November 9, 2017

All-star nods can’t shift Eskimos focus off playoffs

Just like the Eskimos, who are getting ready to play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division Semi Final, Almondo Sewell needed a strong push at the end of the CFL season to get rewarded.

The Eskimos 30-year-old defensive tackle was named to the West Division All-Star Team on Wednesday for the sixth consecutive year after collecting a quarterback sack in six of the last seven regular season games – including a career-high five games in a row – while also racking up 19 of his 36 defensive tackles.

“It means everything,” said Sewell. “I couldn’t do it without my teammates.”

Fellow international defensive tackles Euclid Cummings (eight sacks) and Da’Quan Bowers (seven sacks) helped share the load in the middle of the Eskimos defensive line this season.

“I’m glad to see it worked out,” Sewell added. “I started out pretty slow, but I had to dig myself out of a hole real quick.”

The six-foot-four, 288-pound D-lineman was frustrated early in the season after getting injured and missing the game at Winnipeg in August.

“I wasn’t getting sacks or TFL (tackles for losses) or push up the middle,” he explained. “Once I got healthy, it felt great.”

Other Eskimos joining Sewell on the West Division all-star team – selected by the CFL head coaches and the Football Reporters of Canada – were record-breaking quarterback Mike Reilly and three first-time all-stars – slotback Brandon Zylstra, offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell and linebacker Kenny Ladler.

Eskimos veteran slotback Adarius Bowman was nominated for the CFL Players Association’s Tom Pate Award while O’Donnell was also nominated for the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award this week.

“I’m proud of our guys who made the list,” said Reilly, who had previously been selected a West Division all-star in 2014. “Obviously, we’re in a tough division, so when guys on our team make that list, they’ve earned it.”

But Reilly also admitted that the honours really don’t mean anything right now.

“Our work is just starting,” he said, referring to the Eskimos preparing for Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. playoff game against the Bombers at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg.

The teams finished the regular season with identical 12-6 records, but Winnipeg was awarded the home playoff date after sweeping both games with Edmonton this year. The Eskimos are attempting to win the Grey Cup without having a home playoff game for the first time since 2005 and only the second time ever.

Reilly had a host of accomplishments this season. The 32-year-old QB set a club record with a league-leading 5,830 passing yards while becoming one of only six CFL pivots to put up back-to-back 5,000-yard seasons. He also broke other club records with a 108-yard pass-and-run touchdown play with wide receiver Vidal Hazelton and being involved with 42 TDs (30 passing and a league-leading 12 rushing).

“I know we’re playing good football right now,” Reilly said. “But last week and this past season, the 18 games, don’t mean anything. Now it’s one game at a time as it always is, knowing that if you don’t take care of business, you’re going home and you don’t get another chance.”

Reilly was named a CFL player of the month in July and October and also won player of the week awards in Week 5 and Week 8.

“There’s something special about him,” O’Donnell said. “He’s such a warrior, a good athlete, and he’s got great weapons around him.”

Zylstra, 24, is one of those weapons. He led the league with 1,687 receiving yards – the third-highest single-season total in Eskimos history – and was first among all CFL receivers with 487 YAC (yards after catch) in his first full season in the league. The six-foot-three, 220-pound slotback wasn’t activated for the Eskimos game roster until the last six regular-season games in 2016.

“It’s definitely something I’m proud of,” he said about the all-star award. “This was a goal at the beginning of the year for me. As my brother and I always say, I’m proud, but never satisfied. There’s always more you can do.”

Zylstra also had five touchdowns and a two-point convert among his 100 catches, averaging 16.9 yards per catch. A CFL player of the month in September, he set a team record with 10 100-yard receiving games and also served as a punt and kickoff returner for a few games in mid-season.

O’Donnell, 28, who was named the Eskimos Most Outstanding Canadian Player and Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman last week, was more excited about the offensive line leading the league in fewest quarterback sacks allowed (29) for only the second time this season than his first all-star nod.

“It’s all about the playoffs right now,” the versatile six-foot-11, 350-pound right guard pointed out. “(The Bombers) have a good D-line. We saw them put up seven sacks against Calgary (last week) that actually got us the title.”

O’Donnell, who along with Reilly were the only Eskimos players to start every game, was the only constant on Edmonton’s offensive line that used 11 different players over the course of the season.

Ladler, 25, was a leader on the Eskimos defence, playing every contest until sitting out the second-last game of the regular season to heal some minor injuries. He led the team with 86 defensive tackles and also chipped in 13 special teams tackles to finish fifth in the league for total tackles.

“It’s an honour to be recognized as one of the best players at my position in the West,” said Ladler, who also made three interceptions, forced and recovered two fumbles, and blocked an attempted field goal. “I’m just ready to move on, to use that as momentum for the playoffs and make more impact plays for our defence and for our team to help lead us to the Grey Cup.”

Zylstra called Ladler one of his favourite defensive players on the Eskimos after working against him every day in practice.

“He’s always flying around, he’s relentless with his pursuit,” Zylstra said. “He’s been super patient. It’s hard to hit him with double moves and stuff, because that’s what I normally run on him being from the slot position. He’s really matured in the game and it’s fun to see him grow like that. He definitely deserved this award.”

The Tom Pate award is given to players “who display qualities that distinguish them from their peers off the field.” It recognizes players with outstanding sportsmanship who have made a contribution to his team as well as the community and players’ association. Pate died at the age of 23 after suffering an aneurysm in only his 14th game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1975.

Bowman, 32, who is in his seventh season with the Eskimos, said just living in Edmonton has helped teach him to give back to the community. He did that in a big way this year by starting the Adarius 4 Autism non-profit corporation to assist youth diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and then actively serving as president, making several appearances in the community during the football season.

“Helping our youth is our main purpose and I’ve had a great, great, great time working with the autistic community,” he said. “It really became a passion of mine. Hopefully, I can always be around Edmonton and continue to do some things to get a facility open for these kids and teens.”

Bowman earned a college degree in elementary education and knew that he would eventually be involved in helping youth in some manner.

Meanwhile, the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award is given to a CFL player who best demonstrates the attributes of Canada’s veterans – strength, perseverance, courage, comradeship and contribution to the community. It also recognizes Gaudaur, the former CFL commissioner and distinguished Second World War veteran.

O’Donnell, a sixth-year veteran with the Eskimos, was the champion of this year’s PINK initiative, having spent a short time away from the team to be with his mother as she fought breast cancer. He also raised funds for women’s cancer research through the team’s Annual Women’s Dinner in support of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women.

An encouraging and positive presence in the Edmonton locker room, he was also a pivotal contributor on the O-line as well as a key leader at the annual amateur football camp and the Eskimos Kids Club, spending time with children on the field after games, win or lose.