Connor Williams was a member of the Redblacks inaugural draft class. Photo: Scott Grant / ImageCommunications.ca

Connor Williams was a member of the Redblacks’ inaugural draft class.

The Canadian defensive lineman was selected by the Ottawa Redblacks in the second round with the 18th pick in the 2013 CFL draft. Williams spent four years playing for his hometown team, winning a Grey Cup in 2016. Over 34 games Utah State University product made 31 tackles, six sacks before retiring in 2017.

Williams recently took some time to reflect on his football career.

What were your earliest football memories playing with the Kanata Knights? 

When I think of the Knights I think of mud, freshly cut grass, rain, cold and the smells of the barbecue on game days. I fell in love with football immediately; it gave a shy kid an outlet. It allowed me to be like warriors I watched in all my favourite movies.

At what point during your high school career at Holy Trinity did you realize you had a shot at playing college football?

In Grade 10 I went down to the States to watch Utah play Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. I had never seen a sporting spectacle like it, the NHL games I’d been to didn’t come close. From that moment on, I wanted to play college football. There was no profound realization that I could play but it was more a decision that I would do whatever was necessary to play Division I football and taste that glory. It was tough because I lacked self-confidence and often questioned my abilities but I basically kicked my own ass whenever I felt I was getting soft.

How did you wind up at Utah State?

Utah State was an interesting time. I started gaining some attention from coaches in the States after I compiled my high school highlight footage. Usually it just takes one bite then interest starts rolling in from everywhere but I wanted to be a Utah Ute, so I sent my tape to Gary Anderson who was the defensive coordinator at the time and he liked me a lot.

The problem was that the Utah Utes went on to have an undefeated season and beat ‘Bama in the Sugar Bowl and I didn’t hear from Coach Anderson for awhile. Sometime later I got a call from Utah State, where Coach Anderson had just become the head coach. Turns out that when he decided to leave Utah he hoarded all his recruits and asked us to join him in rebuilding Utah State’s program. I signed up on the spot and hands down it’s proven to be the best decision I’ve ever made.

Did you have any indication the Redblacks were going to draft you?

I had zero idea the Redblacks were interested in me until I got drafted on TV. Leading up to the draft I had spoken a few times with Saskatchewan and Hamilton, so I thought I had the best odds to land with either of them.

Describe the energy at TD Place during the first game in Redblacks’ franchise history, a nail-biting 18-17 win over the Argos.

That game couldn’t have been any uglier of a home opener, but the fans were just so psyched to have us back that it didn’t matter – they really brought the energy. I was on the field goal team and I still crack up thinking about Brett Maher going berserk after making the winning kick, it was hilarious. Getting the victory was a huge relief and we cherished it, especially considering we didn’t win another game for 11 weeks.

As an Ottawa native, what did it mean for you to have the opportunity to be a part of establishing the new franchise?

As far as being part of an expansion team in my own city, it was special. I’ve always challenged myself to “leave a legacy” so what better scenario could I have asked for? My uncle Shane Ireland was a Rough Rider and I have friends who were Renegades, so to be a part of that tradition meant a lot. I was honoured to represent my city.

2016 was not only a career year for you stats wise, but also a magical year for the Redblacks. Let’s talk about that snowy East Final against the Eskimos, what sticks in your mind the most from that game?

One word defines that game to me: relentless. At that point in the season everyone, and I really mean every player on the field, is battling some form of injury. I was no exception, I think I was the only defensive lineman to play at least 60 snaps every game that season (not including the two special teams I played on), so to say I was hurting is an understatement.

Additionally, that week, the coaches moved me out to defensive end which meant I was battling Joel Figueroa (who in my opinion is the most physical tackle in the league). As I studied his film leading up to the game, I was blown away by how he regularly put studs like John Chick on their ass. I knew I had to bring the fight against him, which didn’t bother me as I love to battle. On game day I got the better of him multiple times, sacking Reilly once and making four other tackles. I think my best games were always games with high stakes; I prided myself on rising to the occasion.

After the victory it was all excitement in the locker room – I’ll be honest with you, I took a massive swig of whiskey on an empty stomach and had to slip away during the party to puke in the bathroom. Good memories eh?

There’s 28 seconds left in the Grey Cup, it’s second down and Calgary, trailing by three, has the ball on your three-yard line. What went through your mind when Abdul Kanneh tackled Andrew Buckley to force a Calgary field and overtime?

I actually missed the whole thing. A play or two before that I had to get helped off the field and the trainers were looking at my knee because they thought I had torn it. But that was an extraordinary tackle at an extraordinary moment in time. ‘Dul came up huge for us.

How sweet was it to see 40,000-plus fans turn out to celebrate at the Grey Cup parade, despite the freezing rain?

The parade was validating. To have so many people come out and show love and support was truly magical. The memories from that day are sweet and I’ll cherish them forever. To be honest, I wish I would have enjoyed it all a little more, I was always looking ahead and was in the gym getting ready for 2017 the following day.

Throughout your CFL career, you had some unfortunate luck with injures. What motivated you during your rehabs?

I played hard and paid the price. I’m not sure how to put it into words but I come from hardy stock. My parents and their parents (and so on) have all been extraordinarily tough people. So I guess it’s a mixture of genetic and environmental make up. Everyone has stories and tough times, I used my hard times as fuel for my fire, and I had plenty of fire. I was very fortunate to find football, it allowed me to focus my warrior spirit.

What was it like working with Hall of Fame defensive line coach Leroy Blugh every day?

Working with Coach Blugh was an honour and a privilege. He’s not only a legendary player but a legendary person. He cares about you as a man, and wants to help however he can. I love that man and will forever be in debt for the time I spent under his guidance.

Would you consider yourself superstitious? Did you have any specific pre-game rituals or habits?

The only superstition I had was the need to outwork everyone in the room.

What was the most satisfying hit you ever laid on someone?

Nothing is better than a good hit and I can’t say there’s one that particularly sticks out. As far as pure impact is concerned, I’d have to say one of the many pancakes I dealt out on kick returns. There were a few where guys sprinted 40 yards down the field at me and wound up with a beautiful view of the sky after I knocked them on their backs. As far as a tackle with some meaning and direct impact on defence, I’d say my sack on Bo Levi Mitchell in the Grey Cup.

Who had better hair, you or Mark Nelson?

Nelly is a class act, an OG and one of the best people I’ve been around but the facts are the facts. My hair was the undisputed, unrivalled, unbeaten, best hair in the CFL, and perhaps all of professional sports.

How did you earn the nickname “The Barbarian”?

It was bestowed upon me in college. I wore my hair long in memory of my Uncle Phil who was taken too soon. The long hair plus my strength, play, and amazing Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations made it a no-brainer. During our max lift gym sessions my strength coach would play the Conan theme song when I was up.

What was your favourite stadium (outside of Ottawa) to play in and why?

I’d have to go with Saskatchewan. Lots of people, high energy, and the fact that our games were always competitive made it my favourite.

Who was the toughest offensive lineman you had to go up against?

I touched on it before, but it was definitely Joel Figueroa. In terms of having the best technique and being fundamentally sound it would be SirVincent Rogers.

Why did you wear jersey No. 99?

It just kind of happened. Originally I was given No. 70 but then they realized it was retired (Bobby Simpson). The only number left in the 90’s (which are defensive line numbers) was 99, so by default, it was mine.

Are you at peace with walking away from the game at such a young age? 

I’m the kind of guy who could have played twenty years and still wouldn’t have been happy about walking away. I was never satisfied which was a double-edged sword in many respects. Nonetheless it was my time to hang them up. I had accomplished more than I ever dreamed of and left on my own terms. Not too many players can say that. I hold my head high and am proud of how I played the game.

Since your retirement, what have you been up to?

Since retiring I moved to B.C. to be closer to the mountains and wild nature. I’m currently working as a wild land fire fighter and am reunited with my high school sweetheart. I’d like to come back to Ottawa at some point to be closer to family and friends but being out West is good, I needed some time away.

What is one thing most CFL fans would be surprised to know about you?

I’m an avid reader and writer. I devour books and am constantly reflecting and writing. I spend a lot of my free time studying philosophy and analyzing things. I’ve also taken up wood burning which has been great.

Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

I’ve been very fortunate with my accolades: I’ve won championships at every level and  been recognized individually. Without minimizing any of that, I’m most proud of who I am as a result of the game of football and the character I’ve forged from playing it.

I had plenty of opportunities to walk away when things were difficult but I didn’t. I played the game how it was meant to be played. I gave the game, my teammates, fans, coaches and opponents the respect they all deserved. I showed up each and every day to work whether it was in front of 80,000 people on national TV or alone in the gym at 6 a.m. I never backed down from a challenge and battled a lot of adversity without making excuses.

Coach Blugh always said: “this game is hard, but it’s fair.” Football has given me tools to combat the harsh realities of life and for that I am forever grateful. It saved my life in a way.

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Born and raised in the 613, Santino has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know.)