Sports feature

REDBLACKS Receiver Jaelon Acklin: From the Ozarks to Ottawa to One of the CFL’s Best

Jaelon Acklin-Ottawa RedBlacks-27may2022-Photo: Scott Grant

Ottawa REDBLACKS star receiver Jaelon Acklin has always played the game with an edge. Whether it’s in the backyard with his brothers or the last two Grey Cup games, Acklin seems like an ornery competitor, who’s never shied away from talking trash or getting under people’s skin.

In fact, after a win over Montreal in early September, he got a call from his mom, who told him to ease up on the smack talk during games.
Thankfully, for someone about to spend the next hour with him for this interview, “Ack” truly does leave it all on the field. Ramping up for an afternoon of online gaming at his home in Gatineau, the 27-year-old seems completely laid-back and happy, ready to be friends with everyone. Acklin is effortlessly hilarious and obviously loves to make people laugh.

And during our conversation, I did – out loud – a bunch of times.

Acklin hails from Mountain View, Missouri, a small town of 2700 in the Ozark Mountains. Of course, the name Ozark might bring to mind the popular Netflix drama, starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. The show is about a family trying to emerge from constant trouble, always trying to put out new fires, continually taking one step forward and two steps back.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of the REDBLACKS the past few seasons.

And like Marty Byrde, the fictional, steady handed character in TV’s Ozark, Acklin would like nothing more than to help lead his team out of this mess and on to better days.

While it was certainly a struggle this season from a team perspective, you established yourself as Ottawa’s number one receiver and truly one of the best in the CFL in receiving yards. You went over 1000 yards for the first time in your career. Way over. Can you put your finger on your key to success this year?

No, not really. I just got put in some good opportunities. I’ve had three different quarterbacks (Jeremiah Masoli, Caleb Evans and Nick Arbuckle), so that’s been kind of different for me this year. But at the end of the day, I’ve just got to wake up and be the best that I can be every day. I can’t help who’s playing quarterback, but I can help the level of impact I have on my team and being a guy that the quarterback can rely on to make a play. So that’s just what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to be the best I can be so I can help put our team in a position to win.

How would you describe the REDBLACKS this season? You guys were in a lot of close games, especially early on, and it felt like you had way more talent than your record indicated.

Yeah. But it is what we are, you know? I feel like sometimes we get in this mood where I talk to fans after the game, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you guys are so close.’ But you know, I’m not here to be close. I want to win games for Ottawa. I want to win for the fans that come to the game. I want them to know what it feels like to win, because we haven’t won at home this year (at the time of this interview). So that’s what the most frustrating part is. But yeah, we have to quit saying, ‘We’re close.’ At some point, we have to put our foot down and just win.

Let’s learn a little about your road to the CFL. What was life like, growing up in the Ozarks?

Yeah, so I grew up with four little brothers. Well, I grew up with three little brothers and we adopted one whenever I was a little bit older. But yeah, it was a small town, like 2000 people. I knew everyone in school. I graduated with 70 people, so it was pretty small. Pretty much all my family lives there. My grandpa owned a lumber yard where I worked when I was a kid. I used to have to haul shingles and sheet rock and all that stuff with my little brothers.

And then, you know, we obviously played sports. I played football, basketball and track. I played quarterback throughout high school. I never really won anything in football. Like I never got like player of the year or anything so I kind of flew underneath the radar. But I’m glad that I didn’t because that kind of fuels me to this day. Whenever I’m working out, I think about that. Because I’ve never really won anything in football. I mean, I’ve been to two Grey Cups but we lost them both (2019 and 2021 losses to Winnipeg).

What made you go from the quarterback position to receiver?

Yeah, I always played quarterback, but then I only got one offer out of high school. Because I did play quarterback and I wasn’t that great at it. I was okay. And they offered me a spot at wide receiver. That was Western Illinois. The Leathernecks. That’s where I went to college. That was the only team that took a shot on me.

Do you have a favourite high school football memory?

Well, there was a rival school. Every time I beat them was probably my favourite memory. I hate them probably as much as I do Toronto. I can’t stand Toronto. I think I have my most fun whenever I beat the Argos.

Is that from the Ticats-Argos rivalry or did somebody from the Argos do something that ticked you off?

A little bit of both. Their players are just not cool dudes. They’re just…I don’t know. From the top down in that organization, I just don’t like it. So you’ll never catch me in the Toronto Argonaut blue.

At Western Illinois, your stats weren’t great the first three years. And then you suddenly erupted in year four. What changed in your senior year?

Yeah, I didn’t play much my first three years. There’s a lot of different variables that happen with college football. I wasn’t really that focused either. I was like 215 pounds. I think I was probably drinking way too much beer or something. I don’t know. You’d have to ask my past self about that.

But I looked myself in the mirror one day, when I was about to be a senior, and I was like, ‘I just want to be the best that I can be.’ Because I was seeing other people succeed and I thought that I could too. So I kind of cleaned up my act and I started eating right. I think I got down to like 190 pounds or so. And yeah, so then I had a good senior year.

So from there, you got invited to Baltimore Ravens training camp, right? What was that experience like?

It sucked, to be honest. My car got stolen twice while I was there. Baltimore was kind of a rough spot. And I was used to small town stuff because I was from Mountain View and then even West Illinois, there’s only like 10,000 people in the town. So it was a big culture shock for me. I usually adjust well to stuff and I really didn’t adjust well to that at all.

I remember waking up every day, I was stressed out that I was going to get cut and like, I’ve never really been like that. I was never really afraid of failure. But for some reason, when I was in Baltimore, I was scared of getting cut or letting people down, like letting my family down. Because I wanted to make it. And then I ended up getting hurt and they just released me like that. So that’s what kind of happened with Baltimore.

Sorry to hear that. I am curious about your car getting stolen twice. Was that two different cars or the same one twice?

It was the same car, in like a two month span. It was a Mitsubishi Outlander. Like, not even that nice either.

Let’s look at some better days. When did the CFL come into the picture?

I remember watching one game when I was a senior in high school and I saw Luke Tasker playing and I was number 17 (like Tasker). I was like, dang, that guy kind of looks like me – but you know, not as good-looking or as fast.

So I kind of knew about the CFL and then Burkey (former Ticats assistant GM Shawn Burke), who’s the GM in Ottawa now, texted my agent and was like, yeah, we’d love to have him up here (in Hamilton). I went up there and I watched Hamilton play Montreal and they kind of got to know me. I think it was that April I signed. I was the fifth or sixth receiver on the depth chart so I had to kind of fight and claw my way up.

Was it a hard decision to leave Hamilton for Ottawa?

Yeah. Whenever I play somewhere, I fall in love with the fans. I want to play for the fans because that’s what drives our game. There are fans who’ve been with this club since it was the Ottawa Rough Riders, and since before I was born. So I want to win games for them, even though I’ve only been here for one season, I still feel the passion and energy, and it was the same way in Hamilton.

I always wanted to win the Grey Cup for Hamilton, but when Burkey called me, he was asking me questions about my family and stuff. So I just knew Burkey really cared about me and wanted me to succeed and he believed that I could. So that’s what made the decision easier. And plus I always thought Ottawa was a really nice city. I thought they had good looking girls too. So it was easy for Burkey to talk me into it.

Speaking of family, tell us a bit about your family back home.

My mom (Tina) and dad (Darren) split when I was in college. So it was a kind of a different ordeal. My dad is in Arkansas now and my mom’s back home in Mountain View with all the boys. So that was a struggle for her, I’m sure.

So then I got my little brother, Jansen. He’s 24. He coaches football and track in Mountain View. He was a really good athlete. Then Jaris, he’s still playing. He’s a tight end at Avila University in Kansas City. Then we got Jentry. He was a state champion hurdler and actually beat my school record. But I had like a strong headwind, so like, it doesn’t even really count. And then my little brother we adopted was Caleb. We call him Jaleb sometimes so he fits in because all of us have names that start with J.

Jaelon Acklin-Ottawa RedBlacks-27may2022-Photo: Scott Grant

With all that athleticism, was there a favourite childhood Acklin family event or thing to do when you were kids?

Yeah, we played backyard football and that was a big thing. And I remember my mom had a Suburban with a nice stereo system. So I plugged my phone into the AUX port and I’d play YouTube crowd noise. And I made the volume go all the way up as we were playing. We’d play two on two football. So it was like we were always playing in a big stadium.

You do play in a pretty big stadium these days. What made you decide to live in Gatineau? It seems like a bit of a hike from the stadium.

I didn’t have a damn clue what I was doing. I’ll tell you that. And no one really told me anything. So I was honestly just looking around. And this girl, she was moving out and she was like, yeah, it’s $1400 a month. So I was like, wow, that’s way cheaper. But in the end, it’s really not. Because I didn’t factor in gas. So yeah, it was cheaper and it was fully furnished, but next year I’m for sure living right next to TD place. I don’t even care how much it costs. I’m going to walk to work.

What do you do away from the field for fun?

I play video games a lot with my buddy Malik. He plays in Edmonton with the Elks. He’s a cool dude. He takes it a little seriously sometimes. Like, he’ll yell at me and stuff. I just play it for fun. I don’t really care that much about video games. It’s just a way to get away from football and all the stuff that comes with it.

I also like watching UFC fights. If there are fights on, I’ll watch them. And then soccer. Obviously, I watch soccer a lot too.

What’s your favourite video game right now?

Oh, man. I’m a PC gamer. So I’ve been playing this game called Escape from Tarkov. It’s kind of like a hardcore game, though. So it’s not for kids. I play FIFA too.

So you’re a big soccer guy?

Big soccer guy. Ronaldo is my favorite athlete of all time.

Did you play soccer growing up?

Nah, in Missouri, it’s not very big. My dad wouldn’t let me play soccer.

Sounds like you’re either in your house or at the football stadium. Is there anywhere else you like to go – a club, a restaurant, or some other activity?

Oh, man. I’m really all ball, so not really. I would say I like Sunset Grill. I go there. Sometimes the servers call me like baby cakes and stuff. So I like going there for the attention. It’s actually kind of funny. Lori is like the main server at Sunset. I gave her a shirt with my name and number on the back of it. So she calls me baby cake. She’s nice.

What’s your pre-game ritual?

I drink like five cups of coffee. And I eat pancakes too. I should throw that in there.

What advice would you have for a young football player?

Don’t be afraid of failure is what I would say. And I wish that I wouldn’t have tried to be too cool sometimes. I would’ve just tried different stuff. I think that would’ve helped me out along the way, too. Especially with acclimating to Baltimore. I think if I would’ve tried a lot more stuff, and not tried to have been too cool, or not wanting to fail when I was younger, I would’ve been able to not be afraid of failing whenever I did get there. But Baltimore taught me a lot, though. So I’m thankful for that as well.

Any final message for the fans before you head into the off-season?

No, I don’t think so. Not besides, I love them. And we will turn it around. I promise.

By Steve Warne

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