BY John Ngala & Adrien Congourdeau
Tysen Otis-Copeland is a self-described geek. He loves technology. Give him equipment, a computer, a bible’s worth of math equations, some books, and you’ll have a one-man think tank—no exaggeration.
As a 23-year-old student in electrical engineering, Otis-Copeland spends 25 hours a week in class, another five to seven wrestling with concepts during homework, and about six more for lab work. He considers himself lucky to squeeze in a sandwich in between his classes through the halls of Université de Montreal’s Polytechnique. After all, the six-foot-one football player compromises more than food to make things work.
“I had to sacrifice sleep. I’d always be on the go, rushing, “ he says. “I would study right before practice, the metro, always find time to balance everything.”
On the field, he’s busy tackling bodies. He didn’t play much in his first year in 2018, but the next season his role grew. Otis-Copeland says he’s always loved the game of football. But his plan A isn’t to make it to the CFL—it’s to secure a job in his field.
“My main goal is still electrical engineering. Football is just there because I love it and I’d want to play forever. But I’ll just play until I can’t anymore and then I’ll just focus on engineering,” he says.
However, once the pandemic hit, Otis-Copeland struggled like millions of other people. Not only because he couldn’t represent one of the best teams in Canada, but because the lockdown made learning impossible.
With the entire 2020 football season wiped out, and a year of full-time studies ahead of him, Otis-Copeland buckled down and used the crisis situation to his advantage. He’s a visual learner, but he was forced to watch hour-long YouTube videos to make sure he understood the material. It paid off. His grades improved but his mental health took a hit.
Fortunately, as a member of Les Carabins, Otis-Copeland and his teammates don’t have to look far for support, whether on or off the field. They have “Les Montagnards.”
On gameday, Les Montagnards bolster the team’s confidence with cheers while puncturing the visitors’ momentum by blasting noise equal to 20 vuvuzelas. Meanwhile, off the field, “les Bleus” can count on their dedicated, tight-knit community as well.
President Eric Généreux says “Les Montagnards” is a group of dedicated people who’ve come together not only because they love football but want to encourage all student-athletes pursuing their dreams.
“We support all student-athletes in their journey. I think it’s very important. The support we give is a part of our mission. We want to show that their path deserves to be highlighted,” says Genereux.
He says they organize events, auctions and offer team members exclusive services that they are able to provide through sponsors. Memberships are their main source of revenue. Since 2017, the club has been supporting members of the Carabins with a bursary program. Généreux says he’s proud to offer financial support, especially this year.
“It’s to show that support that goes beyond a ticket, cheering and going home. It’s about uplifting students through sport,” he says.
Otis-Copeland received one of the bursaries. After a year stuck in his apartment, away from his friends and family, the bursary was both a financial and emotional boost. For him, it’s a reminder that he’s never alone.
“It feels good to know we have the support from the fans,” he says. “We have a big community at les Carabins. They’re always there to help us and there’s always a lot of people, so it’s cool.”
Filling the stands was never an issue for les Carabins de Montréal. At a UdeM game against rivals Laval University, you won’t find an empty seat. But right now, the stands are empty, just like they are for the CFL, where many university players end up after graduation.
But the league’s financial future is in limbo because it depends on ticket sales to survive.
Concordia Stingers head coach Brad Collinson will be entering his third season as their bench boss this Fall. The Stingers may not enjoy the luxury of having their own Montagnards’ in the stands nor the facilities that would help attract big names to the program, but Concordia harnesses talent as well as any team in the league. Having three former players signing professional contracts with the Alouettes is proof.
Collinson is aware that this year has been hard for all student athletes. His message: Keep pushing.
“Some kids have decided to stop. Some kids are just counting up the bits to continue,” he says. “We just say trust the process of what we’re trying to accomplish and good things will happen.”
According to fourth-year McGill player Joshua Archibald, good things happen through good preparation.
“I think the most important thing for athletes stems from how well you can adapt to this new environment we are challenged with. So I can safely say that this pandemic has developed my mindset into a more acute focus,” he says.
The six-foot-three 255-pound defensive end is gunning for the CFL. That’s his plan A. Right now, though, he just wants to have fun. Being away from the game was eye-opening, he says. No practices, no place to workout at and a cancelled season made him realize nothing is guaranteed.
“Off the field, my goal is to continue educating myself. I truly believe that life’s greatest power is through knowledge,” he says. “Setting yourself up for that plan B.”
Nobody knows better than CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie that a plan B is necessary. When the league shut down, he had to scramble to make one. He requested $150 million from the Canadian government in April 2020. But Ottawa said “No.”
Things haven’t gotten much better since. Canadians are now in the midst of a third wave and with the CFL pushing back the start date for the 2021 season, there are no guarantees that stadiums will be filled anytime soon. Chris Boulding, former coordinator of football operations in the CFL, says the current state of the league is worrisome. But not to the point of pulling the plug.
“I think that there’s always gonna be a market for the CFL in Canada,” says Boulding. “Now, do I think they need to take some revenue in soon? Probably. To start paying players and to start paying facilities.”
And that’s exactly what Ambrosie has been looking to do in his recent talks with the XFL. The XFL is a professional American football league owned by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his ex-wife, Dany Garcia. The league is worth more than $378 million.
According to Boulding, engaging in conversation is always good, especially given the XFL’s deep pockets.
Meanwhile for Otis-Copeland, these uncertainties mean little. His mind is set on returning to the Vanier Cup, the pinnacle of Canadian university football. Their 27-13 loss to the Calgary Dinos in 2019 haunts him to this day. He’s ready to carry the team to victory and continue to lead by example.
“Too excited for this,” he says. “I know my potential. If I’m able to work out all summer, I’ll be ready for next season.”
But besides football, technology wires him most. Because, after all, he’s still a geek.