By Frankie Benvenuti – OSEG Intern
Jaelon Acklin’s dream wasn’t always to be a football player, but from a young age, he dreamed of being an athlete. Growing up in a small town in Missouri, racing was king. As a child, his first ambition was to become a driver in the NASCAR Cup Series
“When I was a kid, I had those little race cars,” said Acklin, recalling a story from his childhood. “I would get every single driver, and I would line them up in the living room and race. I would say that my first ever dream was to become a NASCAR driver.”
“It was more when I was a kid,” he continued. “My family are big into dirt track racing. I was into [NASCAR] until I was about 11 or 12. When Dale Earnhardt died is pretty much when my whole life was wrecked because I was such a big fan of his. Once he stopped racing, I lost interest.”
With the NASCAR dream in the rearview mirror, Acklin looked for what came next. At the time, his dad was the football coach at his school, so he made the obvious choice to join the team.
“I kinda ran with that,” Acklin said. “My first word as a kid was ‘ball’, so I was always into basketball, baseball, and stuff like that, but before I could play those sports in school, I was really into racing.”
His path to loving football was much more complicated, however. It took a whole different sport to convince Acklin that football was the game for him.
“I would say that I fell in love with football through WWE,” said Acklin. “I love interacting with the crowd. I love getting first downs, and pumping the crowd up, I’m more in love with football for the crowd engagement.”
Wrestling was a big part of Acklin’s life growing up. He and his four little brothers would wrestle with each other for fun.
“I used to always wrestle my brothers and we made our names up,” he recalled. “One of my little brothers was Aztec and I was Warrior. We would get on the trampoline and wrestle. We acted like the crowd was getting amped up, and it was a good time.”
For various reasons, Acklin rarely saw the field in his first three seasons with Western Illinois in the NCAA. His entire football future came down to his final season in college, and he knew that he needed to make it count.
Acklin did that, and then some. In his final season, he caught 84 passes for 1,369 yards with 10 touchdowns, leading the Leathernecks in receiving yards by over 1,000.
“In my senior year, I lost 15 pounds and ended up starting,” he said. “I broke the school record for catches, and then I went to Baltimore [with the Ravens]. I got hurt, but once I got surgery, they cut me.”
Despite the tough break, Acklin did enough to get noticed by a CFL team. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed Acklin ahead of the 2019 season, and he was quick to prove he belonged.
“The first day, I was fourth or fifth string, and if I made a mistake, I was probably going to get cut. What do I do? Well, I did what I always do and got into a fight with Delvin Breaux. After we fought, I caught the ball and threw it at him, and we got into a fight again. Shawn Burke kept me, thank God.”
Although he spent his first two seasons in the CFL in the Hammer, Acklin remembered his visits to Ottawa fondly.
“Ottawa was the first place I ever played [in the CFL],” Acklin said. “I always loved it. I loved the mall, I loved the BeaverTails, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the city. I just learned about the Rideau Canal, which looks sick. I’ve never skated, so I have to find someone to ice skate with me.”
“The crowd was younger, and it was packed for a preseason game. I always thought Ottawa was a sick city, considering the downtown area and the mall.”
In his first two seasons, Acklin has seen great success with the Tabbies, reaching the Grey Cup game twice. A pair of heartbreaking defeats continue to motivate him, but they aren’t his only fuel.
“The Grey Cup game sucked,” said Acklin, with the smile suddenly wiped off his face. “We made some key mistakes, so it’s hard to swallow.”
“I do have motivation, but I would have that even if we won the Grey Cup. I want to be the best in the league, I want to be the best that I can be, so I’m grateful that Burke and Paul LaPolice believe in me. I can get that done in Ottawa, and we can bring back the Grey Cup.”
While he continues the push for a ring in the nation’s capital, Acklin thinks back to the young kid racing his toy cars. What would that kid think about where he is in his life right now?
“I think I would cry with joy,” said Acklin. “When I was five or six years old, I never thought that I would be playing pro football. You always dream about it, but you have to have a lot of things go right, and you have to be a little bit lucky.”
“I think my five-year-old self would be ecstatic and thankful that I’m here, just like I am now. I’m thankful that I get to wake up, I just got a new house, and I was able to pay off my mortgage by playing football. I’m very thankful.”