Playing days with the Redblacks: Jerrell Gavins opens up about his CFL career in Ottawa

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

Although his career was shorter than planned, former Redblacks defensive back Jerrell Gavins made the most of his four years in the CFL.

The Miami native was a day one starter with Ottawa, making 167 tackles, seven interceptions, forcing two fumbles, notching one sack and scoring one defensive touchdown in 59 games.

Gavins was best known for his easy smile and reckless abandon style of play on the field. The Boise State University product helped develop the Redblacks’ culture from the ground up and was a key part in delivering Ottawa’s first championship in four decades.

Gavins took a detailed look back on his career.

When did you start playing football, and were you always a defensive back?

When I first started playing football I was about seven years old and originally played centre. A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true.

How did your college career go from El Camino to Boise State?

Coming out of high school I didn’t get much attention from college programs due to my size, but I went to a camp in Miami and did well enough to earn a spot at El Camino, a junior college in California.

That was probably the best time of my life, I had an amazing time. There were some rough conditions but I got to go up against some of the best players in the world, five star recruits and I really had a chance to show I belonged and could hang with them.

From there, Boise State offered me a scholarship, so I went there. My first season with them was extremely promising, the team had a great season – we won the Fiesta Bowl – and I played well. Unfortunately, I hurt my knee the next season. The cool thing about being at Boise is that we went to and won a bowl game every year I was there, so I got four rings. Being at Boise was a wonderful experience, I loved being in Idaho and hiking in the mountains and doing stuff like that.

Despite going unselected in the 2013 NFL draft, you still earned a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. How did that come about?

I felt like I had a bit of déjà vu. I had played well at Boise but again the combination of my size at five-foot-eight, 174 pounds and the fact that I was coming off a knee injury kept teams away. Before I got hurt in my senior year I was leading the nation in interceptions, but my injury closed all the doors and shot down any hype I might have had.

My agent is from Tampa and he managed to land me a workout with the Bucs. I knew I had my hands full trying to make the team because not only had they drafted a cornerback in the second round (Johnthan Banks) but that was the year they brought in Darrelle Revis too. I just wanted to leave it all out there and did everything I could to make the team.

After three days of practice I had double digit interceptions, a bunch of pass breakups and basically shut down every receiver they put against me. Greg Schiano was the coach that year and he took me into his office and admitted I was having a great camp. He wished he could keep me but with my knee situation they weren’t sure I would be able to stay healthy and their doctors felt I’d need too much upkeep to stay on the field, so I was let go.

You signed with the Redblacks in November of 2013, well before the team was actually assembled. How did you end up in contact with Ottawa and was there any worry about joining an expansion team?

I first came into contact with Brock Sunderland when he was a scout with the Jets. After being cut by the Bucs I had a year off, so I used it to train like crazy and played with the Arena Football League’s, Tampa Bay Storm. When that ended, Brock was with the Redblacks as their assistant general manager so he called me up to offer me a shot with them.

To be honest, I wasn’t worried at all about joining an expansion team. In fact, my attitude was all wrong. I was immature and disrespectful because I came into the CFL with the mindset that I didn’t want to make friends and that I was too good for the league. I was angry I hadn’t made it in the NFL, and I just wanted to ball out and show I belonged in the NFL. I trained like a madman and dominated in camp, that’s why when I came to Ottawa I was a day one starter.

As a Floridian coming up to Canada, what was your first impression of the nation’s capital?

I’d never heard of Ottawa, heck I didn’t know Canada existed. I mean of course I did but I didn’t realize just how much of a fully functioning country it was. In fact, I think Canada is way more civilized and advanced than the U.S. is.

I had this idea of Eskimos and natives everywhere, so I was shocked at how modern everything was. Not to mention just how beautiful the country is; it’s a special place. You go from east to west and you have everything all in one package; all the seasons, all the scenery, it’s incredible.

You were a day one starter with the Redblacks. What was the energy like in the first home game at TD Place?

That was definitely one of the most electrifying atmospheres of my career. I’ve been a lot of different places and experienced a lot of different environments, but from a professional standpoint, that was cool. When the defence was on the sidelines and watching the offence, we were spectators just like everyone else in the crowd, it was amazing to look around at that new stadium and really take in what had been created by the owners, Marcel, Brock and everyone else. Plus we won, so we got to party that day.

What kind of challenges does an expansion team face that a normal team wouldn’t?

We had no morale, no established leaders to lean on, so all of that had to be developed. Plus, nobody really knew anyone else, just because of how the team was assembled. As a rookie new to the league, I could see that there were cliques of guys. At the start of camp, you had the five dudes who came from Winnipeg, the ten from Calgary, all sticking together. Over time, friendships and bonds were developed. But man we had lots of Calgary people, even in the coaching staff.

What was it like being a part of #DBlock and how much did you learn from Jovon Johnson?

I’m going to answer your question in two parts.

First, being in #DBlock was like being in the Wild Wild West with a bunch of crazy bandit cowboys just wanting to wreck shop on everything. We were heavily penalized but had a lot of fun. We caused a bunch of turnovers and picked off a lot of passes. We were flying around out there. Brandon McDonald, Abdul Kanneh, Brandyn Thompson, Jermaine Robinson and Jovon are my guys, I’ll love those boys until the day I die.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant /

Part of the reason we created such a special environment is that we were all the same people. We came from the same communities, had the same camaraderie, the same understanding of life and we wanted to be known for our nitty gritty attitude on the field. Basically we were trying to hit people in the mouth and be very disrespectful.

As for the second part of your question, obviously I took a lot from a veteran like Jovon, but Eric Fraser (a Canadian) had the biggest IQ I’ve ever seen in a defensive back room. He didn’t play a lot but his communication was incredible.

Being a young guy in the league I’d never heard of him so he didn’t command that instant respect but hearing his voice echo what (DB) coach Ike Charlton was saying about how things should be and what to do in certain situations, quickly made me realize he really knew his stuff. Fraser made us all better players with his great input.

Although 2014 was a struggle, how did it feel going from that to winning the division in 2015?

It was great but to us, it didn’t come as a surprise. In 2014, even though we were losing, we were in almost every game we played. I think we only got blown out by B.C. and Calgary but otherwise we pretty much kept it close until we found ways to lose in the fourth quarter.

In 2015 we just had an extra step and more confidence. Obviously that off-season we brought in some key players, but I think it was more of just having another year together and knowing each other. We were unstoppable that year.

Take me through Greg Ellingson’s Miracle on Bank Street, second and 25 play in the East Final from your view on the sidelines.

Greg’s an alien. He’s superhuman. You get to know how players truly are in practice and Greg did that kind of stuff all the time. Every week he’d jump over three of us and make a catch, or burn past us, or stop on a dime with a nasty cut. He’s an animal, a jack of all trades on a whole other level that I don’t think you can really explain. Even now, a few years later, Greg’s still doing it. He’s incredibly fast, never drops a ball and his focus is insane.

When that catch happened, as much as I was impressed, at the same time it was nothing, because that’s just something that of course he’d be capable of in my mind. It was amazing to see but beyond inevitable for him to rise up at that moment and do what he did to get us where we needed to be, which was the Grey Cup.

Despite the team making the Grey Cup, you were forced to miss the game with an injury. Some in R-Nation argue that the result would have been different had you been able to suit up. How tough was it to watch that game from the sidelines?

Pretty tough man, I thought I’d be able to make it and get something done. But there was just so much pain in the back of my knee that I couldn’t make it happen.

I’m not trying to be cocky, but of course I think I could’ve helped out and been the difference. I think every player has to have that mentality. I believe that my stats and play speak for itself and that when I was on the field I contributed a lot.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant /

I’m not too big but I always played hard and I think I made a difference. I had big tackles, tackles for losses and changed games with my interceptions or forced fumbles. Most of the time my aggressiveness helped but sometimes I know I was overaggressive and messed up. Overall, I think I helped more than I hurt. Just like an offensive player wants the ball, as a defensive guy you want to be out there making the big play. Not to be able to do that in the biggest game sucks.

Have you ever played a colder game than that snowy 2016 East Final?

Oh yeah, for sure. One time with Boise we played in Wyoming and it was negative 34, I’m talking freezing cold. I’m sure it was colder when I lived in Canada but in terms for a single game that one with Boise was the worst.

But as a professional I think the cold doesn’t bother you as much because by the time you get to that level you’ve developed the knowledge of how to get through and deal with it. For example, in the CFL when we had cold games I’d just put nothing on under my uniform. Instead, I’d cover my body with Icy Hot patches so I didn’t feel anything at all. No aches, no pains and they helped me stretch.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant /

To be honest, practicing in the cold was way worse than playing in it. In a game you’re pumping adrenaline, but in practice you’ve gotta find ways to get yourself up and keep warm.

After beating the Eskimos, you guys returned to the championship game and this time managed to pull out the win. Was all the underdog talk leading up to the Grey Cup fuel for you and your teammates?

Absolutely. Most definitely, in fact. But there was something funny about the approach the coaches took that week. It was all business and we were serious. There was no goofing in practice. Sometimes, in big moments you fake it until you make it, but practice was perfect that week.

Nobody paid much attention to what the media was saying because we didn’t need to, we knew we were underdogs. Since I entered the league, Calgary was damn near perfect, like the Patriots. They were always in big games and I honestly didn’t know how they were so damn good all the time. When you watched film you could see their players weren’t lazy and cheating, even the guys backside were hustling or staying true to their assignments. Calgary was well coached and their players disciplined and solid, you knew a guy wasn’t taking the field for them unless he was talented and coachable.

That’s why we knew we had to bring our ‘A’ game. Someone told me that Bo Levi Mitchell had three quarterback coaches. That’s some magical stuff because it meant he had four people in his brain to help him understand every defensive back and their tactics. When it came to situational football he could see it all and always seemed to know exactly where everyone was. I thought Calgary was super detail oriented and good at what they did. For me personally, heading into that Grey Cup I knew I had to prepare properly and be a dog in the dark, ready to go mano-a-mano without making a mistake because we couldn’t afford to mess up.

What was a more stressful moment for you: Abdul Kanneh tackling Andrew Buckley on the goal line to force a Calgary field goal and overtime or Ernest Jackson bobbling that final touchdown?

I’m going to say watching Abdul make that tackle, because when EJack was catching the ball I didn’t see a safety in the middle of the field and the linebacker wasn’t close. I can’t remember if it was Greg, Brad (Sinopoli) or Chris (Williams) who ran a flood clear out route to move the defensive guys but it was wide open. I just prayed EJack wasn’t going to run into the goal post, because other than that, he was home free.

How did you guys celebrate in Toronto following the Grey Cup win?

Personally, I had a flight back home the next day, I was dying to see my family. The main thing I enjoyed was seeing all the coaches at the hotel celebrating and going nuts. That was my favourite part, just soaking in the moment. From a spiritual perspective, I invest a ton of energy into every season, so the release of tension at the end of the reason was huge. I knew I was about to head home and rest up, so I wasn’t thinking about or focused on partying, drinking beer or smoking cigars. I honestly couldn’t wait to see my family, be home and then charge up to try and do it again the next year.

So if you took off the next morning, that means you missed the Grey Cup parade down Bank Street, right?

Yeah that’s right, I never flew back to Ottawa after the Grey Cup, so I didn’t make the parade. I had my moment of celebration when we got the rings, right before the next season started. There was a nice dinner and everything and that was a lot of fun.

Following his legendary Grey Cup performance, Henry Burris retired. What was it like going against a Hall of Famer such as Burris every day in practice?

Amazing. If you tried to pick off one of his balls, it would jam your fingers or break something. No joke, you could hear that thing whistle as he zipped passes to Greg and Brad. I dislocated my thumb, index fingers and pinky trying to get my hands on the ball.

And in terms of preparation, watching him was phenomenal. Sometimes in practice I could cheat a bit, because in college I went against Kellen Moore every day and learned a lot about concepts in the West Coast offence and learned to read the body language of the centre and tackle, small things like that can help tip off players so you react an instant faster. You need small edges when you go up against not only guys like Hank, but also the group of receivers we had. Greg, Brad, Chris, EJack, those guys were the best receivers catching passes from the greatest quarterback, so for sure it forced you to be a better man coverage corner.

The thing with Hank was that he was just so authentic and a real person. It was amazing to see him grind every day in practice and still have time and energy to do the media stuff, interact with fans and take care of his family. Sports and life come with a lot of adversity and people have to deal with a ton of stuff. It was cool to see how a guy like Hank maneuvered through all of that.

How did the team handle the transition from Burris to Trevor Harris?

When we first signed Trevor, I honestly didn’t know who he was or get the hype. And that’s no disrespect to him, because I was never big about following guys on other teams. I’d never be one to say, ‘Damn Ricky Ray or Travis Lulay has been balling.’ But I knew that we’d played against him when he was with the Argos and that he was solid.

Once he got the reins, I don’t think there was any drop-off in morale. As soon as he took the field, I think everyone realized just how athletic he was and that he was extremely driven, determined and ambitious. I knew he was a dog and was ready to ride with him. To this day Trevor’s a wonderful friend and we still chit-chat on Facebook, work out together and share exercises.

While with the Redblacks you played both defensive back and SAM linebacker. Which position did you prefer lining up at and why?

When I first broke into the league I played weak halfback and it was fun. It meant a lot of man coverage and I was tested a lot, but enough things started to change and it got boring because the ball didn’t come my way that often.

Being out there, doing nothing, meant not only that I couldn’t make plays, but also, that I couldn’t make any more money. Plays get paid. Not to mention that I’m just that type of player that I want to be out there around the ball and taking it away. That’s what I practiced doing and that’s what I wanted to do in games. Like any player, I wanted opportunities.

Playing SAM gave me those opportunities because I was in the middle of the field. It meant I could delegate tasks to both sides, that I could run freely, slide to safety, play man coverage and even blitz. Whatever the coaches wanted I was willing to take that responsibility and do it. In my mind that’s what separates good from average: listening, understanding what needs to be done and executing.

Unfortunately, late in the 2017 season, on your 27th birthday, you wound up hurting your knee and eventually retired. Did you ever consider coming back to play?

For sure, there’s no way I wanted to stop playing football. I was still young and felt I had lots of football still ahead of me. As you said, I was 27 at the time and planned to play until 35. I knew there was no way I was going back to the NFL at 27, but I loved being in Canada and playing in the league and I always felt that as long as the money was good and I was having fun, I wasn’t going to stop.

After having the surgery and getting hurt, I figured I’d just return to the Redblacks once healthy. But Marcel’s (Desjardins) interest seemed lukewarm and I figured that if he felt that way, so did the rest of the league. I looked at it like if I spent the last four years fighting with Ottawa for a bit more money, if they didn’t want me despite all I’d done, it’s probably best to spend time with your new daughter and call it.

I didn’t realize that there were other teams who liked me or would’ve given me an opportunity to play. The surgery itself and the aftermath was pretty difficult for me to deal with. I not only had to rehab but shortly after I had to move my entire family with one leg. As I started training I wondered why I was putting so much time and effort into something that probably wasn’t going to pay off, so I figured football didn’t deserve my effort anymore and got off all social media.

In hindsight that really cost me because once I got back onto Facebook and stuff like that, I saw dozens of messages from guys like Brock Sunderland, asking me to come out to Edmonton, Corey Chamblin messaged me when he was with the Argos and BC also contacted me but I would never have gone there as it’s way too far from my family.

Now at 31 I’m fully healthy and could probably step on the field and still be elite but I’m over it and have moved on with my life.

What do you miss most about playing in the CFL?

My lifestyle in Ottawa. Waking up in the morning, riding my bike around, going to practice, doing yoga and then chilling with amazing people. Then there’s the bond you forge with coaches. In the end, football is football, whether you add a person or make the field bigger it’s still basically the same thing, although I do think the CFL gives you a lot more diversity in what you can do.

Getting to travel to all of Canada’s amazing cities, seeing different places I never imagined and doing it all while sharing the experiences with coaches and teammates is what I miss the most.

During your time in Ottawa you wore No. 24 before switching to No. 4. Why those numbers?

I’ve always kind of been stuck on the same numbers honestly. My birthday is October 24th (10/24). When I first got to Boise I had 10 but later switched to 4. Growing up, the defensive backs I idolized, Darelle Revis, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson all wore 24. That’s why I took it in Ottawa.

When we signed A.J. Jefferson in the off-season 24 was his number and given that I had no strong ties to it I let him have it and moved to 4. I briefly considered taking 21 but Mitch White had that. Anyways, it was going back to my old college number so I was fine with that. All of them, 4, 10 and 24 are very spiritual numbers for me.

What was the hardest hit you ever gave or received?

I think I had a number of good ones in the CFL and wish I played a little longer so I could’ve broken someone’s face mask eventually. I did that in high school and college, slamming guys so hard spit came flying out of their mouths.

If I had to pick one hit that really stands out, I think I nailed Weston Dressler on a screen and put him out of the game up in Winnipeg. Otherwise, some vicious crack back blocks on interception returns come to mind too. I think that off the field, people associate me with being a very pleasant person, sunflowers and whatnot, but on the field I’m very violent. I had to be.

From talking with your teammates you were a guy who was always positive and quick to crack a joke. How did you maintain a positive attitude even when times were tough?

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant /

The first thing is routine, which means just doing the same things every day. Being a spiritual person, drinking a good amount of water, coconut water too, getting sunlight, stretching, doing yoga and really just having your mental game on point. That means knowing and understanding what’s bugging you, and what’s not and really knowing what you’re supposed to do each day and managing your responsibilities. Being positive means seeing the dark sides of life but understanding that those dark places can’t take you anywhere good, so instead focusing on the happier, optimistic side of things.

And how could I not be happy in Canada? It’s the most awesome place in the world. Walking down Bank Street, seeing all the food shops, seeing the smiles on people’s faces, it was just great. People that know me will tell you I’m a happy person and a butterfly, I like to have fun and build every day.

When I say build I mean I need something to look forward to and some way to improve myself each day. That could be something to do with my daughter, a workout, expanding my mind with a book or whatever. It’s just build and build and build. If you stay functional you’ll never be beat by anything, you just need to give yourself something to do and stay true to you. At times, it might look weird to other people but you have to stay in your own lane of happiness.

The Redblacks’ had a number of great receivers while you were on their roster. Considering games and practices, who had the best hands?

Marcus Henry by far. He was with us our inaugural year but got pushed to the side a bit when we signed all those all-star receivers. He was a good backup but that role took his confidence away. As a guy on the scout team he was always making the sickest catches and in games, whenever he did get some snaps, he could have a DB draped all over his back and the ball still stuck to his hands.

Greg could catch, EJack could catch, Brad could catch and Chris (Williams) could scare you with his speed. Chris made a ton of money as the most lethal and threatening receiver in the CFL with his speed but he couldn’t catch. He dropped a lot of balls but we’re friends so I can say that. Nah, I’m just teasing, Chris could catch, too. But even with all those guys, if Henry had been given the opportunity to progress, his confidence would’ve went to a whole other level. He could’ve been Brad Sinopoli before Sinopoli started smashing all the records. Henry’s catching skills were pure and crazy and he easily had the sickest hands I’ve ever seen.

Second to him was another name you might not expect: Juron Criner. Oh my goodness, Criner’s hands were the size of the tire of my car. And they were strong. You had to hit his hands with a five-pound weight to knock the ball out. I got to stick him a lot at weak half and I had to bash and punch his hands very violently to get the ball out. He was always gonna catch the ball and hang on too.

Did you have any pre-game superstitions?

Nothing superstitious but I had the same routine. I’d drink a lot of water and eat bananas and fruit. Every game day when Abdul Kanneh was on the team he’d come over and we’d spend the day together hanging out. Those were some of the times I enjoyed the most. We’d sit around and wait for the game. We’d go to Whole Foods, grab something to eat, Abdul would sleep and I’d be preparing or stretching. When it was time to go I’d wake him up and we’d hop in an Uber and head to the game.

I’m sure every interception is satisfying, but did you enjoy picking off certain QBs more than others?

Before he joined us I picked off Trevor basically every time we played Toronto. I never picked off Bo Levi but I wanted to shred him, given that he was always the top dog QB per se, but he never threw my way when we played. I think most of my picks were athletic catches but I was very satisfied with the one handed interception I made on Travis Lulay.

Who was the funniest guy you ever played with?

Definitely has to be Jonathan Rose, I have never, ever, met a person like him in my life. He’s just got so much character, I don’t even know how the state of Alabama produced a person with so much personality, it shouldn’t be possible. Rose is a character, a real character man.

Talk me through your ideal off-day in Ottawa.

Let’s imagine it’s after a game so I have two days off. First thing I’d get on my bike, load up on fruit and veggies at Whole Foods and then hop on a bike trail. Ottawa’s got so many incredible paths to bike down, I was always finding new places to explore. They would be beautiful flowers, trails by the river, maybe I’d go hiking too.

I think at heart I just love exploring. Even when we traveled for road games, sometimes we’d have eight hours to ourselves before we played the next night and I remember once in Calgary taking a raft down a super cold river.

Returning to your question, my ideal off-days would involve being outside in nature and just soaking it all in, hiking, biking or doing yoga.

Since you retired, what have you been doing for work?

I am now a manager at a grocery store, work part-time at a rental company and am training people too. It pays in life to always have multiple things on the go. My best friend is a financial advisor and we’re always plotting and planning things. Gotta keep productive and get to a place where one day I have the kind of money to buy a CFL team. Just kidding, I’d rather buy an island if I get that kind of money.

Do you still keep in touch with any former teammates?

As I mentioned earlier, I was off social media for awhile, which cost me my chance to return to the league but also meant I wasn’t in touch with guys that often.

About a year or so ago I got back on Facebook and Instagram and am more active on them now. I get to see the guys I played with update their families during the season or just posting about their families in the off-season. I see guys like Abdul, Trevor just posted about a new baby, Zack Evans is a pretty regular poster on Facebook, there’s guys from my Junior College days and so on.

Everyone seems to comment on other people’s comments, so there’s a lot of joking, sending each other challenges or workout tips and so on. Actually, just the other day Rose posted a picture showing his gains so I have to send him something back to show him I’ve been in the gym too. He was always big but now he looks like a gorilla, thick and strong like a linebacker.

I also FaceTime Sherrod Baltimore every other night, he’s still in Ottawa and training regularly.

Tell me something most fans would be surprised to know about you. 

I fished a lot in Ottawa and I even had a skateboard. Whenever I was in town I was out in the community every day, visiting ice cream shops, popping into places all over Bank Street. Other than that, I really like to garden, because that goes hand in hand with a lot of the other stuff I enjoy doing.

Do you still watch any CFL games? If so, who are the best defensive backs in today’s game?

Definitely, I still love seeing good receiver versus defensive back matchups. As for the best in the game right now, I’d probably say Richard Leonard, Trumaine Washington and Sherrod Baltimore out East. Montreal has some dogs too. In the West I have to mention Winston Rose, he’s been killing it and was downright disrespectful last season. I played with him in Ottawa and watching him now, it’s like a light went off. He was good with the Redblacks but now he’s great. Nick Taylor is another strong name, winning the Grey Cup last season. I know there’s other guys I’m forgetting, but I tend to think of the guys I knew well or played with first.

Ten years from now, when you look back on your time in Ottawa, what will stick with you?

The Canadian lifestyle. Getting to ride my bike everywhere, learning to be more economical and just how educated everyone was with me. Being in Canada got me used to living differently, and I’ve tried to bring that back to the United States with me. I think that helps me stay at a minimalist level and survive down here by not worrying about the normal things every day Americans worry about.

Thanks for your time Jerrell and best of luck in the future!

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).