out in the cold, a couple of passionate fans, Phil Tanguay JF Fournier, Glen Handley and Shane Johns decided to take matters into their own hands. After a chance meeting at an early season game, Renegade Nation was born.
For Handley, you could say that the foundation of Renegade Nation was the consummation of a lifetime of supporting Ottawa football. It began with a childhood summer boating trip from Kingston up the Rideau River to Ottawa. “We were floating along, and just after passing Dow’s Lake I saw a huge building, full of people. I asked my mother what it was and she replied that it was where the Ottawa football team played. At that moment, an enormous roar bellowed from the stadium. I was awestruck and the sound of those fans sent a chill through me that I still feel to this day.” From that moment onwards, Handley has been obsessed with Ottawa’s CFL teams. Despite living in Oshawa, he never missed a Rough Riders game, (normally watching on TV but sometimes in person when the opportunity presented itself) and eventually moved to Ottawa for school, mainly because of the team. Unfortunately, shortly after he relocated to the capital, the Rough Riders folded. When football returned in 2002, Handley was as passionate as ever and quickly bought season tickets.
After it’s inception, it didn’t take long for a Renegade Nation flag (featuring their beloved mascot Skully) and tents to become fixtures behind the South Side stands in Lansdowne’s parking lot on game day, often appearing 10 hours before kick off. As word spread, groups of 20-30 people were regularly tailgating with members of Renegade Nation. Soon, their tailgates featured drop ins by Renegade staff members, players and coaches.
Along with the Southsiders (with whom they are closely aligned), Renegade Nation was a visible fan presence the Renegades sorely needed. “We had a pretty symbiotic relationship with the team”, recalls Shane Johns. “We helped them generate buzz, gave some great visuals to TSN, and they treated us well”. While not overly rowdy, Renegade Nation always managed to express themselves. In fact, an unnamed member made it a point to moon the opponent’s team bus each week as the visitors arrived at the stadium. “That got a huge laugh out of Pinball Clemons when the Argos came in” remembers Johns.
One of Renegade Nation’s proudest moments came in 2005, when two players were fined following an on field scuffle. Members of Renegade Nation believed that the Ottawa players were merely sticking up for their teammates and so a hat was passed around to raise money to help pay the fines. They collected more than $300 and with the help of a local reporter, managed to get access to the team locker room to turn the money over to the players. One of the players being fined, Jerome Haywood, was overcome with emotion and had tears in his eyes when he found out what the money was for. “For us, it was just part of supporting the team”, says Johns.
But perhaps the online forum’s true value was only fully realized when Ottawa lost it’s CFL team for the second time. “That announcement in April 2006 was like a collective punch to the gut” says Dennis Prouse, “yet the Nation hung together. We used this board, and the friendships we built, to encourage each other, keep the spirit of football alive, and ultimately strategize and help out with the efforts to secure another franchise and revitalize Lansdowne Park. I can’t tell you how proud I am of everything Nation members did in terms of writing letters, doing media interviews, appearing at public meetings, and anything else we could think of to bring the CFL back to Ottawa. Those were some dark times, but we never lost hope, and I like to believe that the spirit of Renegade Nation played a significant role in the establishment of the REDBLACKS and the building of TD Place.”
The friendships built during the Renegade era are what helped so many members cope during those dark days. “From 2006 to 2009 or so, things were bleak. We would all constantly check the board to see if there was any news. Everyone was bummed about losing our team, but we had each other to bitch to and that was something. By 2010 we had a feeling we’d get our team back but with the endless delays our patience was really tested. Then one day it finally happened. All of us have been through a lot together. We’ve had get togethers at Gee Gee games, and one year we even did a Christmas dinner that had 30 guys show up!” says Cam McFayden, another long time member. “With over 100 registered members, during the lean years we probably had a group of 10-15 guys who still posted regularly”.
The beauty of an online forum is that it truly allows anyone to be included. Take the case of Solar Max, Renegade Nation’s lone West Coast member and currently the Redblacks furthest living season ticket holder, as confirmed by Jeff Hunt himself. Max’s grandfather and father were both season ticket holders in Ottawa during the ‘60s and ‘70s and Max grew up watching his father being able to park anywhere he wanted at Lansdowne on game days due to the huge R decal on his windshield. Living so far from Ottawa, Max had no idea that the private Renegade Nation forum even existed until 2005. As he puts it: “In 2005, the Grey Cup was held in Vancouver and while I’d been to Grey Cups in other cities, I hadn’t done one near where I lived in a long while. I decided to volunteer to pick up various Ottawa fans and dignitaries at Vancouver airport attending Greg Cup”.
One of those Ottawa fans he gave a ride to just happened to be Glen Handley. During the ride they got to talking and when questioned by Glen about the numerous Ottawa logos plastered on his car, Max replied that he was the only Ottawa fan he knew in BC. That’s when Max received his invitation and membership to Renegade Nation.
“I was over the moon to discover a world of people like me that lived, breathed, ate and slept Ottawa football” he says. “I had a duplicate of our Renegade Nation flag with Skully made, and I took it to every CFL stadium in 2006 after our team was murdered by Tom Wright and the CFL’s Board of Governors, in order to show other cities and fans that we of Renegade Nation, we die-hard Ottawa fans would not be forgotten, or shoved aside.”
While Ottawa might not have had a team between 2006-2013, that never stopped members of Renegade Nation from attending the Grey Cup. Every year a group of members coordinate their accommodation and which events they attend to always ensure that Ottawa was well represented at the country’s biggest party.
When football finally returned to Ottawa last season, many in Renegade Nation felt it was time to rebrand, in order to stay modern and relevant. Some in the group felt that Renegade Nation was too outdated and clung to the past, so after some discussion someone proposed the name R-Nation. “The R is to represent the Rough Riders, Renegades, and Redblacks and it also sounds like ‘Our Nation’ which has a great feel to it” explains Handley. “The main thing was incorporating the R since it’s been such a great logo for us”.
After voting to rebrand as R-Nation, members of the group began using the hashtag on twitter, especially when tweeting at the team. “We wanted Ottawa’s fan base to have a good nickname” says Santino Filoso, “Redblacks Nation doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue the same way R-Nation does”. Much to OSEG’s credit, they took the ball and ran with it, quickly adopting and using the moniker on their various social media platforms.
Another key change Renegade Nation made was to move from a private forum, where membership was only granted by invitation or word of mouth, to an open public forum, accessible to anyone at all willing to talk Ottawa football. Though everyone is now welcome (including fans of opposing teams), spamming and trolling with not be tolerated, meaning first time offenders will be permanently banned.
With a recent overhaul of their website and new members joining every day, things have never been better for members of R-Nation. When not chatting online, members meet up on game days, tailgating however they can. With no on site tailgating currently allowed at Lansdowne, the group has been forced to get creative, using Carleton’s parking lot this past season, despite run ins with campus security. “It’s unfortunate that tailgating in the shadow of TD Place isn’t currently an option” says Handley, “but I’m confident that with a little bit of patience we’ll figure something out”.
Today we catch up with Pat Woodcock, one of the most successful CFL players to come out of Ottawa. After finishing his college career at Syracuse University and a short stint in the NFL with the New York Giants (and later the Washington Redskins), Woodcock began his CFL career in Montreal. 2002 was a breakout year for Woodcock, culminating with a Grey Cup ring, a Grey Cup record and the Dick Suderman Trophy (awarded to the Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Canadian). In 2004 Woodcock signed with the Renegades and over the following two seasons made 64 catches for 860 yards and 5 TDs, averaging 13.4 yards per catch. Following the Renegades dispersal draft, Woodcock went on to play for Edmonton Eskimos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats before retiring in 2008.
Growing up were you a Rough Rider fan and did you ever imagine you’d play professionally at Lansdowne?
I think everyone at some point dreams of playing for their hometown team when they’re playing pickup games or dreaming about the future. As a kid, I had the chance to play during halftime of 1988 Grey Cup, which of course was an amazing experience. The Rough Riders folded just as I headed to Syracuse University to play college football, so it certainly wasn’t on my radar by that time.
In the 90th Grey Cup (2002), you won the Most Valuable Canadian award and had a historic 99 yard touchdown play. Take us through it.
Field conditions were lousy, and it had been a really slow start to the game for both sides. During the week, we’d played around with different receiver formations to capitalize on match ups. For this play, I ended up in the slot closest to Anthony Calvillo on the wide side of the field. The route was called D97; the receiver outside of me had a “Go” or “9” route, and I was running diagonally across the field. Basically the safety had to choose one of us, and he chose poorly. As the ball got to me I could feel him just missing the tackle behind me, then it was a pure sprint to the end zone. When I got to the sideline, Chris Cuthbert told me that I’d set the record for longest TD reception in the Grey Cup. For a Canadian kid who grew up with the Grey Cup being the biggest day of the year, it was a pretty surreal moment.
How would you describe your time with the Renegades?
I think the only way to describe it would be bittersweet. It was frustrating that we were never able to use the full talent of the players on our team and achieve more success. And the way we were treated by management was extremely disappointing, we all had such high hopes for the organization, but unfortunately the owners at the time had no interest in really trying to run a professional team.
On the other hand, I was able to fulfill a dream and play for the hometown team, and it was amazing being able to play in front of friends and family again after having been away for college and the early part of my pro career. Not to mention that of all the teams I played for, it’s the Renegades teammates that I’m most in contact with today.
After the 2005 season, did the players have a feeling the Renegades were going to fold or did it catch you off guard?
I don’t know if we really thought the team would fold, but obviously we knew that things weren’t moving in a good direction. It wasn’t much of a surprise to be honest.
Why did you wear #16?
When I first started playing at 8 years old, they gave me #16. I changed numbers a couple of times when I was in high school, but then when I got to Syracuse they gave me #16 as well. I took that as a bit of a sign and just kept it after that.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I think it’s easy to say the 2002 season; being named an all-star, winning the Grey Cup and the Top Canadian Award, and setting that record. But I’m proud of my career as a whole, I had a dream and a goal from a very young age and made a plan, worked really hard, and achieved everything I dreamed of. Not many people get to say that.
What was your most disappointing loss?
Probably the 2003 Grey Cup. I definitely felt like we had as good a team if not better than in ’02, but on that particular day things didn’t go our way. It would’ve been pretty special to win two Grey Cups back-to-back.
Who is the funniest guy you ever played with?
Wow, that’s a really hard question, football locker rooms are pretty crazy places and I played for 8 years. If I had to pick one guy for all-round craziness and non-stop jokes, it would have to be Sherrod Gideon. He was a receiver for the Renegades in 2004 and I’m not sure that guy ever said a serious word in his life.
What are you currently doing for work?
I actually partnered with another former Renegade, Donnie Ruiz, and together we run Elite Performance Academy in Kanata. We’re a High Performance Athlete Development Program and we work with many of Ottawa’s top athletes. Our clients include professional and national level athletes from the NFL, CFL, NASL, NLL, Team Canada Baseball, Basketball and Taekwondo, Team Ontario Game Medalists, Team France Lacrosse, prep school athletes with scholarships in football, basketball and lacrosse. Not to mention over 60 NCAA and CIS athletes in every sport from football to soccer to rugby and rowing.
If you had one piece of advice you could offer young football players, what would it be?
It’s actually that they’re playing too much football! With the way the various leagues (at least in Ontario) are set up, many young athletes are playing close to 30 football games in a single year. There are lots of issues with this, all stemming around the fact that because they are always playing, they never have a chance to just work on their individual game. They’re constantly beating down their bodies physically, and not spending any time actually developing the strength, speed, and skill required to compete at the next level. It also means 30 games worth of collisions and head impacts, which surely is influencing the number of concussions we’re seeing in young players.
Do you still keep in touch with a lot of your former teammates?
Yes, quite a few. As I mentioned, I work with Donnie Ruiz every day and we also run Elite Football Academy during the winter and have had a number of former teammates as part of our coaching staff, including Darren Joseph, Steve Glenn, Mike Sutherland. Yo Murphy and Kerry Joseph are also involved in training athletes (in the States), so we keep in touch with them as well.
Now that you are retired, what do you most miss about playing in the CFL?
I miss the guys, and the competition. I’m lucky in that my post football career provides a little bit of both of those things; our staff and our athletes are kind of like being in a locker room and we compete with our athletes occasionally as part of their training and development. But it’s not quite the same, there’s nothing like a football family and going on the field each week and laying it on the line together.
Are you a Redblacks season ticket holder?
Yes sir and I’m looking forward to season two! There’s definitely a different feel to games when you’re watching from the stands.
Thanks for everything Pat and best of luck training the next generation of CFL athletes!