With an Aug. 5 kickoff looking more and more likely, 2 and Out writers Troy Durrell and Kyle Marshall will be talking to players off all nine CFL teams to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, their off-season training and their level of optimism of the season starting on time. This week’s guest is Ottawa REDBLACKS special teams ace Lewis Ward.
Lewis Ward is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. If you follow the Canadian Football League close enough and have watched an Ottawa REDBLACKS game over the 2018 and 2019, you’ll have heard his story. He was working as a security guard at the 105th Grey Cup game at TD Place in Ottawa after going undrafted earlier that spring, returned to the University of Ottawa for his fifth and final year where he set all sorts of USPORTS records which caught the attention of the REDBLACKS attention. The team invited Ward to their 2018 training camp along with Richie Leone, Sergio Castillo and Mathieu Herbert, whom he and Leone beat out for the kicking and punting jobs respectively.
When the 2020 CFL season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ward was faced with another challenge. What was he going to do without football?
“I moved back to Kingston in November and my mom was able to get me a job at the Kingston General Hospital as a COVID access screener” Ward said when asked about what he’s been doing since word came down last August that the 2020 season was going to be cancelled.
“Patients, visitors, people that come through the hospital, they go through a screening process. So I do that as well as help direct people to get where they need to go. It’s just kind of something that I’ve kind of had to do with not being able to play football. It’s something that’s full-time to pay all the bills … I couldn’t really jump into what I possibly wanted to do with my next career because obviously football is still number one at the moment.”
Like most players across the league, 2020 was the first time Ward hadn’t played football since his youth days. Ward said he’s struggled a bit with the fact that football has temporarily been taken away from him and his peers.
“Yeah it’s tough. Not being able to do something that you love to do is hard and sometimes you look at it as life being a little bit unfair. It’s not because you’re not capable of doing it (playing football), but with the COVID-19 restrictions it’s just something we physically can’t do,” Ward said reflecting on his time away from the game.
“You miss the guys, you miss the competition, the excitement and interacting with the fans. That aspect was always something that I really enjoyed … being able to interact with people and kids outside of football, you miss that aspect as well. But with COVID, this is just something we have to do at the moment but I can’t wait to get back to it.”
Training for a potential 2021 season has been a bit of a challenge too with the seemingly always changing restrictions.
“I’ve always been kind of spoiled in terms of training. The gym I used to coach at in Ottawa gave me access to use the facility there so it was never really a financial issue to use the gym. Then obviously I had the stadium and the University of Ottawa was great to me, allowing me to use the indoor dome facilities and gym if I ever needed to,” Ward recalls of his training schedule prior to the pandemic.
“Moving back to Kingston, the one big difference I’ve noticed is I haven’t been able to kick as much with dome usage not being as available because of restrictions here in Canada. It’s very difficult to get onto a field, especially in the middle of the winter when domes aren’t allowed to be open. But in terms of training outside of kicking, I’ve been very lucky that I fall under a category that has allowed me to train throughout the pandemic. I’ve been training with Josh Maveety, (former Bishop’s Gaitors kicker and punter) and he knows quite a bit about kicking and some of the fitness side of that. So I’ve been very fortunate to get in contact with him and be able to train with him throughout the off-season this year.”
With the cancellation of the 2020 season, Ward said it was tough to stay motivated at times when it came to training, but has a renewed sense of confidence that the league will indeed play in 2021.
“(Training) is something you have to do regardless as a football player. It’s something you do year-round but yes it was tough to stay motivated at times because you look around and go ‘well what’s the point?’,” Ward said. “But the thing that left a sour taste in the players mouths I think was things just kept getting pushed (back). We were pushed in May, then we had a day to start in June or July and then it got to August saying we’re going to start in September and then it was no more season. Well guys had then spent hours of training and away from a potential full-time jobs so a lot of guys were training with not a lot of financial income, then it gets taken out from underneath you and we’re kind of left hanging. If they really weren’t planning on having a season, I wish they would have let us know so we could have had a plan outside of football.”
“With that being said, I’m pretty confident (in the August 5th start date). I’m pretty optimistic that it’s going to happen, but I’ll believe it when we get our confirmation and everything is set in place to get going. There really is no choice at this point … we HAVE to play. I think with the way things are trending and the plan they (the league) has in place, I’m pretty confident we’ll have an August 5th start date. I know the league has Plan A, B and C in place of getting a schedule out so I’m pretty confident we’re going to start on time.”
When Ward is able to step back onto a CFL field, he’ll be looking to continue his momentum that he built up over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In his first year, Ward made 98 per cent of his kicks, hitting 51 of 52, which helped him set a pro football record for most consecutive made kicks, which also helped him earn the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Award. He followed up his rookie season by making 43 of his 50 attempts, good for an 86 per cent conversion rate. These two seasons combined places his average rate of field goals made at 92 per cent.
“I’ve kind of spoke about the whole 98 per cent season and that’s not really reality. To do something like that is something I can’t even really explain,” Ward said. “It’s not real life almost, so that’s where I have to come back down to earth and realize that. The 86 per cent has to be better because you strive for that 100 per cent every time but I’ll just have to get back into the mentality of taking it one kick at a time and not get too worked up in what the percentage is.”
“If I can just go out and focus on making one kick at a time and the things I can control instead of trying to strive for 98 per cent every time, the results will come.”
While Ward had a solid sophomore season with Ottawa, the team struggled after starting the season off 2-0. The REDBLACKS won just once in the remaining 16 games, going 3-15 in 2019, a far cry from an appearance in the Grey Cup the season before. Ottawa’s record in 2019 has led to many media members and fans across the league to pick Ottawa to finish near the bottom in the Eastern Division. This comes even though the team named offensive guru Paul LaPolice as the team’s second head coach in franchise history, while also adding proven veterans in quarterback Matt Nichols, receiver Jalen Saunders, defensive lineman Cleyon Laing among others.
“I mean any time people say negative things about you, you get that little bit of extra motivation. Not that we need anymore (motivation) but we want prove our belief to other people and say ‘hey we can be competitors this year’,” Ward said.
“After talking to Coach (Paul) LaPolice, the special teams coaches and players on the team, I don’t think anyone is too worried about what’s being said in a negative light. There are pieces of the puzzle that are being put in place here and I think they will make a great impact in the REDBLACKS locker room as well as on the field.”