Eli Ankou (pronounced Ee-Lee) is one of only four people from Ottawa to ever play in the NFL. After years of hard work, dedication, and some uncertainty in his early NFL Career, today he takes his place on the largest sports franchise in the world: The Dallas Cowboys. Off the field, Eli remains connected not only to his Ottawa ties, but his Black and Indigenous roots, also. His mother belongs to the Ojibwe Tribe, and his father is from Togo. Eli has made it his mission to not only educate himself on the communities he comes from, but to connect Ottawa’s youth to their roots and culture as well. He has spearheaded The Dreamcatcher Foundation, an organization aimed at promoting and connecting underserved communities in the Nation’s Capital with resources and support.
At only 26, Eli remains a consistent and physical force on the field. After an exciting run with the Dallas Cowboys this season, he remains focused on carving his spot on the team in 2021.
You’ve finished the season with the Dallas Cowboys. How is life for you in Dallas? Are you enjoying the city so far?
I’m loving the city, it’s one of the nicest cities I’ve been to, and I’ve been to quite a few cities lately (laughs). Dallas has been awesome. The city is great, the weather is perfectly balanced in my opinion: you know, it’s not too cold.
I know in Ottawa right now it’s snowing really hard, and some parts of Florida can be really hot during the summer… so I feel like Dallas is kind of in-between. It’s dry, but it’s not cold enough to get through your clothes.
The team has been awesome. Everyone’s taking me in with open arms: the coaching staff, the players, it’s been great so far.
When you arrived in Dallas, were there any specific players or staff members who have really taken you under their wing?
It was pretty much an instant connection with Tyrone Crawford, he’s really been helping me adjust. Neville Gallimore has been here for a few months, too. There’s like 4 of us Canadians on the team right now, so it gives us something to talk about (laughs).
Since we last spoke with you a few years ago, a lot has changed. You’ve stated before that one of your biggest takeaways from your NFL journey to date has been patience. Tell us a little about the ups and downs you’ve experienced, from coming out of UCLA undrafted, to being moved around a bit in the NFL. How would you describe the last few years?
Going into the league, they always tell you that it’s not a secure job, and it’s not a job where you find yourself somewhere and stay there. I knew that going in, but I think what’s really hit me is how true it is. Ya, I spent a lot of time in Jacksonville, and it was awesome. But I think it really hit me when I went to Cleveland, and once Cleveland was done and I was going somewhere else. I guess the more I moved teams this year, the more it kept sinking in.
Sometimes things can be out of your control, and you just have to keep doing your own thing. For me, that’s what the case was: to keep running and doing my thing, pushing as hard as I could.
I know what I have to offer as a player, and it’s just a matter of finding that right place. With Dallas this year, it’s been a really good experience so far. They’ve been able to put me to good use and I’ve been able to help as much as I can. The coaching staff has been awesome. So it’s just one of those things where I just have to keep trekking forward.
How did the team cope with the injuries to key players this year? What is the mood on the team?
Everyone is staying checked in, mentally and emotionally. Obviously this team has faced great trials and tribulations this year in games, with injuries, and with the passing of the late Marcus Paul, which was really unfortunate and totally unexpected.
But everyone is staying checked in and focused. It’s just one of those things where you really have to keep yourself mentally checked-in, together, and make sure that you recognize this is something you’re doing together. I think the team has been doing a really good job with that.
What is life like for you away from the football field? Who are some of your favourite musicians?
I will listen to anything. If someone gives me some music, I will take the time to actually give it a chance, because I like discovering new music. As of lately, I’ve been listening to DAX, who is Daniel Nwosu. We actually used to go to St. Pete’s together, and he’s been blowing up lately and doing an amazing job. One of my former teammates Chad Thomas has been making music, you can find him as Major Nine, he makes really good stuff. I listen to these guys out of the West Coast called Hippie Sabotage and Odessa. I will literally listen to anything, it could be a rap artist one minute and then next on the list is a composer (laughs) so a very wide variety of music.
Tell us about the Dream Catcher Foundation. Why was it important for you to do this and what made you want to start it?
Being in the position that I’m in as a professional athlete, and in the public eye, I think it’s my responsibility to bring as much attention to a cause that I think is important as possible. I think that this cause is one that hasn’t had a lot of attention drawn towards it, and I’d like to be a catalyst to help shed some light.
The Dream Catcher Foundation obviously started as a foundation to help underserved, Indigenous communities, and now it’s aiming to bring attention to other causes that can help those communities. Not only by simply going out and physically helping them, but by garnering the attention needed from anyone that can help.
Last summer, you held Eli’s Dream Catcher Camp Day in Ottawa. Tell us about that day and the reaction from the kids who attended it?
So we actually made the Dream Catcher Camp free so any kid who registered could come in, get coaching, and hear guest speakers for free. We had members of Law Enforcement, actually my brother was one of the speakers over at the camp, he’s an officer over in Ottawa.
We had the vision of being able to give that to kids in Ottawa: a day to just go out to play and forget about whatever issues they may be having in their lives. It was a blast, and we had loads of fun.
It’s something I would’ve loved to do again this year, but obviously with COVID it was just very difficult, so whenever things kind of subside, it’s something we would definitely love to get back into and have guests from local Indigenous communities come to and have some fun with all of the other kids from the inner city, and just kind of get everyone going. I think it would also be a good opportunity for a bit of a cultural exchange. Growing up, I don’t feel it was something that was focused on enough. As a kid, learning about Indigenous culture was never learning from the source. I learned from my mom, but other kids don’t really have a grasp on what Indigenous culture really is. So I think that would be a great opportunity to have kids be able to exchange what it’s like to be a part of a certain community.
How do you describe Ottawa – or even Canada – to your American teammates who have never been here before?
If someone asked me what there is to do in Ottawa, here’s what I’d tell them: I personally love Ottawa, it’s a great city, it’s well taken care of. There’s also a rich history with the Parliament Buildings and the creation of our Nation’s Capital.
But the major thing that I tell them is: “If you’re going to go to Ottawa, just be ready to go see a bunch of museums. That’s like our number one thing, we have SO many museums, you’re gonna love it. Obviously downtown you have the canal during the wintertime, you have beavertails…” and obviously whenever I say beavertails everyone always freaks out like “What do you do with the rest of the beaver?” (laughs).
We also have so many beautiful lakes around; beautiful scenery, Gatineau park, Parc Omega, there’s so many things surrounding the city, you can’t really run out of things to do or see. It’s funny, I was just talking to Neville who, funny enough, actually grew up on the same street as me, but we had no idea. He moved into the neighbourhood when I was moving away, but we had no idea until we talked about it a couple weeks ago.
As you head into 2021, how would you sum up 2020 for you? And what are you looking forward to the most in the New Year?
Something we take for granted is the sense of security and routine in our everyday lives, and it’s something that was taken away from a lot of Canadians, Americans, and people all around the world this year. It has put strain on a lot of people’s mental health. Once we get back into a routine, get back to doing our thing as people, it’ll definitely help our situation.
I think this year has been a good opportunity for us to look at ourselves, whether it be the way we do certain things or even as of late a lot of our social causes. People have had the chance to actually research these topics because they have so much time to themselves. We’ve seen a wave of people who want to do good, and I’d just like to see that wave kind of develop into the new year, you know, people continuing to take action.
You are an inspiration to a lot of young kids in Ottawa, kids who now believe, thanks to you and Neville, that they can make it to the NFL. What is your best advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps and play professional football?
I want to tell them to keep their grades up, keep doing everything right, and don’t focus too much on what all the other kids are doing. Sometimes sacrifices are needed. Guys like Neville and I, we were just like them, we were just high school kids who had a vision, and obviously Neville and I did it in a different way from each other, but the point remains: everyone starts somewhere, everyone starts at a very humble point.
The main thing you have to remember is to just keep pressing, just keep working and one day you can be there.
I feel like it was yesterday I was looking at the TV screen and thinking how crazy would it be to play in the NFL one day, and suddenly I find myself on national television every Sunday, kind of just going to work.
So don’t ever stop dreaming, keep working hard, and just know that we came from the same place. It is possible.