September 1, 2011

Zwelling: Rideau bulks up to reach new heights

Arden Zwelling

On Labour Day weekend last season, Toronto Argonauts receiver Brandon Rideau lost his job. And for the 360-odd days since, he’s been working as hard as he can to make sure it never happens again. This Friday against the BC Lions, Rideau begins the process of proving himself.

Labour Day weekend is the point when Rideau’s 2010 season completely derailed. He started the Argonauts’ first nine games at slotback last year, making 18 receptions for 352 yards and a touchdown.

But he was relegated to a backup role in early September for a game against the same Lions he faces this Friday. He caught exactly one pass that day and the next week against Winnipeg he was held off the stat sheet all together. For the six weeks after that, Rideau would not even get to put on a uniform.

The worst part of the demotion was how well Rideau had started his rookie CFL season. He was a standout performer during training camp and put up promising numbers throughout July and August, averaging 18.5 yards per catch. But come fall, Rideau’s production slowed dramatically and he appeared to struggle with the rigours of a full CFL season.

He dressed just four times and made only three catches in the three months between Labour Day and the Argonauts season-ending playoff loss to the Montreal Alouettes in November.

After that game, the Toronto coaching staff asked Rideau to do just one thing over the off-season — get in the gym.

So, just days after Toronto’s blowout loss to Montreal, and still smarting from his lackluster second half, Rideau heeded the advice of his coaches. He put in a call to his old college teammate Lyonel Anderson, a strength and conditioning coach at Rice University. It was time to work, he told him, and they were not going to stop until training camp.

“I didn’t really have a vacation,” Rideau said of his long off-season in Houston, Texas working out with Anderson. “I might have had a week or two off within the entire off-season. But it’s not a big deal — it’s part of my job. If I want to be successful I have to make sacrifices.”

Anderson knows Rideau well from their days at the University of Kansas where they were both standout football stars in the early 2000’s. Those Kansas teams were never particularly good — the Jayhawks went 15-32 during Rideau’s time there — but they did produce a number of professional-caliber players, including Derek Fine, Anthony Collins and Dezmon Briscoe who all went on to careers in the NFL.

Rideau was just on the cusp of joining that group, spending time with the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears before his NFL career fizzled out and he found employment north of the border with the Argonauts.

Anderson, a tight end, spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants but was dogged by injuries throughout his career and eventually decided to transition to working as a strength and conditioning coach.

Now, Anderson looks after the workout regimes and strength programs of Rice University’s football, swimming and track teams. And from late November until early June he had one more athlete under his watch every day — his old college buddy Brandon.

“He does a really good job. He’s an intense guy so me and him are kind of opposites in that way but we work well together,” the laid-back Rideau said. “Getting bigger was the main focus. We did what we had to do and had fun doing it.”

Rideau estimates Anderson helped him pack on around 12 pounds of muscle during the offseason, pushing him up to 211 lbs by training camp. The Argonauts felt Rideau needed the extra bulk in order to endure a season’s worth of grueling punishment in the CFL, but they also wanted him to have some extra weight to throw around in one-on-one battles with defensive backs.

That’s because the team was toying with the idea of moving the 6’4” Rideau from slotback to wide receiver in order to take advantage of his height. Rideau played outside receiver throughout his career at Kansas and coming into this season’s training camp the Argonauts told him to expect to battle for that position.

The 28-year-old was more than ready for the challenge and, after going through the experience of losing his job during his rookie season, came to camp with a definite sense of urgency.

“I knew coming in to training camp that there was going to be some competition — that my job was on the line,” Rideau said. “I had to do something to separate myself. Even throughout the season I feel the same way. I feel like every game I get an opportunity. I have to come out and impress somebody in order to be able to keep playing.”

Rideau did just that on Aug. 13 against Hamilton when he pulled in six receptions for 147 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest play on the day was a monster 69-yard touchdown grab that gave his team the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter. That was the Argonauts’ longest play from scrimmage this season and Rideau was named the CFL offensive player of the week for his efforts.

It was a tantalizing glimpse at Rideau’s all-star potential for the Argonauts who have struggled to generate offence through the air this season. The team is dead last in the CFL with just eight passing touchdowns and second last in average passing yards per game with 243.4.

Rideau is the only Toronto receiver with more than one touchdown on the season — he has three —and is second on the team with 352 receiving yards. Rideau’s 14.7 yard receiving average also leads all Toronto receivers with more than one reception.

But Rideau, more than anyone, knows that isn’t even touching his potential.

“I’m not satisfied yet. Until I get that thousand-yard season and all of that — then maybe I’ll start feeling a little more comfortable,” Rideau said. “But as far as my success right now — I feel like I’m just on my way up.”

Of course, Rideau had a strong first half in 2010 as well before the wheels quickly fell off his year. That’s why this week is so pivotal for not only Rideau’s season, but maybe his career. This is the week when the Beaumont, TX native will begin to answer the question that has lingered since Labour Day 2010: is Brandon Rideau able to maintain his production and endure the rigours of a full CFL season?

“I feel like I am. Physically, I feel a lot better than last year,” Rideau said. “It just comes down to taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way.

“That’s it. If you take advantage of your opportunities, you get to keep your job.”

Twelve months, twelve pounds and countless hours in the gym later, Brandon Rideau has put in the work. The only thing left to do is prove himself.