October 18, 2021

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Inside the CFL: Long journey back to dominance for Alouettes’ Gagnon

6 min read

“A pretty big mountain to climb,” former Université Laval star says of returning to Als’ O-line four years after catastrophic knee injury.

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OTTAWA — Four years after the fact, Philippe Gagnon still contemplates, and can’t help but marvel about, all he endured and overcame after suffering what he aptly described as a “grocery list of injuries” on one play.

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It was early in the first quarter, after only a handful of plays, during a home game against Toronto on Aug. 11, 2017. The Alouettes ran a screen play. Gagnon, the team’s right guard at the time and in only his second CFL season, pulled out to block when Argonauts’ linebacker Bear Woods, a former teammate, fell into Gagnon’s left knee.

“At the end of the day, it’s a football play,” Gagnon remembered. “He didn’t do anything illegal. It was just a tough break.”

Gagnon, selected second overall the previous year in the Canadian college draft, didn’t know the full extent of the injury, only that something was terribly wrong. Indeed, he tore nearly every ligament in his knee — the anterior, medial and posterior cruciate ligaments, a bit of the meniscus and the posterolateral corner. The ligaments and nerves were so completely torn, there were no pain signals reaching Gagnon’s brain.

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The Als won that night, one of only three victories the team recorded that season. But Gagnon’s season was over with 11 games remaining. He also missed the first seven games in 2018, returning to the field almost a year to the day following the horrific injury.

Despite realizing how arduous the rehabilitation process would be, Gagnon was determined to return. There were moments he wondered whether he’d ever become the dominant player he’d developed into at Université Laval and through the early portions of his pro career. If not, at least Gagnon knew he tried.

“You have to trust the process,” said the 29-year-old. “Every day, you feel that quarter of a per cent better. You saw improvement and progress. If you try to see the destination before the journey, you’ll probably never reach it. It’s a pretty big mountain to climb. One step at a time. That’s the only way to make it work.”

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While he recovered sufficiently to return to the field — Gagnon said he might have rushed back prematurely, his swollen knee speaking volumes — he knew that season, and eligible for free agency, would be his last with the Als. He’s never been shy to discuss his departure.

“There were people in certain positions I disagreed with — what needed to be done to put a winning team on the field or how we needed to approach things to get better,” he said, without identifying whether that was former general manager Kavis Reed, head coach Mike Sherman or position coach Paul Dunn.

“This is still a game,” Gagnon added. “It’s our job and we take it very seriously. But it’s still very much a game that’s meant to be enjoyed. That’s something I didn’t feel. I didn’t have a good time in 2018.”

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Montreal Alouettes’ Philippe Gagnon takes part in the warmup before facing the Toronto Argonauts in Montreal on Aug. 24, 2018.
Montreal Alouettes’ Philippe Gagnon takes part in the warmup before facing the Toronto Argonauts in Montreal on Aug. 24, 2018. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Gagnon signed as a free agent with the Ottawa Redblacks in ’19, when the team went 3-15. As someone who had won two Vanier Cups with the Rouge et Or, losing remained tough. Gagnon dressed for nine games, including eight starts, but was released the following winter, well after the start of free agency.

He said he understood the decision, considering his age, salary and the Canadian depth Ottawa had up on its offensive line. And, after only one season with the Redblacks, few allegiances had been established. Any disappointment quickly subsided when he re-signed with the Als days later.

Gagnon returned to TD Place Friday night, when the Als met the Redblacks, but maintained he was approaching the encounter as just another game, although Marcel Desjardins remains Ottawa’s GM.

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“It’s a brand new team and a new identity,” Gagnon said. “It’s not like I’m facing former colleagues. It’s a game, like any other.”

The 6-foot-4, 311-pound native of L’Ancienne-Lorette has witched sides to left guard, but remains happy returning to the team he grew up watching and idolizing.

Luc Brodeur-Jourdain, Montreal’s offensive-line coach and the team’s former centre, is happy to have Gagnon at his disposal. Als quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., had been sacked only twice in three games prior to Friday’s encounter.

“Gagnon brings his physicality to the game, no matter the score or how good or bad the situation is,” he said. “He’s a smart and reliable player to us — and we couldn’t be happier to have him back, where he belongs.”

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In his fifth season, Gagnon believes a few solid years remain in his career, barring another serious injury. After getting a part-time job at Home Depot in 2020, when the season was cancelled because of COVID-19, he’s understandably relieved to return to the field, undoubtedly hoping 2021 will end with his first CFL playoff appearance at the very least.

“I remember being so focused through my rehab I was almost numb,” he said. “My objective for the day was to be better. The days added up. Then it hit me I’d made it back — back in the league, back on the team after all the work. It’s a nice feeling.”

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