Jacob Firlotte sits down at his family’s dining room table with a smoothie in front of him that looks too healthy to taste good.
Photos of family and generations of children line the walls and cupboards. Behind him, patio doors reveal the rolling hills of Sts’ailes territory stretching into mid-morning sunshine.
Firlotte has a shy smile, long brown hair and warm, welcoming features – a contrast to what likely greets the offence when they approach the six-foot-three, 216-pound defensive back on the football field.
DB Jacob Firlotte, drafted 58th overall by the #Bombers, just became the #CFL's only player with an indigenous background. Neat to see him go to a city with a Métis mayor & a large indigenous population. @Mayor_Bowman #CFLDraft #CFL
— John Hodge (@JohnDHodge) May 4, 2018
Only a few weeks ago Firlotte, 21, was drafted to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, making it all the more shocking that there isn’t a trace of ego in the young Sts’ailes man’s demeanour.
His grandfather and former Sts’ailes chief Harvey Paul, on the other hand, is beaming with pride.
“He’s the seventh great-grandson to come from Sts’ailes Lake,” Paul said, adding that Firlotte’s Sts’ailes name, P’al-Lokwtel, means that he comes from the water.
Firlotte, with his roots deeply embedded in Sts’ailes soil, is one of few Indigenous men from B.C. ever to be drafted into the CFL. And this year, he’s the only newly drafted Indigenous man on the roster.
Firlotte became interested in football because of his older brother, 10 years his senior. Firlotte watched his brother play until he could pick up the sport himself, and at eight years old, he did just that.
|Jacob Firlotte took to football at a young age after watching his big brother play. Now the 21-year-old is joining the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a defensive back. (Submitted)|
From nine to 13 years old, Firlotte played community tackle football before joining his middle school team in Abbotsford.
He went on to play high school football at W. J. Mouat Secondary before earning a spot playing with the Queen’s Gaels while he studied philosophy at the Kingston, Ont. university.
His sport may be known worldwide for being rough and physical, but Firlotte was drawn to the invisible strategy and methodical design of the plays.
His reactionary position involves the least amount of foresight, but the abstract art of reading his opponents is a finely tuned skill.
“Football is a unique sport … People say it’s similar to rugby [as] there’s a lot of hitting, but it’s still two very different games,” he said. “The more I play it, the more in-depth it is … It’s an art.”
After 49 solo tackles and three interceptions during four seasons of university football, Firlotte was invited to the CFL Ontario Regional Combine.
Athletes invited to one of the three regional combines try out to earn a shot at the CFL’s national combine – from there they get drafted to the CFL. Firlotte was one of six players from a group of 41 to be invited to the national level.
Combines – both national and provincial – put athletes through a series of physical tests, including a 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump and a variety of drills.
According to an article in the Queen’s University Journal, Firlotte didn’t rank in the top five of any of the six major testing categories at the regional combine, but he was still happy with his performance, demonstrating his ability to “read and react to wide receivers” while “keeping them covered.”
The March 24 and 25 national combine in Winnipeg wasn’t too different from most job interviews, Firlotte said.
“They look at how you are physically, how you move on the field, how you compete,” he explained. “At the national combine, you have an interview with different teams, they see how you are as a person, and figure out where you’ll fit.”
Firlotte said interviews include questions about who you are, where you grew up and your experiences, strengths and weaknesses, sometimes to a room of five or six CFL coaches. But the young athlete wasn’t nervous.
His perseverance and quiet confidence carried him through the combine process, and he wasn’t anxious until May 3 – the day the drafts were broadcasted. He had expected to receive a call by then, informing him what team he’d been selected for. Had he not been drafted?
— Shane Larson (@thegametimeguru) May 11, 2018
Firlotte’s friends and family had gathered in the home on Chehalis Road, watching the TV where Firlotte had connected his computer to watch the draft picks. He went outside to throw the football around with his brother and a friends, attempting to calm his nerves.
He poked his head inside, and in a moment of pure serendipity, his picture appeared on the screen. Jacob Firlotte had been selected 58th overall as the new defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“[I’m] ecstatic…” he said. “It’s still all soaking in from just being invited to the first combine”
Things had moved quickly. Firlotte’s first combine had been March 9, and less than two months later he had secured a spot in the CFL.
A new role model
Mom Elizabeth Paul said Firlotte’s determination is the reason her son is able to call himself a professional athlete today. Rain, sun, or snow, Firlotte took to the Sts’ailes athletic fields to practise two to three hours a day.
For the young athlete, practising – even solo – is a form of meditation. He works tirelessly at foot work, pushing himself for accuracy. A misstep, he said, could be the difference between his team or the opponents scoring.
His goal now, aside from being a great athlete, is to be a great role model. He wants kids from his community to know that they too can have success, but that grit and commitment are key to getting there.
— Queen's Gaels (@queensgaels) May 4, 2018
“Keep practising [and] figure out different ways to get better … keep chugging along, even if you’re not feeling too well or not super motivated,” he said. “If you do five or 10 minutes a day, you’ll feel better than if you did nothing at all.”
Growing up it was impossible not to notice the lack of Indigenous role models in the media, Firlotte, said and while not all First Nations athletes choose to represent their communities, Firlotte is looking forward to becoming a role model for Indigenous youth.
According to Wenona Hall, University of the Fraser Valley Indigenous Studies professor and member of the Skowkale community, that can make a big difference.
A lot of news stories covering Indigenous people in Canada are centered around issues that – however real – might ignore all the positive things happening in First Nations communities.
“It’s frustrating … It seems like if something happens that fits a negative stereotype, people will pay attention to it,” Hall said. “It’s good that we start paying more attention to the successful stories, maybe moving away from the stereotypes.
“The level of athleticism among our First Nations youth is absolutely amazing,” she added. “They need more access to play competitive sports and realize that if they want to go all the way, they can.
“I appreciate [Firlotte] identifying and acknowledging that he is First Nations so he can be a role model for the next generation. I think that is so important … because the youth today, when they see something like this, they realize, ‘Wow! If he can do it, I can do it!’ ”
Firlotte is making the most of his new position on the field by displaying a message that matters. He knew that playing professionally meant his body could become a billboard, and with that in mind, he got the letters “MMIWG” (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) tattooed on his left bicep. As long as Firlotte is on TV, football fans will be reminded of the nation’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, a national crisis of Indigenous females disproportionately facing high risks of violence and homicide.
The conversations around MMIWG has shifted both politically and socially in recent years, but Firlotte hopes the issue remains a priority, even on the football field.
Blue and Gold
Firlotte will don the royal blue and gold Bombers uniform for the first time this June, when pre-season kicks off with a home game against the Edmonton Eskimos June 1. Until then, his training regimen will get a serious kickstart as he begins the first few months of his CFL career.
His family and community will surely be watching every game with intensity, especially Vancouver games, when Firlotte’s team takes on the B.C. Lions.
With a laugh, Firlotte imparts one last piece of wisdom to youth with athletic dreams: “Eat your veggies and drink lots of water!”