Ottawa’s Luiji Vilain will never forget playing his very first NFL game last fall, and what it felt like to run onto the field for the first time to kick off his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings.
“That’s the dream,” Vilain said. “It was a very special, special moment. It was everything that I had worked for, you know? It made everything that I went through in college – the grind, the process, everything that I went through – all worth it. And I want to continue to have that feeling every year, every game, every Sunday during the season. So yeah, that was just a special moment.”
Now the former Lester B. Pearson High School student wants to help Ottawa’s young football players have their special moment someday. The 25-year-old was back home in Ottawa this summer, hosting the first annual Luiji Vilain Football Camp and helping fuel the dreams of kids who share his pro football dream.
Vilain hosted the event at the The Dome at Louis Riel Secondary School in Gloucester, and was joined by fellow Ottawans Jesse Luketa (Arizona Cardinals), Jonathan Sutherland (Seattle Seahawks), along with several Ottawa REDBLACKS players including Jeremiah Masoli, Justin Hardy, and Alonzo Addae.
Vilain’s former coach, Victor Tedondo, served as the camp’s head coach. Tedondo is the owner of Gridiron Academy and won The City of Ottawa’s Brian Kilrea Award for Excellence in Coaching in 2019.
The camp featured drills and competitions, motivational speeches and football advice, and a lot of smiling faces.
“This year it was me, Jonathan and Alonzo,” Vilain said. “We gave them a little motivation to keep working. My message was to just be ready to sacrifice with this game. To get to this level, you’re gonna have to sacrifice a lot of time – time with friends and things you want to do – if you hope to get to where I am today.
“And then we closed it out with some pizza,” Vilain said.
Indeed, Vilain has a lot to offer young athletes. Not only did he make it to football’s highest level, he went through a lot to get there, even leaving home to play at an American high school in Virginia.
Vilain was one of the most heavily recruited young players in America before he eventually settled on the University of Michigan. But things didn’t pan out there, mainly due to injuries. He transferred to Wake Forest where he had an amazing senior year in 2021, even playing in the ACC Championship game and winning the Gator Bowl. Vilain wasn’t drafted but did get an offer from the Vikings and made the most of it.
So how are you enjoying life in Minneapolis? Seems like it’s a great sports town.
Oh, it’s great. Big Vikings fans, big Twins fans, big Wild fans. You kind of get everything over there and it’s really cool. I’m fortunate to be a part of, hopefully, the favorite team – the Vikings. But yeah, you can see it. The energy is there every Sunday. The fans are loud and supportive.
Do you get to any Minnesota Wild games? Are you a hockey fan?
I wanted to go to the Wild game when they played the Senators, but I just couldn’t get to it. But I definitely want to come back and go to a Sens game after the football season is over. Hopefully, drop the puck. That’s what I want to do – drop the puck at one of the games.
The Vikings ripped it up in the regular season (13-4), but things didn’t work out in the playoffs. What would you say was the highlight of your rookie season individually?
Probably just being out there. If there was a specific moment, it was probably the third preseason game when I got my first interception. That was pretty cool. But just making the team as well as an undrafted free agent rookie, that was a pretty big moment.
Now you’ve made the highest level, has your mindset changed where you think more about business and the grind of it, or is the joy of playing the game still there?
The joy is definitely still there. But you have to be on your game a lot more, you know what I mean? NFL teams are going to do what’s best for them. So you have to try to attack it every single day, put your best foot forward and then leave it in God’s hands. If I do that, I’m at peace with whatever happens.
What are your personal goals for year two in the NFL?
I definitely want to have a bigger role on special teams, play a lot more on special teams, get out there more on defense, rotate a little bit. Just mainly getting on the field, dressing every Sunday and contributing however I can. That’s my goal.
Do you remember going to football camps when you were a kid? And is that part of what drives you to do this?
I didn’t go to any football camps in Ottawa or Canada, but I went to some American University ones. Going to the Michigan camps, going to the Ohio State camps, seeing those guys that were on the rosters. It was really cool. And then sometimes they would have the guys that were in the NFL, like legends who came out and gave us some motivation. And I always told myself that I would end up doing that.
And you did. Do you think coaching might be in your future one day?
Yeah, maybe. It’s possible. I’ve definitely still got my mind on playing football right now. It’s definitely possible when I come back. I definitely want to be in the Ottawa football scene and help grow the game here. That’s one of my goals for sure in the future.
With the strong teaching and mentoring instinct that he already possesses at age 25, it’s hard to believe Luiji Vilain will be anything but an excellent football coach or builder someday. But that will have to wait for another day. As a player, Vilain is just getting started.
by Steve Warne
Photography by Sean Sisk