Today with we sit down with former Ottawa Renegade LB John Grace. After finishing his dominant college career with 15 sacks and 437 tackles, Grace broke in the CFL with Montreal in 2000. A three time CFL All-Star and the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2005, Grace racked up 328 tackles, 24 sacks, 9 interceptions, 19 fumbles and 3 touchdowns during the course of his stellar eight year career. The face of the Renegades’ defence in their early years, Grace was the first true star of the Renegade era.
As a Floridian coming up to the CFL, what was your first impression of Canada?
Cold man, really cold. Before coming up to Canada I was living in West Virginia, and Montreal was my first experience of life abroad. Socially, Montreal is different from other cities in Canada as you’ve got the foreign language barrier. I never learned any French, aside from the basic things you immediately pick up, like swear words.
What went through your mind when the Renegades selected you in the expansion draft?
I was shocked really, I didn’t realize people knew who I was. It felt good to be wanted but as I didn’t play much for the Alouettes it was a surprise to be recognized and highly rated. It felt like a new opportunity and I planned on working hard to show them they’d made a good choice.
After playing sporadically in your two seasons with the Alouettes, you exploded in your first with the Renegades, notching 66 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INTs, 5 fumbles and blocking a kick. What helped take that next step to bring your game to another level?
Opportunity. I always knew I had the skill set to compete and do well in the CFL but the problem was that Montreal had lots of Americans starting. It’s a numbers game and sometimes it’s tough for Americans to battle through ratio. At the time, Montreal had quite a few Americans on the offensive line and a couple of Canadians at linebacker. My main obstacle to more playing time in Montreal was the ratio, but when I did get in I always contributed, so I knew coming to Ottawa I could perform.
What kind of challenges does an expansion team face that a normal team wouldn’t?
Learning to trust your teammates and building chemistry is a huge challenge for every expansion team. Anyone who plays sports could tell you that learning schemes is easy, but the hard part is knowing your teammates limitations and how they’ll react in certain situations. Just being aware of what the guy next to you will do takes time to learn. That lack of chemistry shows up when you play a veteran team because those guys know their teammates and tendencies. That’s a big advantage.
How shocked were you when the Renegades traded you to the Stampeders?
I wasn’t overly surprised to be honest. Early in my career I read an article that quoted Mike “Pinball” Clemons and I’ll use that to explain how I felt. Pinball said that if you play long enough, you’ll get drafted, cut, traded and released but that that was a sign of a long career. The fact that I experienced all of those things is a testament to my career and tells you how long I played the game.
In hindsight, was it a good move for your career, or do you wish you could’ve stayed in Ottawa?
Football wise, the trade gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself. Calgary’s scheme fit me better as it was the same defence and position I’d played in college. I felt a bit more familiar with the coaches and expectations as instead of trying to just compete we were trying to win championships. One of the biggest changes I’d noticed was the atmosphere around the team, which was different compared to Ottawa. Fans in Ottawa were always excited and supported the team but outside of the die-hards, sometimes it felt like people came out for the various promotions and events going at the stadium, whereas Stampeder fans came out for the football team itself, not for the spectacle surrounding it.
Off the field, I have fond memories of Ottawa and had a lot of great first experiences there. It was cool to have people recognize who I was when I walked around the city and to be interviewed by the media, especially since I was just another guy in Montreal. I enjoyed every minute of it and when I ended up with Calgary things went to another level, I almost didn’t feel comfortable going out. I’d go out to eat and it’d be pandemonium, I’d order a beer and end up with a keg and platters of wings people sent over. I always appreciated the gesture but I was never able to eat most of the stuff people sent me. Even going shopping was crazy, as you could wind up signing hundreds of autographs. I couldn’t have fathomed that until I experienced it.
What do you think the Renegades’ legacy is?
Unfortunately the Renegades are gone, so they’ve pretty much been wiped out of history. The new team in Ottawa doesn’t pay any homage to the Renegade era as they’d rather focus on the Rough Riders, which though I understand is a bit sad. Back in the Renegade days, we wanted people to look past the Rough Riders and embrace us, but now we’re the forgotten middle child, lost to history.
Throughout your career you were a special teams tackling machine, what’s the trick to making an open field tackle when covering a kick?
The trick is to put the returner inside of a box. I’m quicker than I am fast, and I’ve always felt that nobody was faster than me from the 5 to 5 mark. Meaning that if I can put a runner in a 5 yard box on either side of me, he can’t escape me. A lot of it is your mental thought process too. I never believed that anyone could outrun me laterally and I held to that belief. I put myself in a position based on ability, trusted those abilities and made a lot of tackles.
You have 24 career sacks, who was your favourite QB to take down?
It’s always fun to sack the QB, but I’d have to say Khari Jones was my favourite because he complained the most.
Were you a big trash talker?
I did my fair share of trash talking but I kinda made friends with a lot of the guys I played against. As a LB I was often up against the OL. They knew I was coming but we didn’t jaw back and forth too much and we always had an agreement. They kept it clean and I’d do the same, however they wanted to play I’d play. Now the guys I would talk to were wideouts and other guys who played on the outside, I always preferred to talk trash to them as I wouldn’t see them all game, that was better than people I’d have to face play after play.
Who was the funniest guy you ever played with?
I played with a lot of funny guys but I guess if I had to pick one I’d go with Scott Coe. He was always ready for a good laugh and would go the extra mile to get it.
Did you have any pre-game superstitions?
I always ate chicken nuggets with honey as my pre-game meal.
Every player has a nickname or two, what was yours?
Just Grace. I know a lot of the media gave me the “Amazing Grace” nickname but among my teammates and other players it was always just Grace. There’s no stars among stars, we’re all professionals.
What was the most satisfying hit you ever laid on someone?
I’d probably say the first time I got to lay into Ricky Williams. After watching him in college, seeing him drafted 1st overall and playing in the NFL and then hearing all the media hype surrounding him when he came to Canada, the first opportunity I had to tackle him, man on man, eye to eye, and knock him down, was special. There was a lot hoopla and anticipation before we played him, but once I got that first hit in, I realized he’s just another man like anybody else.
In your opinion, what was the toughest stadium to play at?
I’ll give you three, weather wise it was Edmonton, as it always seemed to be extra cold there. And in terms of fan atmosphere I’ll say Montreal and Saskatchewan are tied.
Since you retired what have you been doing for work?
I’m currently a regional operations manager for North American Industrial Services.
Have you ever thought about coaching?
I coached my son’s little league team. It was all first year players and I taught them basic things like getting in and out of stances, etc. I understand what it takes to be a good coach and I don’t have time to get into it full time. I don’t want to be one of those weekend coaches.
Do you still keep in touch with a lot of your former teammates?
Yeah absolutely. I exchange phone calls and emails with a lot of guys. In fact, last weekend I went golfing with Tracy Gravely. He was one of my teammates in Montreal and a real mentor. He taught me how to be a professional. It was great catching up with him and talking about old times.
Tell me something most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you.
I’m not as big as people seem to think I am. I guess they see me on TV and assume I’m a large person, but I’m not a big guy. It’s funny when people tell you that you’re smaller than they expect. I got that from countless people but I never knew how to take that or respond. It’s not really an insult but it’s not a compliant either.
If you could give young players in the CFL one piece of advice, what would it be?
Trust in your abilities and believe in what you can do. You have ability and skill, otherwise wouldn’t be in the CFL if you couldn’t play. Keep your head clear and just get out there and do your thing. Be a game changer and go ball with reckless abandon, without cares or worries.
Have you visited Ottawa since you retired?
Nope, I haven’t even been back to Canada since I retired. The closest I’ve come was when I was in Minnesota for work. From where I was staying I could look across the river and see Canada.
If you could say one thing to members of R-Nation, what would it be?
I want to thank everyone in Ottawa (actually all of Canada), who I met and who assisted me throughout my career. I appreciate the support from all the fans and I really look forward to one day coming back up to Canada and seeing everyone again.
Thanks so much for your time John and we’re waiting for your visit!
– All images via Scott Grant Photography