June 3, 2017

In My Words | Tristan Okpalaugo

Tristan Okpalaugo (54)

My first impression of being here is a simple, but important one: this is a very welcoming team.

I can tell you it’s like a breath fresh air coming in somewhere and being able to relax a bit. It’s not like I’m the ‘new guy.’

I was in touch with a few guys before I signed here in the winter. Guys from the past and current guys.

Alex Suber really, really sold Winnipeg on me. He kept talking about how much love the fans have for their players and how much of a factor they were playing in this stadium for the defence.

I also talked to my former coach at Fresno State, Coach Plemons, who loved it up here when he was an assistant. He still has very close friends from here that visit him from time to time.

Another guy I was in contact with was Jamaal Westerman. As soon as he found out I had signed, he gave me a big welcome. You don’t realize how big that is because a lot of guys don’t do that, especially a guy at his level. That helped. It made me excited to get back up here and get to work.

Tristan Okpalaugo (54) chats with Jamaal Westerman (55) on the sidelines.

There were some familiar faces when I first walked into the locker room; I was with Kenny Stafford for a bit in Miami my first year as a pro. I was with Darvin Adams and Thomas Miles in Toronto, and I was with Kyrie Wilson and Kyle Knox at Fresno. Even those guys that weren’t familiar, I knew who they were… Andrew Harris, Matt Nichols.

I know it sounds cliché, but people might not understand how important chemistry is to a team. I’ve been on teams where there were cliques and you’ve just got to find your little area, do your work and then get home when you’re done.

But I already know we have a really good group of D-linemen here. We’re always joking and messing around, but we also have each other’s backs. Being here in the first few days, it’s been fantastic to have Westerman, Jake Thomas, Drake Nevis, Shayon Green, Jackson Jeffcoat… with all those guys, it just feels normal with them and there isn’t this friction all the time. It feels like we’re brothers.

Sometimes when guys are competing for the same spots it’s like, ‘I’m not going to help this guy’ or ‘I’m not going to talk to him’. It’s not always just what a guy doesn’t do or say, but it’s also about his demeanour. Or his focus on what he’s got to do. It’s not always bad.

My first year in Miami, I would say Cam Wake was ‘focused’ in the way I’m explaining it. He wouldn’t go out of his way to talk to you, but if you came to him and said ‘Hey, I need some help with this’ he would stay after practice to help you hands-on. I remember struggling with a new technique and I asked him, ‘I see you doing it in practice, but can you help me one-on-one?’ He was like, ‘Sure. Just talk to me after practice.’

But when you’ve got guys who are selfless, we can get better because you’re going to get the most out of each player. I can see something that a teammate is doing wrong and say, ‘Hey, bro, instead of this, you should try this…’ That’s the kind of room every guy wants. I felt that right away when I came in here.

This is going to be my third year in the league now so I want to be a guy that helps, too. I spoke to (Rupert) Butcher today and Hawkeye – we call Faith (Ekakitie) ‘Hawkeye’ – trying to tell them about different techniques or see things differently. It’s important for the older guys to help the younger guys because it’s like a reminder, too. You start thinking about the things you can do from your spot.

Again, I can’t explain how important this is and how it made it easy for me when I walked in here. Not all teams have that.

My first year in Toronto, I came in after training camp and it seemed like the feeling I got was ‘Who is this guy? He was just brought in because he knows somebody.’ That meant I didn’t feel comfortable right away and would study by myself and learn as best I could. As the season progressed, we got cool, but it wasn’t instant. But it was instant here. I can go talk to Jake. I can go talk to Butcher. I can go hang out with (Lawrence) Virgil… it’s all just so easy.

Before I signed, Coach Plemons said, ‘I know you will make the right decision for you.’ As soon as I signed, I said I was perfectly fine with it. And now that I’m here, it’s been confirmed.