Redblacks offensive lineman Alex Mateas has lived out a dream that many young football players aim for: after a full-ride scholarship to an NCAA division one school, he was drafted #1 overall in the CFL to his hometown team in 2015. Mateas, born to Eastern European parents who immigrated to Canada before he was born, attended Merivale Highschool and played for the Cumberland Panthers before playing for Penn State and the University of Connecticut.
Alex’s football career has been one of dreams, but some may be surprised to know that football wasn’t always in his sights. As a kid, Alex played soccer and basketball, and practiced judo, a sport that trained him to avoid violence. Succeeding in a violent sport has been something of an accomplishment for the 6’4 Mateas, who only saw his first football game at the age of 11.
But, even when he was training in judo, basketball, or soccer, Alex had the support and guidance of many great mentors, friends, and leaders. To him, these people helped to shape him into the athlete and man he is today.
Though Football has been off the field for the year, Redblacks’ offensive lineman Alex Mateas remains competitive in the world of commercial real estate. Though it’s a shift for Mateas, he enjoys the ability to continue to learn and grow, and connect with the Ottawa community that has supported him his entire life.
We caught up with Alex to discuss his journey to the CFL, his greatest accomplishments, and his thoughts on the rumoured XFL/CFL merger.
Photography by Sean Sisk
You were born and raised in Ottawa. Did you go to any Rough Riders or Renegades games as a kid?
My first exposure to a Renegades game was when I was 11 years old. One of my friends had a birthday party, they brought us to the Renegades game and the only thing I remember from that is the cheerleaders (laughs).
At 11 years old I was a soccer player through and through. My family owned a soccer club, both of my sisters played, and my dad coached. So I grew up playing soccer, and we actually weren’t big fans of football. My dad, being an immigrant, called them ‘headbangers’. And now, I’m a headbanger.
Tell us a bit about your time at Merivale High School. Did you have any teachers or coaches that really helped to shape you into the player and man you are today?
I think highschool is an important time for everyone, and Merivale Highschool played a huge role in my growth growing up. There were three coaches that I spent a lot of time around throughout my four years there: Mr. Elliot, Mr. Mellow, and Mr. Graham. They were the football and rugby coaches, and they helped me, and others like me, who struggled in school feel a little more comfortable with academics.
Mr. Elliot was one of my football coaches, and I actually had him as a teacher for one of my classes. I remember in my senior year, a coach from Buffalo University came out to interview me and scout me. When I came back from that interview to Mr. Elliot’s class, he took me aside and spoke to me very honestly, and pretty much said that if I did’t get my act together then I wouldn’t become eligible academically.
I was a C student at best, and I was failing his course at the time. So right after that interview, he just pleaded with me to hit a C. He helped me to see the value of just getting it done. That was extremely helpful, and I still think about that to this day. So thank you, Mr. Elliot.
What was it like playing in the NCAA for a program like UConn in front of 40,000 fans? Was it intimidating at first?
It was incredibly intimidating. The background that I had with football was pretty limited, even though I had a scholarship. When you make a mistake in that environment, in front of 40,000 people, you have to learn from it very quickly.
It was my first year as a starter and third in University. It was the second game. We were at home, so 45,000 people were watching us play against Rutgers. I can’t remember where in the game it was but we were walking down the field towards the jumbotron and the camera zoomed in on the offensive line. For the first time I saw the back of my jersey, with the Mateas name on it, in front of 45,000 people. I remember it so clearly, but I also remember the two false snaps directly after that (laughs). Because I had taken my mind out of the game for that split second I made two very big mistakes in the next three plays.
The whole team was mad, I screwed up our drive, the offense was off the field. At that level, your teammates openly express how much you negatively impacted the game. It was a quick learning experience for me.
When I came up to Canada to play in the CFL, I was starting the game in Hamilton and I was really excited. In my mind, I thought that because I had played in front of 45,000 to 100,000 people in college, that 25,000 people in Hamilton would be a piece of cake, but the same thing went wrong. As soon as I got on, I had three false snaps and two drives…it’s just the way it goes.
Did you have trouble adapting from Canadian rules to American rules?
There was almost too much that I was struggling with to focus on the actual rules. When I was in high school, I was playing tackle, so I was able to get away with just my athleticism and moving my feet and getting in front of the person. But when I went down to the NCAA to play American ball, they had put me at guard and center, which is a lot more physical. It’s different footwork, a little bit of a different animal. So going from the Canadian rules to the American, I was just struggling in general with the intensity and all of the impact. The whole thing was a struggle.
You were drafted #1 overall by your hometown REDBLACKS in 2015. How special was that for you to not only be coming home, but to be selected #1 overall in the Draft?
It meant everything to me. It still means a lot. Although I had family members and mentors explain the importance of getting drafted to my hometown, I think through the years I’ve really begun to understand the value of it.
After winning the 2016 Grey Cup, I really had the chance to listen to the community and have them share their stories and their experiences with football in Ottawa and the Renegades and Rough Riders in the past. Because I didn’t grow up in the football community, I didn’t have a strong connection to it before then. The 2016 Grey Cup is a conversation that I continue to have with new fans and old fans. It’s really been eye opening to show me just how much of a football city Ottawa is. People are engaged, people understand the rules, they love it and they support it.
Getting drafted to Ottawa has been incredible, and the Grey Cup has really helped me to understand where football fits in Ottawa. I love this city.
Who was the first person you called when you got drafted? Why was it important to you that you called that person first?
The first person I called after I got drafted was Matt McDonald. He is one of my best friends, a brother. Before I had ever signed up for a football team or put on any football pads, I had told him I was going to get a full ride scholarship to a division one NCAA school. He always understood and supported me. He had no doubts.
Tell us about your long standing friendship with Ottawa entrepreneur Nik Topolovec. How did your friendship begin?
I owe everything outside of football and in the last five years to Nik Topolovec. I’ve known him since I was 16, my second year playing football. Coming from Nepean, the team in the West End that I would play for had folded in my age group that year, so I played for the Cumberland Panthers. And that is the best thing that could have happened to me, because I got the chance to meet Nik. At that point with the Cumberland Panthers I was an offensive tackle, and Nik was a defensive end, and we would go up against each other one on one during practice. His dad’s from an Eastern European background and so is mine, both are immigrants. We just kind of meshed and got along well together. So throughout that season with the panthers, Nik and I would practice by going one on one against each other and just kept on working on our craft.
We stayed in touch after. Every year in uni whenever I’d come back to Ottawa, we’d have our annual poutine hangout, which you always need when you come back to Canada.
Since I’ve come back to Ottawa he’s really embraced helping me to the fullest. He’s introduced me to a lot of people in this city. And since then those connections have grown. It’s definitely a little-big city, the degree of separation is like two to three people, max.
And so Nik really showed me that and introduced me to a lot of community leaders, in both business and the city’s charitable organizations. Getting a chance to follow his lead and meet as many people as possible was extremely helpful for me. He helped me to see that football is limited, the time that I’ll be playing football is limited, and that I need to make the most of the time that I’ll be playing. Throughout all of that he’s really helped me to find some direction in a career post football and just learn how I can be me, still be competitive and still be a people person and try to find direction once football ends.
Is there a specific lesson that he taught you about transitioning from football into your professional career?
He always told me to provide as much value as possible to everyone and to try and learn as much as you can from those people. If I focus my time on those two efforts while I’m networking, that something will come together in the future organically and in a positive way.
What have you and Nik worked on this past year, amid (and despite) COVID-19?
A few different things. For myself, I’ve been able to spend a lot of my time in commercial real estate and really push that avenue. It’s been unfortunate that we haven’t had a football season, but to have a team with Cushman and Wakefield that I can put my time and effort into has been incredible, and I feel like I’ve seen a lot of growth.
Nik has a couple of businesses he’s working on as well. But one of the big things is that throughout the last few years and the networking that Nik has encouraged me to do, we had the chance to meet some really incredible Ottawa companies and build some relationships there. It feels really good to understand what the private sector in Ottawa really has to offer on a local and global scale.
What is the most important skill you’ve learned from football that you’ve taken to the world of commercial real estate?
I’d say accountability. As an offensive lineman, I usually have 70 plays on average. For each play, the individual players get graded on 3 different criteria for each play. So after the game, you watch all of the film with the whole team. And if I made a mistake on play number five, and the quarterback ends up getting hit, then we watch that play number five and the mistake that I made infront of 100 people, and I have to be able to justify it or learn from it. However that unfolds, whether the mistake was small or big, at the end of the day, I have to be able to put my name on it and take accountability for the good and bad. I have to be able to understand that there’s a job that I have, and I have to execute that to the fullest, and I shouldn’t worry about what other people are doing, but I can put as much effort in my position as I can. And that goes for my professional career, too.
What are your thoughts on the rumoured XFL and CFL merger? Do you believe it will be a good thing for the league?
It’s interesting. On one hand, if the two leagues ended up combining, I would assume that some of the details about the Canadian ratio would have to change or adjust. I feel like that’s very unfortunate for Canadian players, because there’s a lot of really good ones. To see how Canada actually embraces the sport really makes me want to keep a large portion of Canadian players active in the league.
But on the other hand, after spending my time in the NCAA, and learning how many good football players there are that graduate from the NCAA and don’t have anything but the NFL to try to pursue, I’ve had a hard time understanding. All of us on the team come from different places and areas around the country and different social settings, but regardless of where someone comes from they can be a good football player, teammate, and person, and can really contribute to any team their on. It becomes a tragedy that that contribution and the skill that they have is limited by the age of 22, 23 … because of the limited spots on NFL teams. So if this merger can help provide players in general with an opportunity to feed their families post-university, I feel like that alone is something that is a really big positive, and an important factor for the growth of football in North America.
To new teammates coming to Ottawa for the first time, what places do you recommend to them to go eat or visit in town? What are some of your favourite local restaurants?
Number one, Cozmos Souvlaki on Greenbank. It’s a greek restaurant. They’re a good local company, super friendly. The customer service is top notch, the owners remember people’s names and their orders, and the food is fantastic. The greek poutine? Try that out.
Number two is Shawarma Palace. Third is Mongolian Village East. It’s a nice local spot and a very interactive and family-friendly environment and welcoming to everyone.
What is the best movie, best Netflix series, and best album you would recommend?
I would say the best movie is Goodfellas. It’s just a classic and everytime I watch it I enjoy it for different reasons. Best Netflix series is blown away. It’s a documentary series about glassblowing competitions. One of my wife’s family members owns a glass blowing studio, so to get an understanding of the details and the difficulties of the trade has been really fun to watch. It’s a very interesting craft that has become super popular in the last few years.
My favourite album is Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent. When I was in grade 6, my older sister Keara bought me the album right before I had a basketball tournament in Toronto. The other two players that I traveled with also had the CD, and we all sat in the car listening to our own, listening to the same songs (laughs), it’s a really good memory.
Who is the funniest teammate or teammates you’ve ever had on the Redblacks?
I would say the funniest teammate was Sir Vincent Rogers. At first glance, if you came into the locker room, you wouldn’t say that he’s the loudest or the funniest. But he makes everybody laugh. He’s actively involved with every different group in the locker room, whether it’s the french guys or the Canadian kids or the guys from down south. Wherever he is, everyone is laughing and having a good time. On top of being an absolute dog on the field and beating everyone up, he can play the humility card to make others laugh which really shows what kind of a teammate he is.
Who is the greatest leader you’ve ever played with and why?
Henry Burris. What made him such a great leader was the time that he put into the team outside of football. He took the time off the field, so that when it was a tough day or tough drive, you didn’t need to have a conversation with Henry to understand where his head was at. I feel like that comes from all of the effort he puts in before the season and after practice. He just really takes advantage of spreading that learning culture and humility and teaching all of us that we’re all on the same team.
For example, when we’re on the bus. He’ll stand up and play cashbus. He’ll pick 5 difficult questions with increasing difficulty, a lot of them are Ottawa or Canada related for the US guys. That’s just one example of him taking time outside of football to bring people together. It’s crazy the difference that that makes on the football field.
What role has your family played in your success? What sacrifices did they make to help you along the way?
I’m so glad you asked this question, because their role in my success is everything. I am where I am today because of my family. Both my sisters are incredible. We’ve gone through everything together, good times and bad times.
You won’t find anyone on the planet who has been exposed to more environments and more coaches then my parents have. My dad was a soccer coach, and we grew up around incredible coaches. When we travelled to Europe, he brought me around some great organizations there. My mom is an ESL teacher and she grew up doing a lot of different activities. So she made sure that we experienced those as well. Whether it was a weekday or weekend, my mom would either be driving us to soccer practice, or from soccer practice to judo, or from judo to basketball.
She really put effort into finding quality coaches and mentors. So it wasn’t just driving to judo. It was driving to judo for the Takahashi Dojo. I think there are 7 or 8 olympians within a few generations. Or she wasn’t just driving me to play basketball…it was to play basketball for Rob Smart, the coach of the Carleton Ravens. So that was a common theme everywhere.
I owe everything to my parents, and I hope that my mom gets excited when I give her shoutouts. I can’t say thank you enough.
What is one accomplishment in your life or career that you’re most proud of and why?
Succeeding in a violent sport. That’s probably the furthest thing from how I was brought up, because my family is very gentle and empathetic. Growing up in judo, you learn to avoid conflict. It’s not about trying to put yourself out there and be better than anyone or physically dominate anyone. In judo you aim to grow the self awareness to be able to walk away. Which is a real contrast from football, where you have to embrace the violence and the conflict. You really are either the hammer or the nail. Unless you look forward to being the hammer, you aren’t going to have a good time in football. Making that shift and succeeding in football is something I am really proud of. It means a lot to me.
To all the kids reading this, that hope to one day follow in your footsteps, what is the best piece of advice you could give them to help them along the way?
Learn as much as you can from other people. Connect with as many people as possible. Ask them genuine, honest questions, and become really involved in their experience, and through that you can learn a lot about yourself. That’s probably the best way to grow and find your way into something that’s useful.