Eli Ankou takes the field today as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League. His journey to the NFL has been nothing less than inspiring—one that every young kid who dreams of playing professional football should read. From his first steps on the field as a member of the Cumberland Panthers, to his dominance at St. Peter’s High School as a member of the Knights, Ankou’s development as a football player began here in Ottawa and, to this day, he has an admirable loyalty and commitment to our community. After an outstanding career in the NFL, one of his many goals that remains is to give back to the football community that raised him. “Once I’m done, I’ll be able to help my community a lot more. Maybe I’ll have a bigger platform as a professional athlete”.
The journey from Ottawa to the NFL is one that not many will make in their lifetime, but Eli Ankou is proof that it happens.
Faces Magazine: What was life like for you growing up in Ottawa?
Eli Ankou: I started off living in the South side near Walkley Road, we had a little housing project over there. It was good, but it was a little more violent around there at the time, so my parents wanted to get us out. In 2004, we ended up moving out to Orleans. I grew up out there and went to two different high schools: Béatrice-Desloges and St. Peters High School. Overall, I had a good childhood—I wouldn’t criticize it for where I lived in the beginning. My parents did a great job in making us appreciate what we did have. They’ve always been such loving and caring parents, so that’s always been huge for me, and for my brother and sister as well.
As a kid, did you naturally lean towards the Defensive Line or did you play any Offence? Do you remember how you first started as a Nose Tackle?
I guess I was a big kid. My dad actually wanted to start me off in soccer but I was a little too big for that. I think I got into football during the eighth grade – I was still a pretty big kid at that point too – I was probably around 6’1, 240lbs or something like that; I was a lot bigger than most eighth graders. I did play a lot of positions back then—I started off as a linebacker, I played some defensive-end and I even had my try at running back. It was very fun to play football in Ottawa, but I knew that eventually I wanted to get out and see what’s out there. One man in particular—Victor was his name—watched one of my games and got a hold of me; pretty much any story you hear about me will involve Victor. He became family over time, he’s basically my older brother now. He told me that I had the potential to go far with this sport, and I remember him saying, “I’m willing to commit as much time into you as you’re willing to commit to yourself”. That always stuck with me, that someone was willing to pour all of his resources into helping me out. He was 22 years old at the time, he was still growing up, but he never hesitated to help me out.
You played college football for UCLA. What was that experience like for you, coming from Ottawa and playing for one of the most famous college football programs in the world?
It was huge. My first year there, I didn’t play, but the first game that I was on the sideline for and had my uniform on for, it was something I thought I’d never experience growing up. We were playing Nebraska, so I figure there were probably 80,000 or more fans at the Rose Bowl; I could feel the ground shaking whenever the offensive line and the defensive line were playing each other, and it was crazy to me. That’s when I decided that I really wanted to do this, that I wanted to give it my all to make my mark at the school. It was a good experience despite being injured in 2013. I ended up tearing my MCL/meniscus, hurting my knee, hurting my wrist and dislocating my elbow in 2016. I guess if you love the sport, it never really fazes you too much. Of course, it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to hurt trying to recover, but you try to not skip a beat, and you try to keep going forward.
Did you enjoy living in L.A.? What would you say you enjoyed about it the most and what did you miss most about Ottawa while you were out there?
Absolutely. It’s a good question; it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the weather was the best part – it was always 20 or 25 degrees outside; it was great, sunny and perfect. On the other hand, you start missing the weather in Ottawa, as crazy as that sounds. You get enough sunlight that you start to miss rain and snow, it’s weird. Every winter, I would always say, “I can’t wait to get back to the snow”. For me, that was the big thing. I guess it’s easy to say when you know you’re going back to L.A. after a short two-week visit.
Tell us about how you came to be signed by the Houston Texans this summer. Were you expecting to be signed by an NFL team, or did you think you would be playing this season here in Ottawa after being drafted by the RedBlacks in the CFL draft?
The funny thing was—as crazy as it sounds—I was hoping that a team was going to pick me up. I was thinking that there was a chance I was going to get drafted. I had family over and a couple of friends to watch the draft. I didn’t expect too much but at the same time, I kind of expected something to happen. I had to start thinking about which team I wanted to go to – I knew for sure that I had a shot of making it to the NFL. That was one thing that I was decided on—I was going to make it to the NFL – it was just going to happen. So, I started thinking about my options and I came to the conclusion that Houston would be the best option for me and I guess in the long run, it really was. I learned a lot over there, I got to experience a lot, I got to meet lots of people and coaches too. I ended up calling them and telling them that I was interested. After a few teams had called me, I told them that I was thinking of going to Houston as a free agent to see where the road takes me.
You were told by the Texans that they were going to place you on the practice squad, something that you have stated was like “being touched by the Grim Reaper”; can you tell us a little about that day—did you think that your NFL dream was over or were you confident that you could still make it happen if given the opportunity?
It didn’t feel like the dream was over or anything like that, I still had confidence in my ability to make it. Being totally honest, because I had put all of this time and effort into making this team, and then after months of trying, they told me that I wasn’t the best fit for them right now, but they’d be glad to have me on the practice squad…not that it hurt, but it hit me hard at the time. It hit hard because it took a lot of effort. But sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. There’s always a silver lining to everything. I ended up getting picked up by the Jaguars off waivers. It was a surprise but it was definitely one of the more ecstatic moments of my life. One minute, you don’t make the team, and the next minute, you make another team. That was huge for me, I freaked out. Eventually, I settled in, realized that I would need to put a lot of work in and make my mark in Jacksonville, so here I am.
Who were some of your favourite players growing up? Do you model your game after anyone in particular?
Since I switched positions like twenty thousand times, I picked up on a few players. There was Willie Parker, he ended up playing with the Steelers. There was Troy Polamalu, there was Brandon Jacobs who was a running back for the Giants for a while – there were so many great players that I could list off. You watch them as a kid and you just wish you could get there one day, so it’s crazy to finally get to that point.
Is there anyone on the team who has really taken you under their wing and been a great help for you as you get your start in the NFL?
There are a few players… I wouldn’t say there’s just one specifically. All of the veterans do a good job of showing you the ropes. Right now, Calais Campbell, a super veteran, third contract guy, has been helping me out a lot. He’s been super critical of my game to help develop me. Malik Jackson, Michael Bennett; there are quite a few guys on the team who are helping me out, and I really do appreciate that, so that’s been good for me.
Let’s talk a little about you outside of football—who are some of your favourite artists you listen to? Any music in particular to get you going before the games?
I listen to a lot of piano and classical music. I love Beethoven. I’ll listen to pretty much anything though. I guess the newest craze for me has been this one duo of guys called Hippie Sabotage – they’re from the West Coast. I like their music because it’s relaxing and cool. I don’t shy away from any type of music, I’ll listen to anything.
What do you eat on Game Day?
Before a game, I’ll stick to mashed potatoes or pasta; I’ll usually eat spaghetti. I don’t try to eat too heavy, but at the same time, I still need my carbs; I need that energy. After a game, I’ll usually treat myself to a cup of ice cream.
What are some of your favourite places to go when you’re back in Ottawa?
It’s weird, I’m a super fan of airplanes, I love them, I just have this crazy fascination with them. I like to go to the aviation museum; I like going to check out the planes and learn as much as I can. I’ll literally sit there and talk with the guy about one specific plane for a solid 30 or 40 minutes before I move on. Downtown is always a good spot. For me personally, I like the quiet as well, so I’ll just go to Navan and hang out too, buy some cheese or something (laughs). I just like walking around the city and observing how much stuff changes.
What would you say to young football players in Ottawa who want to follow in your footsteps—what piece of advice would you give them that you think is important for anyone to be successful?
I would want them to know that, whatever I happened to have done, is just as possible for anyone who puts their mind to it. You look at people and you see where they are now, but you don’t see the process that they went through to get there. It takes a lot of work, and it’s a lot of trying to do the right thing. Trying to get your grades up, trying to make practise… the little things. Eventually, the stuff compound; it adds up and then it gets to a point where you can reach your goals. I would tell young players in Ottawa that it’s a process, but that it’s 100 percent possible if you just stick to it and put your mind to it.
Since this issue is coming out for the Holidays, what is your favourite Christmas movie – and if you had to listen to one Christmas song, what would it be?
I have two favourite Christmas songs: Mr. Grinch is definitely my top on, I love the Mr. Grinch song. The Christmas Song is another good one too, but those are pretty much it. As for movies, I pretty much like them all, including the Grinch.
Is there a specific moment from your first NFL game that stands out over the rest? If so, tell us about this moment and what was going on in your head at the time?
It’s funny because for my first regular season game, I was playing against the Texans. It was a weird experience because I was practicing against the offensive linemen for the last two months and suddenly, I’m in another uniform and they’re still like “Hey Eli, what’s up, how’s it going?” We would just casually talk right before we start trying to kill each other on the field. That was pretty funny for me. Obviously, coming out with that win was huge for me. That was big…. that was big.
What are some of the key things you learned during your time spent playing for UCLA?
Again, I guess it comes down to the compound effect. Every little thing you do adds up. All of the extra time you put in matters for whatever you do, and that can apply to anyone. Whatever craft you’re in to, every second you put into it counts. That was true for me, because looking at all of these guys in college football who got drafted, I definitely wasn’t the most talented. There were guys out there that naturally had so much more to offer, but it was a matter of how much work was I going to put in to get to that level—to eventually make it to where everyone’s making it, to the NFL. It’s always about how much you put into it and it will give back.
Can you tell us what the atmosphere is like in the dressing room of an NFL team?
It’s good because it’s very positive, you know, for a team that’s trying to get to a divisional championship. Everyone uplifts each other and feeds off of each other’s energy. I think that’s been helping me out a lot in the adjustment and with me trying to make my way through—the support that everyone has for each other. One thing my UCLA coach always said was, “play for each others’ dreams”. I feel like this applies to this league as well.