Leader of the Mafia: Antoine Pruneau’s passion for Redblacks never waned

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

If not for a disgruntled Kevin Glenn, Antoine Pruneau’s stellar Redblacks career might never have happened.

Had Glenn welcomed a quarterback competition with Henry Burris, then general manager Marcel Desjardins never makes the trade that flipped Glenn to the B.C. Lions for the fifth overall pick in the 2014 CFL Draft. That pick was subsequently packaged with the tenth overall choice and sent to Montreal for the fourth and 13th picks, landing Pruneau, a defensive back out of the Université de Montréal, with that first-round selection.

It didn’t take long for the Carabins product to make a strong impression with R-Nation. After cutting his teeth on special teams, the six-foot, 200-pounder broke into the lineup as a starter — at strong-side linebacker no less — in Week 6 of his rookie season. Pruneau rewarded Rick Campbell’s decision to start him by finishing the game with eight tackles. He followed that up by notching ten tackles, a sack and forcing a fumble the following week against Edmonton. He was constantly around the ball; a theme that would continue throughout all eight of his CFL seasons.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

After being anointed a starter in 2014, the Montreal native remained a cornerstone of Ottawa’s defence, first at linebacker and then at free safety, until the start of 2022 when head coach Paul LaPolice shifted him into a rotational role.

Over the course of his career, Pruneau suited up for 122 regular-season games, amassing 374 defensive tackles, 74 special teams tackles, 10 interceptions, four sacks, four forced fumbles and one touchdown. He retires as the franchise leader in games played and was the first to cross the century mark.

Every year when the calendar flipped to November and the weather got colder, it seemed like Prueanu took his play to another level. In seven playoff games, he made 31 tackles. His three trips to the game’s biggest stage resulted in one Grey Cup ring and 13 tackles.

In addition to his defensive exploits, Pruneau starred on special teams for the entirety of his career. The pride he took in grinding on that often overlooked, yet key phase of the game was impressive.

Pruneau was a fan favourite not only because he helped end the city’s four-decade-long championship drought, but because his passion and desire to win were always evident from the stands.

Not everyone would gut it out and play through various injuries, including broken bones like he did. Even after tough losses, Pruneau was never one to shy away from a microphone or hide behind excuses. His frustration with the losses that piled up towards the end of his career was a reflection of the mood of the fan base.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

In an interview with TSN 1200, Pruneau alluded to the fact that despite his body feeling good, he wasn’t interested in returning to the Redblacks for the role he played in 2022. It was the only time in his career that he failed to start a single game.

Although he was rotated in on defence when players went down with injury or for specific packages, Pruneau was otherwise limited to playing special teams. Yet he never moped or complained publicly about his diminished role. His trademark hustle remained on display, even if his efforts didn’t always result in stats. He did a stellar job of setting the edge on punt coverage and was a key factor in why Ottawa’s unit was so effective. He also notched the first safety of his career.

Pruneau was named Ottawa’s Rookie of the Year in 2014 and an East Division all-star in 2017 but as much as the Grey Cup win and individual awards stand out, his off-the-field contributions were just as significant.

So many in R-Nation considered Pruneau to be the face of the franchise given his involvement with things like the Redblacks’ annual Women’s Night, frequent participation in Quarterback Clubs, and his volunteer coaching of minor football teams in both Ottawa and Gatineau. He always had time for fans on the field following home games and in the community.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

No. 6 was also the godfather of Ottawa’s “French Mafia” — the group name for the team’s francophone players — who bonded off the field by helping each other settle into town, eating together, playing card games and attempting to teach French to keen Anglophone teammates like former quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Although Pruneau is headed to the Université de Montréal to work as an assistant defensive coordinator with the Carabins, hopefully, OSEG does the right thing and brings him back to Lansdowne at some point in 2023 for fans to give him a proper send-off. Not like the rainy Wednesday night “tribute” — I use that term as loosely as possible — they did for Brad Sinopoli during the 2021 season in a half-empty stadium, but a proper half-time ceremony.

It’s not every day that a foundational piece of your franchise walks away from the game after spending his entire career in one place. R-Nation watched Pruneau evolve from an inexperienced but eager rookie to an impact player-maker, to a Grey Cup champion, to a reliable veteran special teamer.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Pruneau’s passion, constant hard work and dedication deserve to be honoured. No. 6 always left it all on the field, and that’s how fans should remember him.

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).