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Joel Figueroa wasn’t unlike a lot of young athletes South Florida. After moving with his family from Puerto Rico when he was barely a year old, the hulking offensive tackle played multiple sports, mainly starring in football and baseball, and even played the tenor saxophone in the North Miami high school marching band. He credits another ferocious Florida lineman for helping him make the choice to pursue football: Warren Sapp.
“Just the way he played, the aggressiveness and how he was such a different person off the field. I saw it myself. He’s a funny guy, cared for his teammates but when he gets on that field he’s just a beast, “ said the Lions’ new free agent addition.
When you get to know Figueroa, it doesn’t take long to realize he has some of that same makeup: a jokester off the field, aggressive as they come on it.
“I strive for greatness and I just want to win,” stated Figueroa.
“It doesn’t matter the situation: if we’re up by 20 or down by 20 I am going to be the same guy. I work hard and that’s all I know.”
Figueroa and fellow newcomer Gabriel Knapton spent Tuesday at the club’s facility, getting to know GM Ed Hervey, head coach Wally Buono and other key members of the organization.
These two additions help represent exactly what they need to be: a little nastier up front. The training camp practices should be fun too.
“He (Gabe) is a great player, I have been going against him for a few years now,” explained Figueroa.
“He’s a hard worker and he never quits. He’s the same guy from the first quarter to the last. It’s good to go against someone like that who works hard. He’s going to keep you on your toes at all times and make sure you don’t slack.”
“It’s going to be fun,” said Knapton of Figueroa.
“He’s one guy who sticks out to me as a tough opponent to go against. He matches my motor well. When I know I’m playing against Fig it’s always a battle. I’m excited to do that every day during camp. That kind of competition only makes us better as a team.”
When Hervey first sat down with his staff in preparation for last week’s shopping spree, they quickly came to the conclusion they needed to upgrade the offensive line. After all, the Lions allowed the most sacks and quarterback pressures in 2017. Once the deal for Figueroa was consummated, it was hard for the brass to hide its collective enthusiasm.
“He’s one of the most underrated players in this league,” said Hervey when recapping his free agent activity last week.
“I was quite pleased during the last few weeks when his name was flying under the radar and no one was talking about him. On the flip side of that, he can play right or left tackle, he’s extremely physical, smart and passionate about the game. The last couple of years he has been Edmonton’s best tackle by far, in my opinion. For him to be available was quite a surprise.”
Those aforementioned attributes give the Lions a solid option at left tackle. And he can’t wait to get on the field with his new teammates.
“There is a lot of weapons, both throwing the ball and running the ball,” said Figueroa.
“All I need to do is protect whoever is back there, it doesn’t matter who it is. That’s all I can do: let those guys do what they’ve been gifted with and just do my job and influence what we can do on the offensive line to protect the guy running the ball and the guy throwing it.”
Figueroa parlayed his high school success into a scholarship at the University of Miami; ironically where his idol Sapp terrorized quarterbacks before embarking on his Hall of Fame career in Tampa Bay and Oakland.
Along with suiting up for 43 games at ‘The U,’ Figeuora also won the Community Service Man of the Year Award. You can tell he is already jacked to be back in orange, a colour that is near and dear to the heart of any Hurricane alum.
“It was probably one of the greatest times of my life,” recalled Figeuora of his college days.
“It was the last time playing without getting paid so it was a different kind of passion that you had and a different type of appreciation for the players you had around you.”
He is also hungry to win. His time in Hamilton included back-to-back Grey Cup losses in 2013 and 2014. One was a blowout against Saskatchewan, the other a result of some bad luck on Brandon Banks’ negated punt return touchdown in the final minute.
The chance to win a championship was another big reason he eventually put the tenor sax down and spent more time on the football field.
“I don’t think I’m good anymore,“ joked Figeuora about his marching band skills.
“I was getting chubby and getting bigger. It was harder to run around. Football was perfect.”
The sense of humour is another solid attribute. Off the field, that is.