And for those players who survive that initial grind, that’s soon followed by their Canadian Football League debut.
The 2020 calendar year should have been dotted with early career milestones for Canadian football prospects, but as we know all too well, 2020 has been like no other calendar year. While we’ve adapted to working, learning and exercising in our bubbled lives, it’s tough to shake the feeling that everything is just kind of on hold.
The same rings true for Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ draft picks Noah Hallett and Brendan O’Leary-Orange. A year ago, they were wrapping up their post-secondary careers and preparing to turn pro. Today, the two eagerly wait with anticipation for a 2021 CFL season and the opportunity to try and make their mark with the defending Grey Cup champions.
Last November, Noah Hallett played his final university game with the McMaster Marauders in the 2019 U Sports Mitchell Bowl. The defensive back finished with five total tackles in a 30-17 loss to the eventual Vanier Cup champion University of Calgary Dinos. A week after, he made the trip to Calgary to watch his brother Nick and the Bombers capture the 107th Grey Cup. Following the win, Hallett got to join in the celebration.
“It was awesome,” Hallett recalled. “We went out afterwards and the team culture just seemed so unreal.”
Five months later, the Bombers would select the London, ON native with the 18th overall in the 2020 CFL Draft.
However, training camps and season start dates were repeatedly pushed back until the league cancelled the 2020 campaign in August. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his rookie year, Hallett stayed positive and did his best to make the most of the situation.
“Obviously I was excited to go out and play but if [the season] didn’t happen, I knew I could use the year to prepare myself physically and mentally – have that adjustment period for my body.”
The Hallett brothers have been working out together since the initial lockdown in the spring and recently started working with a new trainer in London.
“We go to the gym and get some pretty intense training in,” said Hallett. “We do speed sessions once a week and try to get out to the field when it’s possible.”
Working alongside his brother-turned-teammate has been beneficial for Hallett throughout the pandemic and the ups-and-downs of a cancelled season.
“I know a lot of people are lonely or lacking motivation because of everything that’s going on,” Hallett reflected. “[Nick] and I share the same values and have gone through really similar experiences growing up. So, having somebody who shares that love for football and wants to go out there and hold each other accountable? That’s definitely helped me during this time.”
Hallett, who’s been lauded for his high football IQ, stays mentally prepared by watching games and studying game film including his own McMaster tapes. Recently, Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall said he’d send some stuff to help keep the defensive back engaged and ready for when the season comes.
“Richie’s called a few times now just to check up on how I’m doing,” Hallett said. “I know he probably calls everybody on the team but it’s unreal he does that. It just shows he’s a great guy who cares about his team.”
Aside from training, Hallett has been finishing up a degree in Health and Aging from McMaster through online learning.
While Hallett’s settled into a routine in London through the pandemic, Bombers’ pick Brendan O’Leary-Orange only recently returned to southern Ontario.
O’Leary-Orange, a wide receiver from Toronto, spent the last five years in the U.S. playing for the University of Nevada Wolfpack. His last in-game action was back in January, a 30-21 loss against the Ohio Bobcats in the Idaho Famous Potato Bowl.
Much like Hallett, O’Leary-Orange has spent the year staying as close to game shape as possible.
“If that call comes, I’m always going to be ready to play,” O’Leary-Orange said.
When he was still down in Nevada, he worked out with fellow Wolfpack alumni Cody Fajardo, the Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback.
“It was a pretty neat opportunity getting to work with a CFL quarterback and understanding more concepts when it comes to the Canadian game, like the differences in routes.”
“When we weren’t sure if there was going to be a season, working with Cody and being around other CFL receivers was positive and kept me in a good mindset. You know, stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
Since he’s been back in Canada, O’Leary-Orange’s enlisted the help of his brother Liam, a Ryerson Rams basketball player, on the football field.
“He has a pretty decent arm, so I’ve been able to put my helmet on and actually run some routes,” he said. “Growing up with our dad having played football, you know we were always slinging the ball around.”
Doyle Orange was a CFL all-star running back in the mid-70s. When the likelihood of a 2020 CFL season was up in the air, O’Leary-Orange was reminded of something his dad always taught the boys growing up.
“You can only control what you can control,” he said. “[Being drafted] was exciting and I’m still excited but I’m just working and waiting for the opportunity to go out and compete again.”
He plans to stick around Toronto for the next while and potentially work as a supply teacher.
“I want to put a little bit of extra money in my pocket and give back to my parents and family because they’ve done so much for me throughout the journey,” he said. “And as long as I have a viable training facility, I don’t see any difference between me being here or being in Nevada.”
Both Hallett and O’Leary-Orange remain optimistic for the upcoming season. While they acknowledge rookie camp could mean a few extra faces after the 2021 CFL Draft, neither player is straying from their approach.
“It really doesn’t change much. I’m always just going to be focused on being the best I can be,” Hallett said. “I’m going to be determined to earn the spot and the more competition, the better. I’m just excited to go out there and prove myself.”
“I’m not worried about things like that. I take it day-to-day and you know, just control what I can control,” added O’Leary-Orange. “That’s just me and my ability to go out there – run my routes, catch the ball and move the chains.”
The CFL released their ‘comeback’ schedule on Nov. 20 with preseason games slated to start on May 23 in Winnipeg. The thought of suiting up in blue and gold resonates with both draftees.
“I’m excited to meet my teammates and just get to know some of the guys and the championship culture,” O’Leary-Orange said. “And I’m really excited for the opportunity to compete with such a great team.”
“I hope we can get out there and play in front of the fans. That would be awesome,” Hallett said. “I mean, just take it one step at a time but I’ll be ready for it and I’m excited to play football.”
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