How CFL’s Gaels are approaching the season cancellation

Queen’s football alumni Kwemo, Wiggan, and O’Donnell push through pandemic

Image by: Jodie Grieve
From left to right: Nelkas Kwemo

On Aug. 17, nearly 70 days after the CFL season would have normally started, players and fans received the disappointing news that the season was cancelled. The announcement came after a failed bid from the league to garner a $30 million interest-free loan from the federal government. 

The news puts many players, especially those with a family to provide for, in a tough situation. A year without football means a year without guaranteed income, forcing many to explore different employment opportunities. 

Nelkas Kwemo, Sci ’18, is no stranger to setbacks. He experienced his first season-ending injury in high school after spraining his ACL and saw his interest from Division I NCAA schools dissipate. 

After bouncing back from his injury, the Toronto Argonauts linebacker landed a spot on the Queen’s football team, turning heads early in his post-secondary career. Just five games into his sophomore year, Kwemo led the OUA in tackles and was raising eyebrows throughout the league when he once again suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

What some might view as bad luck, Kwemo saw as an opportunity to better himself. 

“That was a really tough part of my sports career, but I learned a lot from it. I had to find new ways to be a teammate and lead without necessarily participating, and use my voice a lot more, trying to be a positive influence for people who needed my support,” he told The Journal.

“Everything in life is a blessing or a lesson, so that was one big lesson for me and I’m grateful for it.”

Just as Kwemo has found silver linings in his injuries, the 25-year-old isn’t treating the season cancellation any differently. Preparing for a post-football career has been something he’d taken to heart almost as soon as his professional career began.

Kwemo’s secured a job as a research analyst at Barometer Capital, an investment firm in Toronto, and has launched Pride Rock productions, a digital marketing company for small businesses. Not only is Kwemo approaching the cancellation as an opportunity to work on his interests outside of football, the Montreal native is also helping those experiencing COVID-19 outside North America.

Cameroon, where Kwemo’s father is from, has been overwhelmed by COVID-19. Kwemo and his family have helped raise funds on, and have surpassed their fundraising goal of $1.5 million.

Considering how he finds positivity in trying times, the 2017 First Team U Sports All-Canadian recounted how he stumbled into football almost by accident and considers himself blessed for the trajectory his life has taken.

Nelkas Kwemo as a Gael. Credit:Jeff Chan

“Soccer was my sport growing up, but I converted to football when I was 17-years-old. [My high school team] was missing a quarterback, and I was good at quarterback playing in the playground at recess, so I thought I’d give it a try,” Kwemo said. 

“My life today has just been an accumulation of coincidences and circumstances that were sometimes outside of my control. But also, just purely, who would of thought that just me being able to play in the CFL would come from a leap of faith of playing football for fun in high school?” 

Like Kwemo, Derek Wiggan, ArtSci ’15, is focusing on the positives coming from the pandemic. The Calgary Stampeder has found a job for an insurance firm, a field he was planning to pursue post-retirement. 

The news of the cancellation didn’t come as a surprise to Wiggan, who began to suspect the outcome once July came and went without a prospective season. 

Difficult transitions are frequent occurrences for professional athletes, and something Wiggan has overcome in the past. His initial adjustment to the CFL after being drafted in 2014 was short-lived, resulting in being cut after training camp and returning to Queen’s for a fifth year. 

“Oh man, it was rough, that first training camp was rough to say the least,” the defensive tackle told The Journal.

Wiggan came back to Queen’s with a new level of determination, to put on weight and perform at his best. The 28-year-old mapped out exactly how he needed to improve, constructing a regimen to get him there.

The rest was history: he made the Calgary team the following year and won a Grey Cup in 2016. He’s been with the Stampeders ever since.

Derek Wiggan setting a block against Guelph in 2013. Credit:Jeff Chan

Wiggan believes the regimented mindset that’s helped him throughout his football career is also promoting a productive approach the pandemic and season cancellation. 

“I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from football is just having that structure. […] Almost every single hour of the day is planned for us during the season. […] So basically, just keeping that structure going without having football in my life, I make plans and set objectives for myself each day.”

Recognizing the unpredictability of a professional sports career was echoed by Matt O’Donnell, ArtSci ’11.

The First Team All-Canadian was originally drafted by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2011 CFL draft, but ended up initially pursuing an athletic career in the NBA after receiving interest from the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. O’Donnell later found his way to the NFL following the 2011 lockout, and was signed to the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad where he stayed a year before returning to the CFL, this time for the Edmonton Football team. 

O’Donnell remained in Edmonton for two seasons before making another appearance with the Bengals, but was waived by the team under a year later.

Undeterred, O’Donnell returned to Edmonton part way through the 2015 season where the team went on to get a first-round playoff bye, and ultimately secured an elusive Grey Cup victory. 

“It was fantastic, I got back after the NFL training camp, and we won 10 games straight […] we just kept wining and winning and started to feel that mojo. […] The whole week was just amazing.”

Throughout his seasoned career, the 31-year-old league veteran has learned to roll with life’s punches.

“I’ve been on a team that went 4-14 and there’s a lot of negativity and not a lot of comradery […] You’ve just got to take the good with the bad and always prepare for a curveball,” he said. 

“So it’s been a very up and down career when it comes to crazy milestones professionally, and now with the COVID and losing a full season, [that] was definitely a huge curveball though.”

Matt O'Donnell lines up against Calgary in the 2009 Vanier Cup. Credit: Jeff Chan

Without a season, O’Donnell has had to switch his focus from football to finding an alternative means of providing for his family, and has found a job doing industrial cleaning for FourQuest Energy in Edmonton.

“It’s really good I’ve got a lot of friends and family in the energy industry, so they prepared me for it. […] I started applying for jobs after [the league] postponed [the season] the first time because I figured [there was] less and less chance the more time went on.”

Amid reports questioning the future of the CFL, O’Donnell believes the future of the league will largely depend on whether the pandemic still limits social gatherings in a year’s time.

“The CFL makes a lot of money off ticket sales and concessions and stuff like that. So if they can’t make that money, it’s gonna be very hard to continue working like that.”

Like O’Donnell, Wiggan also recognizes the uncertainty for the league’s future and believes the CFL should use this opportunity to evolve for the better. In addition to fostering better communication with the player’s union, Wiggan believes the league needs to better market itself to the Canadian public.

“There’s so many things I believe the league could do to grow our game within Canada and spark interest. At least marketing-wise, I think there’s so many opportunities. The league can’t just be stubborn and just do it their way. They’ve got to look at new revenues and stuff like that.”


CFL, Covid-19, Football, Gaels Athletics, pandemic

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