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July 13, 2017

Figueroa has quick feet, a little salsa in his step

Big beefy offensive linemen don’t usually get a chance to celebrate big plays like a defensive lineman might because they’re successful when the quarterback doesn’t get sacked.

But if anyone on the Edmonton Eskimos’ O-line is prone to do a little dance during practice or a game, left tackle Joel Figueroa is your man.

“Just a regular little 1-2-3-4,” he said. “Just a little movement here and there, but nothing special.

“I was born in Puerto Rico, so I know a little something,” Figueroa explained about his salsa dancing. “I’m not an expert or anything. I’m just fooling around. It’s a part of my culture; something we keep in the family.”

A six-foot-six, 320-pound bear of a man, Figueroa basically grew up in Miami after moving to Florida when he was one year old. He mostly dances when his family has parties.

“Every get-together we have,” he said. “We just love to have fun.

“I do it sometimes in practice as well just to remind people that even though we’re getting paid now, this is still a game.”

Figueroa has quick feet for his size, but doesn’t think his family salsa dancing had anything to do with that.

“It’s just hard work out here, doing what the coaches ask me to do,” he said after a recent training camp session at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium. “That’s what it takes.”

Figueroa joined the Eskimos as a free agent in May 2016 after playing three seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but made only three starts during last year’s regular season plus both playoff games.

“I came here knowing the situation,” he said. “I was willing to go through that, make that sacrifice, because I knew this is where I wanted to be. The coaching, just everybody around, this is the atmosphere I wanted. This is the winning culture I wanted to be around.”

Figueroa said Hamilton was a great place to play because of the fans and the atmosphere at games, “but I knew I wanted something more and this organization is just top class. This is the best.

“I just knew it was time for a change and this was the perfect place to go. I love everything about it. This is the best choice I’ve made.”

As a potential starter at left tackle, Eskimos fans could see a lot more of the soon-to-be 28-year-old this season, which means more opportunities for him to break out a few salsa steps here and there during games.

“Definitely,” he said. “I have fun every time.”

He’ll also be shouldering the huge responsibility of protecting quarterback Mike Reilly’s blindside on what he considers the best offensive line in the CFL.

“The responsibility and pressure, I embrace it,” he said. “Mike has a tough job. My job is to make sure he’s comfortable so he can make all the throws. I like to have that burden on my back because I know I can handle it. Plus, I’ve got the guys next to me. They’re doing everything they can to push me and I’m pushing them.

“I just want to keep everybody off my quarterback and off my running backs and make sure my guy doesn’t touch the ball carrier, period. I’m not thinking about pancake blocks or anything like that. As long as I do my job and don’t get beat mentally, that’s good enough for me.”

Figueroa, who played 43 games over five years at the University of Miami (he was granted an extra year of eligibility after getting injured in 2010), loves the brotherhood of offensive linemen.

It’s what first got him interested in football and was also the highlight of his college career. He played a lot of pickup games with friends while growing up, but didn’t start organized football until Grade 9.

“I really didn’t care too much for it until I got to 10th grade,” he said. “My mind wasn’t in it. I didn’t see myself having a future in football. I was focused on other things … what every teenager goes through, not knowing what you want to do in life.

“Football really helped me grow as a man and it taught me a lot of life lessons. I was thankful for all of the coaches I had in high school and they helped me become the person I am today and got me here and I’m happy where I am today.

“Where I grew up, I didn’t have any hard times … but I saw a lot of people suffering around me and go through some things and lost some friends and whatnot. Going through those things, it’s hard to cope. Football can teach you a lot of life lessons, like working with others and banding together, especially on an offensive line. You can’t do anything without your brothers next to you.

“There’s a lot of things in life that you feel you can go through alone, but it’s just easier when you have other people around you to lean on. A lot of that stuff goes hand-in-hand and that’s when I really started to love football.”

He said his favourite things from college football were practising with the other offensive linemen or just hanging out with them and going out to eat with the quarterbacks.

“It was huge and we do that here,” he said. “It feels like college. The guys here always try to set something up so we can all do something together. It makes everything so much easier on the field.

“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Figueroa continued. “ ‘Oh, why are you guys always together?’ But it’s not like on the other side of the ball, on defence, where if one guy messes up, another guy can make an awesome play, jump over a guy, strip fumble and score. If one offensive lineman screws up and everybody else does perfect, it can be detrimental to the quarterback. We can cause a turnover.

“We all need to work together and we all have to be on the same page every single play. That’s why we always spend as much time together as we can.”