TORONTO — Family is giving Joe Eppele the proper perspective to deal with the challenges he’s facing in his pro football career.
The towering six-foot-eight, 301-pound offensive guard has already had one off-season surgery and will undergo another later this month. Once healthy, Eppele will have to make up for lost time in his preparation to play in a different city after being taken by the Ottawa REDBLACKS in last month’s Expansion Draft.
But foremost on Eppele’s mind is the battle his father is waging. Tom Eppele, 62, remains in a Toronto hospital receiving treatment after being diagnosed prior to the expansion draft with inoperable brain cancer.
“We’ve been given a timeline and right now our focus is just to aim for quality over quantity,” Eppele said via telephone Friday.
“It really does give you perspective and makes you realize how important family is and how important the small things are, especially with this happening right around the holidays.
“It’s definitely been difficult . . . but many people come home one day and get the call their loved one has died in a tragic accident. We have to look at this as a blessing. We’ve been given time to say our good-byes and really make the most of what we’re fortunate to have (left) with him. We’re trying to make that as pleasant as possible for him and tick a few things off his bucket list.”
A major bucket list accomplishment came in November 2012 when Eppele helped the Toronto Argonauts defeat the Calgary Stampeders 35-22 in the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. Eppele’s father and older brother, Josh, were in attendance, then came on the field afterwards to celebrate the win and see the championship trophy up close and personal.
“That’s something we’ll never forget,” Eppele said. “He’s got framed pictures of that all around his hospital bed.
“He’s a very proud father.”
Eppele said his father is responding well to treatment and the hope remains he’ll be able to return to his native B.C. at month’s end to be closer to family there.
Another source of family pride came in May 2010 when Eppele went second overall to Toronto in the CFL draft. After the Grey Cup victory, the Argos rewarded the 26-year-old Brackendale, B.C., native with a contract extension through the 2014 campaign.
A persistent season-long shoulder ailment – which will require surgery Jan. 29 – noticeably impacted Eppele’s on-field performance last year. Eppele wouldn’t specifically divulge the nature of the injury but earlier this off-season, the former Washington State star underwent an operation to remove a vein in his leg.
Given Eppele’s impending shoulder surgery, the Argos made a calculated gamble by leaving him unprotected in the expansion draft. But Ottawa GM Marcel Desjardins didn’t blink, taking Eppele in the second of the three-round process.
“A few of the guys and I had an idea of what it was going to come down to . . . and I actually expected to be unprotected,” Eppele said. “But no matter how much I prepared for it, after playing four years here in Toronto and my entire professional career being in one city, it was still a surprise.
“The thought of playing my entire career in Toronto and finishing up as an Argonaut definitely had crossed my mind and that was my intent to begin with. But this is what you sign up for when you come to the CFL, especially as a Canadian because with the roster needs it’s not uncommon for guys to play for different organizations throughout their career. I was very fortunate to play four seasons in the same city and so I guess it’s time for me to move on and see what’s around the next corner.”
Eppele was also very active for the Argos in the community, serving as an ambassador for the club’s Huddle Up Bullying Prevention initiative, He also started “Big Joe’s Little Giants,” a program that sees Eppele working closely with a centre for abused women and children.
Eppele admits December was a difficult month for him with his father’s diagnosis, then being drafted by Ottawa. But the benefit of time has allowed Eppele to embrace his football future.
“It’s going to be an exciting time in Ottawa,” Eppele said. “It’s going to be interesting walking into a camp where essentially every position is open because they’re all new guys coming in.
“Obviously certain guys will have status and be favourites for certain positions but in theory every spot will be wide open. It will be an interesting experience to see how the entire coaching staff comes together, how you have all these personalities and longtime players from different teams who will have to come together quickly and create a team that’s not only going to be competitive but at the end of the year be something we can all be proud of.”
And although this season will be the REDBLACKS’ first, Eppele predictably has high expectations for the franchise.
“Our goal is to play in the Grey Cup,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, there’s no doubting that.
“But it’s exciting and something I think all the guys are going to react well to.”
Eppele plans on starting for Ottawa and doesn’t believe his shoulder surgery will dramatically hamper his off-season preparation. In fact, he plans to continue working out right up to the operation.
“My shoulder has its moments . . . but the more work you can do before (operation) the quicker your recovery will be,” he said. “The stronger I am going into the surgery, the more I’ll retain throughout the recovery process.
“The type of surgery I’m having isn’t your typical shoulder surgery where guys are out six months. Mine is much less severe so I should be back training at full go in about a month and a half.”
The CFL hasn’t yet released its 2014 schedule but Eppele will circle the date when Ottawa makes its first visit to the Rogers Centre.
“There’s no way it will be just another game,” he said. “Returning to the city I began my professional career as a member of the visiting team, I’m sure there’s going to be quite a bit of emotion with that game.
“It will be difficult to put (emotions) aside and focus on the game but like any other opportunity or game I’ve played in, you have to learn to block that out. But definitely, pre-game and post-game, there will be a lot of emotion.”