Talks with Hawks: Episode 20 – Andre Talbot

Andre Talbot starred at Wide Receiver for Laurier from 1997 to 2000.  In his final two seasons, he was a 1st Team All Canadian & OUA All Star.  In 2000, he was also the team MVP.  Six years later, he was inducted in to the Laurier Hall of Fame.   In 2001, Talbot was drafted in the 5th round by the Toronto Argos.  Early in his career, he persevered through serious injuries and ultimately played ten seasons in the CFL with 288 career receptions and 18 touchdowns He was also a Grey Cup Champion in 2004.  I had met Andre at a Laurier training camp a couple of years ago.  Last summer, I asked him if he could work with my high school team for one day in July and he graciously agreed to come out to Mississauga to work with a group of very raw players.  Andre is a deep, thoughtful, inspirational individual and it was a pleasure to talk to him.  Among other things, it turns out we both have a ‘thing’ for waterfalls.

Dave Morrissey: Why did you choose to come to Laurier?

Andre Talbot: I grew up in a football family.  My uncle, Mike Wilson, played quarterback for WLU (and his twin brother played at Carleton).  I played high school in Oshawa.  The mystique of the Golden Hawk football program attracted me and I made up my mind to attend WLU going into my OAC year. It was a dream come true to be able follow in my uncle’s footsteps.

(DM): What was your most memorable game at WLU?

(AT): Two games really stand out.  They were both heartbreaking losses, consecutive Yates Cup finals in the ’99 and ’00 seasons. The 1st one vs Waterloo, we had home field advantage. The stands were packed, it was a beautiful crisp evening, the sky was purple that night! We had beat them earlier in the year quite easily, but they hit on a couple of big, trick plays offensively that caught us off guard. It was a heartbreaker for us. The following year, we again had a really good group of core guys. Guys like Justin Praamsma, Adam Lane, Kojo Millington, Donnie Ruiz. The Yates Cup was hosted at McMaster and home field advantage was a factor that day. We were a fast astro-turf team and at the time McMaster had a grass field, it was muddy and in brutal condition by that point of the season. It’s not an excuse, but it definitely played a factor in our quality of play, and I think it gave them a confidence boost, it also played out in their offensive strategy. They had a great running game lead by Kojo Aidoo and that day they were able to wear us out and grind out the win. They were a really good football team and they deserved the win that day.

Having to deal with the bitterness of those losses was tough. But, that’s the nature of the game. I’m still in touch with many guys from those years.  We worked incredibly hard as a group and had very high expectations on ourselves.  Without a doubt, those tough losses, that kind of disappointment, as a competitor it stays with you. 

(DM): Who were the most difficult players you had to line up against during practice and who was the toughest defender you had to face on another OUA team?

(AT): In practice, lining up against guys like Donnie Ruiz and Kevin Johnson really improved me as a player.  They were fierce and athletic. I was lucky to have the privilege to work against them on the field and train with them off the field.  They helped me become a better route runner and a more deceptive receiver.  In my last 2 seasons in the OUA, I had to deal with a lot of double coverage.  Individually, Kwame Aidoo of McMaster was an excellent player.  We battled hard against each other in that 2000 Yates Cup, my hats off to him.

(DM): Your stats on the Laurier website are unfortunately incomplete.  It only shows your playoff stats for 1999 and 2000 along with your 2000 regular season stats.  I believe I had heard at one time you caught 19 passes in a game.  Is that correct?

(AT): Yeah, I had 19 catches for 290 yards and I think 2 touchdowns in a game vs Guelph. Adam Lane was my quarterback.  (Laughing) They used to call us the ‘Dynamic Duo’.

(DM):  Early on in your CFL career, you had a serious injury.  Can you elaborate on that?

(AT): The early part of my career was a story of persistence.  I remember my rookie camp in 2001.  I had a really good camp.  I caught everything thrown my way. I was on the active roster about half the season and mainly played special teams.  In my second year, again I had a good training camp. The final cut on the last day of camp was scheduled for 3:00 pm.  Usually when you’re going get cut, a coach or manager comes up to you and says ‘Hey, we need to talk’.  Well, it was final cut day and nobody talked to me, so I went out to lunch with some buddies to celebrate making the team.  Well, at 3:30pm my phone rang.  It was our new GM and he let me know that after a tough decision I was the final cut.  I was devastated. I contemplated hanging up the cleats for good.   I thought about doing some travelling to get some new perspective on things. In fact, I was just about to book a flight to southeast Asia with a buddy. Sure enough 2 weeks later, the receivers coach at the time (CFL legend Paul Masotti) called me and told me that there had been an injury and they needed me back immediately. Before I knew it I was on a plan to Calgary to suit for the Argos once again.  Over the next couple weeks I had to battle it out in practice with another receiver to try and earn my role and ultimately I won a roster spot and caught about 25 balls that year.  About a week before the start of my third training camp with the Argos, I tore my hamstring in a training session.  It was a really nasty tear that took a long time to heal.  I was impatient and feeling the pressure so I tried to rush my return and strained it again in practice.  By the time I got activated a few months into the season, I was back to playing special team and in my first game back, I got injured, again!  This time I was on the punt coverage team and landed really hard on the notoriously brutal astro-turf at the SkyDome, I ended up with a shattered heel pad on my foot.  That year was a write-off.  (Editor’s Note: In 6 of the next 7 seasons, Talbot rebounded   averaging 43 receptions per season. In 2009, he missed almost the entire season due to an ankle injury).

 (DM): After having such a difficult start to your career, how awesome was it to win the Grey Cup with the Argos in 2004?

(AT): It’s certainly the #1 highlight of my football career.  I refer to it as the most ‘Canadian’ experience of my life.  Growing up watching Canadian university football and the CFL, then playing Canadian university football, and then having the opportunity to play in the CFL and win a Grey Cup as a starting receiver in the CDN capital Ottawa was so incredible.  Oh, and almost forgot to mention, The Tragically Hip played the halftime show! Does it get more Canadian then that? We were underdogs that year but we played with passion, we played together like a family unit and won!  With a core group of guys returning the following year we should have pulled off a few more Grey Cup appearances but unfortunately it didn’t happen.  I got to play with some great quarterbacks.  Won a Grey Cup with Damon Allen, the CFL Legend, an incredible playmaker. But,  I also really enjoyed playing with guys like Michael Bishop and Kerry Joseph.  Bishop had the strongest arm of any QB I’d ever played with which meant that every part of the field and every receiver position was a potential threat, as a receiver that’s an exciting prospect.  (Editor’s Note 2: Talbot’s best season statistically speaking was in 2008 when he caught 76 balls, mainly with Kerry Joseph as his QB).

(DM): How much pressure was there on a yearly basis to keep your roster spot?

(AT): There is so much talent south of the border.  You can’t take anything for granted.  You have to show resiliency, toughness, and a high level of competitiveness.  As a rookie have to be able to transition from being a star receiver at the university level, to someone who can be a role player and make tackles on special teams at the pro level.  You have to be able to adjust to coaching changes, management changes, ownership changes, and injuries.  Then, when you get your shot, you have to deliver.  When opportunities arise for a bigger role, more footballs thrown my way in my case, you have to be able to deliver again.  Can you handle the pressure?  The average professional career lasts about 3 years.  To me, the key to a lengthy career is consistency and persistence. I had serious injuries near the start and end of my career.  You have to be willing to fight through the stress, the pressure and the physical pain of injuries.  After missing most of 2009, I played one more year with Edmonton.  I wasn’t at 100%, had lost some speed and agility due to an ankle injury, but I was proud that I was able to show up to new organization, work through the physical pain, and prove myself again as a competitor and teammate on the field.

(DM): How did yoga and meditation become such a big part of your life?

(AT):   I have always tried to surround myself with trainers and athletes who thought ‘outside the box’ and would help push me to my furthest potential. When I left university, I started working out with strength & conditioning coach Matt Nichol, famously known as the inventor of BioSteel.  He takes an interdisciplinary approach to training athletes, and one of the things he introduced me to was yoga.  That planted the seed for me.  For me, it was quite impactful.  All my training before that was physical and strength based.  But during that first yoga session, I experienced more.  There was a quality of awareness, a quality of perception, and a sense of mindfulness that I hadn’t experienced before.  I occasionally participated in yoga practice throughout my football career, but I didn’t get really into it until near the end of my career.  It was beneficial for recovery, stress management, and my mental/emotional well-being.  In 2009 I met a woman named Catalina, who would later become my wife, and she was practicing yoga daily, which inspired me to practice more often.  When my career ended, we decided to travel through South America.  When we got back, Catalina really wanted to attend an intensive retreat focusing on yoga & meditation and I told her I wanted to do it too.  This retreat was in a remote part of Mexico, Baja Sur.  We spent 26 days living out of a tent right beside the ocean.  It was an incredible period of introspection and spiritual growth.  Those 26 days were integral for helping me to accept the ending my football career and the next phase of life.  In fact, I wrote my official retirement letter to the Edmonton Football Club and the CFL  in a hostel in Mexico City.  After travelling, practicing and studying for a few more months, we decided that we wanted to provide the same kinds of experiences and practices that we had explored to others.

(DM): I assume that is when you started Spirit Loft.

(AT): Yes.  My background in athletics and physical training combined with our shared knowledge of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness lead us to the creation of Spirit Loft, a centre for movement and mindfulness practices.  Our desire was to share what we had learned and help people achieve greater states of awareness, embodiment and well-being.  We started in a warehouse loft space in the east end of Toronto and we also lived in the space for the first few years.  That was 10 years ago.  We are now in a much bigger studio space and are fortunate to have the kind community support and client loyalty that we do, especially as we work through these uncertain and challenging COVID times.    

(DM):  A few years ago, I tried yoga for about a month.  It reminded me of how poor my flexibility was. I have to admit, I found the classes quite challenging.

(AT): (Laughing)  I totally get it.  People in North America have an image of yoga just being all about doing certain stretches, but what we offer at Spirit Loft isn’t what most people would imagine.  For example, I don’t teach yoga postures anymore. We take an interdisciplinary approach to embodied practice. We find inspiration through dance, strength training, athletic development, martial arts, through meditation and mindfulness.  Our motto is ‘Be Moved. Be Still.’.  Bringing intention into how we move has huge benefits.  Connecting to stillness and turning the lens of our intention inward can be really helpful as well.  So yeah, I wouldn’t call myself a “yoga” teacher.  I’m a teacher, a facilitator, a coach, of movement and mindfulness practices.

(DM): So, would you say your involvement with these practices have served to make you a happier and more content person?  Would you say these practices can help make everybody more satisfied in their own lives?

(AT): Yeah, that’s why Spirt Loft began!  I was introduced to practices that helped me, practices that improved my own well-being, my own self-perception and how I was relating to the world.  And I knew I wanted to share that with others. Being human is difficult.  Life has so many challenges.  Our biology and our family histories contribute to certain behaviours that can sometimes be destructive or harmful.  For me, I had developed some unhealthy habits that contributed to my own confusion, and lack of care for myself and my relationships. These practices have helped me learn about who I am, and how I can be of service to others.  One thing that I have realized is that being a support to others gives us a great sense of purpose and meaning.  For example, working with amateur and professional athletes (and organizations) and specifically sharing mindset and mindfulness-based practices with them gives me a lot of joy and purpose. To help them work through the stressors of disappointment or injury in a more skillful and easeful way is truly awesome. I’m using my experiences as an athlete and my training and research in mindfulness and embodiment to help them access their highest potential and peak performance.

(DM):  I know that you and Catalina have travelled extensively.  I really enjoyed reading about your experiences in Ireland last year.  What would you say has been your favourite destination so far?

(AT):  Ireland is a special place with a deep history and magic to the land. I was so grateful to visit my ancestral roots for the first time last year. It was truly inspiring. I also really enjoyed travelling in places like Mexico, Argentina and Chile.  My experiences as a CFL player allowed me to see so much of Canada and I am grateful for that too.  What I have begun to realize is that any time we can return to nature and really be absorbed in the natural world this can be an inspiring and uplifting experience.

(DM):  I would agree with that.  Two summers ago, I went to Iceland and that was all about exploring waterfalls, glaciers, fjords, mountains and valleys.  Other than the capital city, most of the island is barely inhabited.  About a year ago, someone told me that the Hamilton area has over 100 waterfalls.  I couldn’t believe it.  I have lived within 45 minutes of Hamilton my whole life and I had never heard about that.  I have explored them about 3 times in the past year.

(AT): There is a wisdom in nature.  We are not separate from nature.  We are deeply, intimately connected.  Stepping out of our busy lives and returning to nature is profoundly important and it is something we should do on a regular basis, even if it is just as simple as going to the park and lying on the grass and staring up at the sky.  I only heard about the Hamilton waterfalls a couple of years ago too.  Ontario is often underrated in terms of the natural wonders that it offers.  We don’t have to get on a plane and jet off to another part of the world to see amazing natural beauty.

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