MAKING THE GRADE: Ottawa's Gridiron Academy turns out great players, good people

Victor Tedondo with some of his players at the Gridiron Academy. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

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Bigger. Faster. Stronger. And, just as importantly, smarter.

At his Gridiron Academy, based in Ottawa, Victor Tedondo helps make better football players — he pushes them to muscle up, get speedier and become more polished in their skill set. More importantly to him, though, he makes better people out of those football players. The message: Be humble, be thankful, work hard and make a difference in the real world, not just on a field.

Boys become men. And many of those men have gone on to do big things on and off the field. That’s why Tedondo does it. It’s why a 34-year-old guy with a wife and three young children puts in the time — before the COVID-19 pandemic, he would rent a van and drive kids across the United States up to 15 hours at a time, up to 15 times a year. But it’s not just about the exposure the young players get at U.S. football camps, it’s about the life skills they learn along the way.

Ottawa has become a hotbed for football, with scouts from Canadian and U.S. colleges paying close attention. Last December, Tedondo had more than 35 representatives from different colleges visit his house.

“We want the kids to reach their full potential,” said Tedondo, the winner of the City of Ottawa’s Brian Kilrea Award for Excellence in Coaching a year ago. “If it’s USports, OK. If it’s Division 1, that’s OK, too. Use sports to get an education. Use sports to get somewhere in life. We’ve had eight guys get into the CFL and one into the NFL. It’s only going to grow, the number will probably double in less than two years.”

Victor Tedondo with some of his players at the Gridiron Academy. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

When a parent brings a kid to the academy, Tedondo has an important question: How are your grades? The son of two academics — his mom Jeosianne and dad Victor (a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Montreal) — Tedondo wants the academy’s kids unlocking their brains.

“Education is No. 1, it’s huge for us,” said Tedondo. “The first thing I say to the kids when they want to join the academy is I want to see a school transcript or a report card — that’s where everything starts. I want to see progress every semester. A lot of people think we’re a training academy — that’s a small part. We’re a lot more than that, it’s a mentorship academy.

“They need to not only have the grades, but they need to have character — they can’t be troublemakers. We want to raise good young men. I don’t care if they play in the CFL or the NFL, but I need to know they’re good citizens. I want to run into them years later and have them tell me they got a degree, they got a job, they have a family. I want to know they’re contributing to society.”

“He said nobody would want me if I wasn’t a good student,” said Maine Black Bears offensive lineman Liam Dobson, ranked No. 5 by the CFL Central Scouting Bureau in advance of the 2021 CFL draft. “He wants the best for athletes. He supports them in their dream of playing college football, but he also wants them to succeed in life after football.”

Akheem Mesidor (defensive lineman, West Virginia), seen working out with the weights, is among those from the Gridiron Academy currently in the U.S. on Division 1 scholarships. Photo supplied / Gridiron Academy

There are many success stories from within the academy ( Defensive lineman Eli Ankou, who played at UCLA, is with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Others, including Toronto Argonauts QB Michael O’Connor and Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back Jackson Bennett, have gone on to the CFL. Many more, including Patrice Rene (defensive back, North Carolina), Jonathan Sutherland (safety, Penn State), Jesse Luketa (linebacker, Penn State), Luiji Vilain (defensive lineman, Michigan), Christopher Fournier (offensive lineman, Lehigh), Arthur Hamlin (linebacker/defensive back, Colgate), Wesley Bailey and Rene Konga (both defensive ends, Rutgers), Kenny Mestidor (defensive end/linebacker, UCLA), Samuel Obiang (defensive lineman, Texas State) and Akheem Mesidor (defensive lineman, West Virginia), are in the U.S. on Division 1 scholarships (25 have gone south since 2012).

One of Tedondo’s students in Gridiron Academy’s first full season in 2010, Ankou signed with the Houston Texans in 2017, then landed in Jacksonville where he played through 2018. He was claimed by the Cleveland Browns in 2019, then wound up with the Colts last month.

Jonathan Sutherland (safety, Penn State) is another player from the Gridiron Academy who is on a Division 1 scholarship in the United States. Dave LeShien / Gridiron Academy

“When I joined Vic, the program was still in its infancy,” said Ankou. “Now, he’s got it down to a system. He’s very well connected, he’s known down south, he’s built relationships. He’s not only a great football coach, he’s a great mentor. I learned so many lessons from him, it wasn’t just football. I think what’s helped so many athletes who have gone through the program is how good a person he is, not just as a coach. When you ask guys what the most helpful part of Gridiron was, I don’t think the answer would be entirely football. It would be about learning how to be a good person and how to be a hard-working person.

“From Day 1, Victor’s said, ‘If your grades aren’t straight, you’re not working out with me.’ The first thing he told me, ‘I will put as much effort into helping you out as you’re willing to put into yourself.’ That’s something that stuck with me. Every time he was training me, I gave it everything I had — not just training or football, but in school.”

Tedondo moved to Canada from Cameroon in 1996. He was 10 and spoke no English. When he was a kid, Tedondo says he was a troublemaker, lacking direction.

“I was getting into fights, skipping school, not doing homework on time and getting suspended on a regular basis,” he said.

Tedondo got a late start in football. He played at St. Peter High School beginning in Grade 9. Once he began playing at the midget division level — he was a running back for the Gloucester Dukes — the message from a couple of his coaches — head coach Randy Bellini and offensive co-ordinator Mike Johnson — began to sink in. Tedondo became a better person, developing a stronger work ethic and being more conscientious of others.

Eli Ankou, seen tracking down Deshaun Watson while playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017, was one of the students in Year 1 for the Gridiron Academy. Tim Warner / Getty Images

“They gave me a love for football and a love for coaching and helping kids,” said Tedondo. “They took me under their wing. I didn’t know the reason why I was doing a lot of things. Mike and Randy showed me to look past it. They trusted in me, they believed I was a good person. I developed a different outlook on life. They instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, they gave me the power to believe I was in the driver’s seat.”

While he had an invite to attend the University of Syracuse, take his schooling and be a “preferred walk on” with the football team, Tedondo instead played two years for the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.

“That was kind of a second plan for me,” he said. “Randy and Mike really sold me on NCAA dreams, but my parents didn’t support it. They didn’t see me going to Syracuse and paying $15,000 to $20,000 for the first semester and then possibly getting a full scholarship. My parents didn’t want to support anything to do with sports. From an African household, (my parents) looked at it as education was the way you get out so that’s what they pushed. Ottawa U was kind of the default for me because I didn’t want to go to the University of Montreal.”

Tedondo jumped on board to help Bellini and Johnson coach at the tyke level. He began to pay it forward, making huge contributions to the Ottawa football community with his Gridiron Academy, which started as a three-day camp on the long weekend in May 2007. Tedondo was just 21 at the time.

“I was still a university student and I was coaching with the Bengals,” he said. “I realized a lot of our youth were missing the base fundamentals. One weekend cannot change a kid, you need consistency. We turned Gridiron Academy into complete off-season training where they come to us at the end of November and they spend eight months with us. That’s where we start seeing real change.”

With three young children — son Carter is four and twin daughters Amaya and Michaella are 2 1/2 — Tedondo wouldn’t be able to commit his heart and soul to the Gridiron Academy without support from his wife Charmaine, who has a full-time government job but somehow manages to juggle being a mother with also being a huge part of the academy’s success.

“I have a perfect wife,” he said. “The reason I can do this is her. I wouldn’t be able to do this without her support. I’m on the road a lot. We travel at least once a month when the borders open.”

It’s not like this is a money grab. Some of the Gridiron Academy kids are from community housing. Tedondo makes it work for anyone who is willing to commit and put in the work.

“For me, Gridiron Academy is not my income,” said Tedondo, who spent 12 years in the military and now works for the Department of National Defence. “When the camp first started, it was free. The reason we started charging, people didn’t respect our time. Our academy was like a hotel — they came when they wanted to and they left when they wanted to.

“We get kids from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, if you’re white, if you’re rich or if you’re poor, we  make it accessible for all kids. If we get a kid who doesn’t have much, but if he’s got good grades and he’s hard-working, I’ll take care of him. If you look at those 25 kids who have gone Division 1, more than half of them came from single-family homes, government housing — they don’t have much. A lot of the kids cannot pay, but we find ways for them. When we go to the U.S., each trip costs between $200 and $300. For those kids to get exposure and to get scholarships, they need to go to the U.S. camps. A lot of the money I get from training, I re-invest in the kids. I’m pretty much breaking even.

“We didn’t start this for money. What keeps us going is the success of the kids. To see all the kids who came from nothing, to be able to see what they’re doing on a college football field, it’s satisfying. What I tell the older guys is they have to pay it forward and keep this going. I might be doing this for another 10 years, we’ll need guys coming back and keeping this thing going.”

The pandemic shut down competitive football in Ontario — at the high school and minor levels.

“It’s tough for the younger guys, the guys in Grade 9 and 10,” said Tedondo. “I told them to work on their academics and safely train a bit more.”

And while they’re not getting the same kind of football routine thanks to the restrictions forced by a pandemic, Tedondo hopes that some of his messages are sinking in to his students, just like it did from his coaches more than 15 years ago.

“It does not matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter where you are — it’s the same message Coach Bellini and Coach Johnson told me — you can be whoever you want to be if you really want to strive for it,” said Tedondo.


Partnered with the Orléans Bengals, Victor Tedondo and his Gridiron Academy have started Uplift Ottawa, hoping to raise funds to help cover costs for football players going south to get noticed.

Uplift Ottawa is going ahead with a camp this weekend, with limited numbers — 25 per field at Millennium Park in Orléans. Among those scheduled to help out: Ottawa Redblacks Abdul Kanneh, Dominique Davis and Alex Mateas and former Redblack Jonathan Rose.

“We plan to build on it,” said Tedondo. “I look at kids who came from government housing, the point of Uplift is to make sure their trips (to the U.S.) are covered. In the past, a lot of it came out of my pocket. Financially, I can’t do it anymore. We want to fundraise money through this event to help cover costs. It’s allowing underprivileged kids the opportunity to succeed in football.

“We want to make it a life skill camp. There’s football, but they also learn about finances, they learn about leadership, they learn about nutrition, they learn about mental health. It’s a resource for parents and kids.”