Big man, bigger career: Elks’ OL Matt O’Donnell retires after nine seasons in Green & Gold

The Edmonton Elks longest serving player, offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell, has announced his retirement ahead of CFL free agency.

A veteran of 130 CFL regular season games, O’Donnell played all nine of his CFL seasons in Edmonton after making his debut with the Double E back in 2012.

The Queen’s University product was a stalwart on the offensive line for the Elks throughout his impressive career, most notably playing a key role during the club’s 2015 Grey Cup championship.

A CFL All-Star in 2017 and a division all-star in 2019, O’Donnell was Edmonton’s nominee for most outstanding offensive lineman four-times (2013, 2017, 2018, 2021). He was also the club’s nominee for most outstanding Canadian in 2017.

“To all my teammates, coaches, athletic therapists, trainers, equipment, and support staff over the years — I want to truly thank you for being there for me and each other. I had the luxury of crossing paths with some of the greatest people I’ve come to call friends here in this building,” O’Donnell wrote in his retirement statement, which can be found in full below.

In addition to his excellence on the field, which was highlighted by his peers as a CFLPA All-Star in both 2017 and 2021, O’Donnell was also one of the Green and Gold’s best ambassadors in the community.

Fittingly, O’Donnell was also announced Thursday as the team’s 2021 David Boone Award winner. It marks the second consecutive season O’Donnell has won the award, which is given annually to the Elks’ player who best displays the characteristics of former EE defensive lineman David Boone both on and off the field.

His two Boone Awards were also accompanied by a pair of Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award nominations (2017 and 2021).

Despite the hurdles COVID-19 provided in terms of community involvement, O’Donnell remained active. In addition to his work with programs like TELUS Wise #EndBullying, he’s part of VOICE, which works to promote ending gender-based violence. He also became a blood and plasma donor during the pandemic, and will remain a fixture in the Edmonton area long after his days on the gridiron.

“It’s come to a point in my life where I feel I could still perform at the peak of my professional abilities on the field, however, every athlete eventually has to make a difficult decision regarding life after athletics,” explained O’Donnell in a statement.

“With that being said, having taken a few months to deeply reflect on my situation, I’m truly content to start that next chapter of my personal and professional life outside of football here in Edmonton. This city has been my home since I stepped onto the tarmac in 2012. It has seen me grow through the peaks and valleys of my personal and professional life. For that I’ll be forever grateful.”

Before going pro, O’Donnell was a standout at the university level, winning the 2009 Vanier Cup and twice being named an All-Canadian for the Queen’s Gaels. He leaves the CFL on his own terms after starting all 14 games in 2021.

Originally drafted by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the second round (15th overall) of the 2011 CFL Draft, O’Donnell came to the Double E via trade in September of 2012 after spending parts of two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.

It was a trade that proved to be a huge win for Edmonton, as O’Donnell went on to make 121 regular season starts and an additional 11 post-season starts in Green and Gold.

As far as a teammate’s perspective, few got more out of playing with O’Donnell than fellow offensive lineman David Beard, who spent six seasons alongside the six-foot-11 O’Donnell.

“Matt is a true professional. There’s a select group of players throughout the club’s history who have experienced the highs and lows that Matt has,” said Beard. “Matt’s reliability speaks for itself. Year in and year out the team counted on him to show up and compete to win. It’s been a pleasure to play alongside him and I wish him all the best in retirement — B.O.N.E.”