Today we sit down with Montreal native, Donnie Ruiz. A 6 foot, 200 pound stand out DB at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ruiz was a three time CIS/CIAU 1st All Canadian and named the OUA defensive player of the year in 1999, when he set a school record with 7 INTs. The versatile Ruiz (who played both DB and FS) signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2000, and was later selected by the Renegades in their expansion draft. Ruiz retired in 2007 after amassing 98 career tackles and 4 INTs.
In university you made the switch from RB to DB, how hard was that transition and what did you prefer about playing on the defensive side of the ball?
Making the switch in university was difficult for me. The mental adjustment was the challenge more so than the athletic aspect for me. The physical part was simply learning and understanding how to adapt my athletic abilities to new and different movements. However the commitment required to become very good at that craft was a mindset that I had to fully invest in. The decision to put my personal preference aside for what was best for our team made all the difference in the coach’s eyes at that time.
How were you feeling when you discovered the Renegades had selected you in the first round of their expansion draft?
My initial reaction was mixed to be honest. I felt very honoured to be selected in the first round of the expansion draft by the Ottawa Renegades and Coach Joe Paopao. However, I was also quite disappointed because I wasn’t returning to the Bombers. I had a great rookie season with Winnipeg and really loved playing for Coach Dave Richie and and being a part of a very strong defence. Plus I had just played in the 2001 Grey Cup.
What was your initial impression of Ottawa and it’s fans when you arrived in the city?
I really liked the city of Ottawa and thought it was great that Nation’s Capital had a CFL team to represent its city. There was a solid core of fans that treated the team well and we as a team were proud to represent them.
Looking back on your time with the Renegades, what sticks with you the most?
There are always a variety of memories from each season that stay with you, from on the field, to the locker room and community events. One of my fondest memories would certainly be the atmosphere we had on game day. It was amazing to drive up Bank Street to get to the stadium and cut through the crowd accumulating on the bridge, everyone waving flags as a sea of red and black fans made their way into Frank Clair Stadium.
When the Renegades folded in 2006, did you have any idea where you’d end up?
I had no idea where that unfortunate situation was going to carry myself or any of my teammates. It was a very challenging time for a lot of Renegade players. Some had just signed new contracts, or purchased new homes in preparation to be in Ottawa for the upcoming season and beyond, only to find out days later they didn’t have a team anymore. Some of us were shipped off to other teams in the dispersal draft but there were a lot of really good football players that had their careers end because of that situation. I was fortunate that Saskatchewan Roughriders were interested in me and found myself headed to the Green Nation!
As a DB, which QB’s eyes were the hardest to read?
As a defensive back playing both corner and free safety, I wouldn’t say my style of play was to ever read a QB’s eyes as much as it was focusing on their body positioning and their “wind up” release to throw. Anthony Calvillo was very tough to get a jump on and Ricky Ray threw a tough ball that always found space to sneak it into any opening.
What was the hardest hit you ever gave or received?
I had a few big hits that I can recall delivering throughout my career. All I’ll say is those guys on the receiving end also remember my hardest hits!
Who were some of the toughest WRs to cover?
The CFL is full of great receivers across the board. This league is very tough because of that and the amount of throwing required to be successful means you have to have solid WRs on every team. Some of the top guys and all for different reasons were: Mookie Mitchell, Ben Cahoon, Darren Flutie, Milt Stegall everyday in practice and Arland Bruce.
Three has been my number since I started playing sports when I was about 10 years old. Regardless if football, basketball or soccer, I had always been synonymous with that number. Even one of the nicknames my teammates had given me was “3Ball”. I felt it represented my athletic journey well, past present and future.
Was there any player you tried to model your game after?
There are three players I would say that significantly influenced my playing behaviour and style. Initially it was Rufus Crawford of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who actually taught me how to play when I was 10 years old. Later it would be Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions. I really respected his calm, non celebratory demeanour. When I switched to DB in university it was Gerald Vaughn, who a few years later would be my teammate here in Ottawa. His intensity, work ethic and energy for the game on a daily basis had a great impact on my career.
In university you studied Fine Art, do you still paint?
Yes I do still paint, unfortunately not as much as I would like to due to time. However, I look forward to hosting another art showing of my work in the near future to display some fresh ideas I have ready for the canvas!
What is your favourite football movie?
‘The Program‘ with out a doubt is my favourite football movie. I can distinctly remember that movie coming out in high school and my entire football team going to watch it before our championship game! I still drop one liners from that movie with our athletes.
Tell me something most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you.
I think other than my talent to paint and obtaining the fine arts scholarship while attending school at Wilfrid Laurier University, the most surprising thing about me is that I competed in natural body building for several years after my CFL career ended.
What are your thoughts on the new CFL rule prohibiting defensive players from making any kind of contact on WRs after 5 yards?
I don’t like it obviously! They already have free reign with the DBs physically out there, especially down field when the ball is in the air. However, I guess fans pay to see touchdowns and not interceptions or knock downs right?
Looking back on your CFL career, is there any loss that still stings?
Yes, the Grey Cup in 2001 vs the Calgary Stampeders! We (the Bombers) had 14 wins that year and only 4 losses and I think the Stamps were 8-8 that season. That one was a very tough loss to take even though it was my rookie season with Winnipeg. There were so many veterans on our team, it was rough to accept how our season ended.
Upon retiring you chose to settle in Ottawa, why?
Ottawa had been and continues to be a great city to me. I developed a lot of friendships and built up a solid network of people and relationships in the community, so it was a natural decision to make this city my home.
Nowadays you work with former teammate and ex-Renegade Pat Woodcock training athletes at the Elite Performance Academy. Tell me how that came about.
Pat and myself used to train in the off-season together and I think both of us really enjoyed and became consumed with the process of training and preparation. As both of our careers tapered down and injuries built up, the importance of training correctly, and the impact nutrition has on performance became paramount. We both spent a lot of time learning and studying the craft of coaching and training. As our individual personal training and athlete development programs grew we sat down and finally decided to join forces. In our initial discussions we agreed that maintaining and continuing to build football in Ottawa (despite there being no CFL team at the time) would be our priority. We worked on developing what our brand would represent and be. Drawing upon my art background I designed a logo that visually represented our business and Elite Performance Academy was born!
Thanks so much for your time Donnie! If anyone is interested in training with Elite Performance Academy, check out their programs and camps at http://www.eliteperformanceacademy.ca/
– Images via Scott Grant Photography