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Football is often described as a “battle in the trenches” or “war of attrition.” As for players themselves, they often talk about having to “leave it all out on the field.”
You can hear these combat clichés in pretty much every broadcast, halftime sideline interview or post-game locker room scrum.
For players like Cameron Ontko, those sayings hit close to home and it doesn’t take much to remind them of the fact they are indeed just playing a game for a living.
The Lions’ linebacker and leading special teams tackler from 2016 has a heavy heart as he goes through his rigorous offseason training program in preparation for his first full camp with the squad.
His Brother Connor is currently stationed with the US National Guard in Jordan, a few hours from the Syrian border.
As many of us folks get ready to spend quality time with family over the Easter weekend, the Lions second-year linebacker is doing lots of reflecting with his brother on the other side of the world, close to an area where there is lots of tension and unrest.
“I just talked to him today,” Ontko said on Wednesday morning from his Yaletown apartment. “He is currently working with the Jordanian forces after spending three months with the Infantry in Fort Drum, New York.”
As you might expect, the elder Ontko has had a few sleepless nights since last week’s chemical weapons attack that killed at least 70 civilians and subsequent American bomb strike of a Syrian airbase.
“He can’t exactly give details on how close he is exactly and what he is feeling but it is so scary. It has just really hit home that he is over there and this tragedy that our world is going through is real and we’re living through it,” Ontko added.
Being able to communicate via Facebook and text messages has made the situation a lot easier on both ends of the world.
“The good thing is Connor is keeping his spirits up and feeling pretty good. He is staying positive and I feel pretty good about it. He is in good hands.”
Indeed modern technology has its benefits. The two brothers haven’t seen much of each other since Cameron left home in Cleveland to play his college football at Cal. Poly.
After a productive three-year stint at the west coast campus, where he also played running back, Ontko found his way onto the Calgary Stampeders roster, seeing action in four games during 2015. After his release from Cowtown, the Lions quickly snapped him up in June of last year.
As you might imagine, the younger Ontko has always looked up to Big Brother, especially since he migrated north of the border to embark on a pro career. It’s a safe bet he has become the biggest BC Lions supporter among US military troops.
“He told me to tell you guys he appreciates the support from the BC Lions and the CFL. It keeps his spirits up and keeps him going everyday.”
As Connor is in good hands overseas, Cameron maintains he has been as well during a productive offseason of training.
Perhaps there is a little irony in the fact he has done plenty of work with Adam Bighill as part of Rob Williams’ Vancouver Sports Core Performance training. After all, it should be a pretty juicy competition to fill Bighill’s spot at starting inside linebacker.
“It motivates me beyond belief,” Ontko said of the possibilities to start. “It was absolutely amazing training with Biggs this whole offseason because I understood what it takes to be the player he has been on and off the field. With his open spot I am going to come in and compete. I am ready to strap it on and get going.”
Ontko represents just one possibility to replace the one-time CFL Most Outstanding Player and four-time league all-star. The Lions went hard after former Blue Bomber Tony Burnett in free agency. There is also Dyshawn Davis who no doubt learned a lot on the practice roster in 2016. Micah Awe comes highly regarded out of Texas Tech and spent part of last season on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’’ practice squad.
Should they experiment with a non-import there is the always-reliable Jason Arakgi as well as Adrian Clarke and Nehemie Kankolongo. It will not doubt be one of the more fascinating storylines when veterans report to Kamloops May 27th.
“I learned so much last year from Biggie, Solly and Arakgi. I have learned that I don’t need to worry about anyone else they bring it, that’s just an outside distraction.
All I have to worry about is how I perform, be confident in what I have done for years and have fun with my teammates. It’s going to be a super exciting year and I am ready to help the team any way I can,”stated Ontko.
“The Grey Cup is the ultimate goal and we look pretty good on paper.”
As mini-camp and the journey to Kamloops both draw closer, Ontko knows thinking about his brother will provide the ultimate motivation and inspiration.
“Whenever I look at a map I say to myself ‘man, he is so close (to Syria).’
This December for Christmas I made it a point to spend as much time as possible with him. I was there for two weeks. I had to cherish those moments because I knew he was being sent away for deployment.”
They may be on opposite sides of the planet, but you can tell they are closer than ever.
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org