Sports feature

Fuelled by Family: Ottawa REDBLACKS Quarterback Nick Arbuckle

Nick Arbuckle-Ottawa RedBlacks-21-july2022-Photo: Scott Grant

The past few Canadian Football League seasons have been something of a whirlwind for Ottawa REDBLACKS quarterback Nick Arbuckle. There have been ups and downs, peaks and valleys, but through it all, the thing that’s kept Arbuckle energized and inspired is family.

In the summer of 2019, Arbuckle began to turn heads with the Calgary Stampeders, filling in for injured starter Bo Levi Mitchell for a couple of months. In his final game before Mitchell’s return, Arbuckle walked off the stage with a mic drop, completing 31 of 36 pass attempts for 370 yards and four touchdowns.

That impressive stretch suddenly made Arbuckle a known commodity around the league – a fresh, new CFL quarterback, apparently about to move into a full-time, starting role.

Well, he was definitely about to move all right. A lot.

After that season, his rights were traded to Ottawa, where he was scheduled to be the starter in 2020. But then COVID hit, and asbsolutely no one started that ill-fated season. By the following January, as the league prepared to restart operations, the REDBLACKS decided to go in a new direction. They released Arbuckle, who then signed in Toronto.

Near the end of the 2021 season, the Argos traded Arbuckle to Edmonton, where he immediately signed a one year extension. But then they fired their staff a week later. He was back with the Elks to start this year, but when starter Jeremiah Masoli was hurt in Ottawa, Arbuckle was traded back to the nation’s capital where the whirlwind began.

The 29 year old became the starter in Ottawa for the second half of the season. The team was 1-8 at that point, and their playoff hopes were fading. But with Arbuckle under centre, the team fared considerably better, going 3-3 in his first six starts.

Masoli is under contract for next season, while Arbuckle’s deal has just expired. But that doesn’t close the door here. Masoli is 34, five years older than Arbuckle, and has had two major leg injuries in 3 seasons.

So it’s hard to know if Arbuckle’s football version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is ready to slow down or not. But the journey has definitely been fuelled by family, particularly his wife, Zakiyyah, and his two year old daughter, Aaliyah, who’ve been at his side for every step.

“Oh, yeah,” said Arbuckle, with a beaming smile. “There’s nothing I love more, or makes me feel happier and more special than my wife and my daughter. For one, they’ve been through so much with my career, with the support and everything they’ve done. My daughter’s been just amazing with the experiences and things she’s had to do in just a little over two years of her life.

“It’s just been a unique, special experience from when my wife and I first came up to the CFL in 2016. At that time, I had just finished playing college football and got cut from the NFL. I was living on the couch of one of my teammates from college and Zakiyyah was living with her dad, just outside of Atlanta where we went to college.

“That was our first time being separated from each other. I spent five weeks up here on the practice roster and put together just enough money to come back. We decided to take all of our money that we had saved up out of our accounts, which was just enough to pay for the application fee, the first month’s rent and the security deposit to move in together to an apartment. We didn’t have jobs at the time, but we said, ‘You know, we’re going to do this and figure out how to pay rent going forward.’

“I got back to playing in Calgary and we used the money I made in my first year to pay for our wedding. And then my second year, we got pregnant with our daughter, who was born here in Ottawa during COVID.

“My daughter has now lived in six homes since she was born two and a half years ago. This is her sixth house, fourth city and second country. And that’s been a roller coaster for my wife, who’s been taking care of her while I’ve been away for a month at training camp twice, and being away when I got traded here to Ottawa. It was over a month before I was able to get them to move here with me from Edmonton.

“So they’ve gone through everything to support me and be here for my career. There’s no way I could even thank my wife enough and show enough love and care for her and my daughter. And my daughter loves football.

“She always just wants to go to daddy’s work, wants to go play football and go on the football field. That’s all she talks about every single day. So it’s just fun.”

That created one of the best social media posts of the summer – that video the REDBLACKS put up when Zakiyyah and Aaliyah came to see you at a practice, watching from up in the stands. And you’re down on the field – the big, strong, pro football player – waving and blowing kisses back and forth with your little girl. That was a really nice moment.

Oh, yeah [laughing]. I mean, it’s amazing how fast a two year old learns and what they grasp and how their brain starts to put together what’s happening in routines and all that stuff.

And just seeing how happy she is every time I come home. This past bye week, she wouldn’t let me out of her sight because I was home finally. She’s usually not super cuddly. She likes having her own space and playing and running around. But during the bye week, all she wanted to do was just lay on my chest on the couch and cuddle and watch the movie Moana, two or three times a day.

Every time I’d get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink, she would just yell for daddy to come back, like, ‘Come here!’

Let’s get into your formative years. Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Camarillo, California.

Any brothers or sisters?

Yeah, three older brothers. The oldest is Matt. He’s 43 this year. And then my next brother is Eric. He’s 34. My other brother is Jarrod. He’s 32.

That really seems to be a common thing for pro athletes to be the youngest in the family, chasing older brothers around. Do you feel like that got you off to a great start in sports?

Oh yeah. I mean, just being the youngest and having older brothers who all played sports, were all athletes. Especially having two that were pretty close to me in age with my brother Eric and Jared, who I grew up watching play sports and then playing against them in the yard, playing basketball, football, just getting that competition, that mindset of competing and not wanting to get beat up on while growing up.

And I grew up to be bigger than all of them.

Was there a tune up phase, once you got bigger than them, or a moment in time where the tables turned?

Yeah. Because I got bigger than them very quickly. Going into eighth grade, I was the same size I am now, about six feet, 205 pounds. And I quickly became like the biggest person in the family before I even got to high school.

And competition was everything. When you have older brothers and everybody’s an athlete, you’re competing to see who finishes their food first, because then you’re the person who’s going to get seconds.

And who knows if there’s going to be enough food for whoever finishes last?

What else can you tell us about childhood in Camarillo, beyond sports and all that competition?

I didn’t really have any extracurriculars outside of various sports. And then when I got to high school I committed to being a football player year round. When I was a sophomore in high school and we had 6 am weight lifting, it was my goal to make that lift my second workout of the day.

I’d always go workout at the beach or at the football field at five in the morning. Then I’d lift at 6 am, then do more training after practice or after school during the off season. So I never really did anything other than training and football and other sports growing up. That was kind of always my passion.

Can you tell us about your parents, and how they supported you along the way?

My dad (Steve) was a football coach. So growing up, he coached my brothers. Some of my earliest memories are being on the football field, too young to play. And hanging out there at practice, stealing the water from the players’ water bottles.

My dad always supported me in everything, football or otherwise. Once I got to the high school level, I was known as the huge kid who was a good athlete and dominated on the offensive and defensive line. So I had a conversation with him. I said, ‘I think I’m athletic enough and good enough to play this past high school. But I know if I’m an offensive lineman, I have to be 300 pounds. I don’t really want that. I want to be like my brothers and have the life of a quarterback they had in high school.’

So he came out of retirement to coach my eighth grade team because nobody else really wanted me to play quarterback or even saw me as a quarterback. The other coaches in youth football at that time always knew me as a lineman in my city. And so my dad decided, ‘I’m going to come back to coach so you can play quarterback and get this experience you want to have.’

And so that kind of put me on my path.

Anything I ever needed to do: quarterback coaching camps, going to different colleges and college camps, he invested more money in my career than he probably could afford, just because believed in me and wanted me to have everything I wanted.

And so now, going into my professional career, I’m just trying to repay him for all that.

And then my mom (Michelle), she was always the team mom. She coached my soccer teams when I was like five or six years old. In football, she did all the oranges and snacks, made the t-shirts and the jerseys and she was the loudest one in the stands at every single sporting event that me and my brothers always had.

But she also had a mental illness. She was clinically bipolar and was diagnosed with that around the time that I was born. And that’s what took her out of her career. She was one of the top paralegals in our county. She actually started the paralegal association in our county. But her bipolar disorder took her out of being able to work. And so our family suffered through those ups and downs that come with having a parent that has a mental disorder.

And then my freshman year of high school, my mom committed suicide.

Oh, man. I’m sorry.

Thank you. And that’s kind of what set me up on my path of working the way I worked and training the way I trained, because it started as a way to kind of escape the thoughts and the kind of the pain and depression that could set in when you lose your parent like that.

And it was just me and my dad in the house at the time. My brothers were away in the Marine Corps and in college so it was always just me and my dad at that point. And my dad retired so he could take care of me. He’s 74 now, so he was in his 60s when I was in high school.

So I just buried myself in training because as long as I was training and exerting energy, I wasn’t having negative thoughts and all that kind of stuff. And then, in that process, I fell in love with the training and working out and that love of football I developed.

Nick Arbuckle-Ottawa RedBlacks-10sept2022-Photo: Scott Grant

Has that experience contributed to the perspective you have for life and football? Because you seem to have an amazing head on your shoulders.

Oh, yeah. I mean, you never want to lose, but at the same time you have to understand that, just like life, there’s always going to be adversity and ups and downs and peaks and valleys.

That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about football. I feel like it’s a perfect simulation of what life is all about. And it’s kind of what brings people together on a football team as a family. You have a common opponent or something you’re all trying to overcome together.

And there’s preparation and everything that goes into that. You’re all striving for one goal. Sometimes you fall short and it’s about how you handle yourself, knowing there’s always going to be another opportunity. As long as you’re still playing, that’s just another opportunity, another day to make up for any mistakes you’ve made in the past and to always try to improve yourself. You learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning.

Talking about perspective, if you’re watching game film and doing it from the eyes of a winner, you’re not focused so much on correcting mistakes because you made up for them and won in spite of the mistakes. But when you lose, you look at every mistake on the game film as an opportunity of what could have been – to change the outcome at the end. So you’re looking through everything that happened from the first play to the last play, and if you just did this little thing differently, how could that have changed the outcome? So you learn a lot more.

So we need that adversity – in the game, or football, or in our life in general. It’s how we grow. And that’s kind of what I learned, unfortunately, at a younger age than most when you’re losing your parents. If you’re living a long enough life, you’re going to lose your parents one day. And that’s going to be for all of us, hopefully, to live long enough for that experience. You don’t want it to be when you’re in high school and in an unexpected situation, but you still have to keep going and carrying their memory, and making sure you’re still striving every day to be better, to keep growing and overcome adversity.

And that’s just kind of what I’ve carried on through my life going forward.

With that level of thoughtfulness and perspective, combined with a tireless work ethic, and galvanized by love of family, it’s impossible to imagine Arbuckle being anything but a success, no matter where his path takes him.

Six Fun Questions for
Nick Arbuckle

If you’re going to binge watch a TV series, what show are you choosing?

The show I watch the most is The Office. I’ve seen the Office, all nine seasons, at least 10 to 15 times. It’s background noise when I’m not paying attention to what’s on the screen. But right now, my wife and I really love Game of Thrones and now, of course, House of the Dragon. Those kinds of shows have really been what my wife and I gravitate toward.

Favourite movie?

I would say one of the movies that I would stop and watch anytime it’s on is a movie called Warrior with Tom Hardy. It’s probably not the best movie, but it’s the one that I enjoy watching the most.

Tom Hardy’s great in everything. Favourite sports movie?

Friday Night Lights. Okay. Spoiler alert because the hero team doesn’t win at the end. So I think it’s a little bit different than most of your miracle stories.

Favorite food or meal?

Crab legs. If my wife and I want to celebrate something big and spoil ourselves for dinner, we usually go to a southern seafood restaurant and get king crab legs and all that.

The quarterback from any point in history you most admire?

Tom Brady for sure. Just the longevity and everything he’s done.

What’s the best advice you’d give to a young football player or athlete?

Be the hardest worker. I’d say it’s one of the things that helped me the most. Because playing quarterback and playing sports is all about confidence and I wasn’t a naturally super confident person. If you work the hardest, you can build confidence and build your belief in yourself off of that, just knowing that every time you step on the field or at the court or whatever you’re playing, that nobody’s worked and trained for that moment more than you have.

By Steve Warne


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