Meet the Riders: How Brendon LaBatte learned to love football and the Roughriders

Brendon LaBatte knows how much the Roughriders mean to Saskatchewan and he loves the responsibility.

The 33-year-old from Weyburn, Sask., is almost certainly going to be in the CFL Hall of Fame some day, but there was a time when he didn't even like football.

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To find out more about the man they call Bammer and Blue, CBC's Peter Mills spoke to LaBatte about his family, his passion off the football field, the relative that inspired him to love football, and much more:

Why do they call a green and white legend 'Blue'?

It might seem obvious for some, but if you don't know the story, LaBatte's most common nickname was created in 2008 when he showed up to Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp.

"Labatt Blue was a big sponsor all over Canad Inns hotel [in Winnipeg]. At the little offsale store, they had a big Labatt Blue. So that's where we happened to be staying at through camp and O-Line coach Bob Wylie came up with it."

Brendon Labatte celebrates a win in 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'An aggressive little guy'

LaBatte is married with three kids: a seven-year-old, a five-year-old and a one-year-old.

"They're great kids. We've had a lot of fun with them and it's great to have them come to the stadium," he said.

"It's pretty cool to talk to them and they say, 'Good luck dad' and 'Go give somebody a tunin' for me' or whatever. So that's always fun when my little guy says stuff like that ... He's kind of an aggressive little guy, so he likes it when I get out there and be aggressive rather than take somebody else's aggression."

Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte. (Peter Mills/CBC)

LaBatte's first true love

Most professional athletes dream of playing their sport from an early age. LaBatte had dreams growing up, but he didn't want to be on a football field. He wanted to be a stock car racer.

"That's been a passion of mine ever since I've been about 15 years old." 

When LaBatte was about two years old, he had a little electric Jeep he drove around downtown. Like his son, you might say LaBatte was pretty aggressive with it.

"I drove around so much as a kid that I actually split the tires and half the plastic tires wore right out," he said. "We had to throw it away eventually. But the real key to being able to wear the tires out that fast was dad upgraded me to a big car battery. So once we put that thing in it became a lot easier to make them spin."

Like father like son

"[My dad] was the guy that's got me involved in it and he's a lot more than just racing," LaBatte said.

Despite his busy schedule as a professional football player, LaBatte and his family try to compete in as many races as possible.

"We'll go anywhere really in the States. We're showing up and we don't really know anybody and we're just kind of there for ourselves. So I've learned how to be an outsider in competition and to not ever let doubts creep in or seep in."

Even if it's not racing, just working on cars and creating a family team has brought the LaBatte family closer together.

"Just all the shop time I think and we all have that common goal, so there's so much conversation based around the technology and the cars or the the motors or anything in there, we do every stage of the game. So it's it's been a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of hours put in together and I think that's brought us definitely a lot closer."

Brendon Labatte holds his trophy for the most outstanding offensive lineman at the CFL Players Awards on Nov. 21, 2013 in Regina. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Occupational hazard

Racing and football is certainly a unique combination. There's a level of risk involved in driving as fast as you can around a track. Despite that, LaBatte said he's never had to work any special racing-related details into his contracts with the Roughriders.

"That's never been an issue and actually I have had quite a bit of support through the organization to come out and watch. We we used to have some earlier spring races in May when the weather has been co-operative and had lots of people come down to check it out. Lots of support from the team, so it's never been an issue."

A late bloomer

LaBatte is a six-time CFL all-star and he won the CFL's Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award in 2013, but if you told him that future when he was a kid, little LaBatte probably wouldn't believe it. He didn't even like football.

"Sundays were the worst day in our household because football would be on the TV, especially when my grandpa from Texas was up," he said.

It wasn't until high school that he got into the game.

"I just went out in Grade 9 halfway through the Grade 9 season just to go hang out with the friends after school really more than anything and they were able to find a place for me and I never look back."

Offensive Lineman Brendon LaBatte had to be carted off the field after going down with a leg injury in a 2017 game. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

LaBatte said he really start to love the sport when he joined the University of Regina Rams.

"It became kind of a full-time thing," he said. "It was probably more of the training and seeing yourself get stronger that made me enjoy it more than the actual football did. Then once I started to get on the field with the Rams in my second year I kind of thought that this is fun."

In honour of his uncle

LaBatte said his uncle was his biggest inspirion in the sport.

"I had an uncle that was a very, very good football player who was unfortunately killed in high school in Assiniboia in a car accident right around Christmas time," LaBatte said. "He was planning on going down to BYU and unfortunately that never worked out.

"That was my grandpa's only son and he had him down in Texas, they were training, they did a whole lot of things and football just meant so much to my grandpa. I think it's kind of been very rewarding for [my grandpa] to be able to follow the CFL as closely as he's been able to the last 12 years."

Fulfilling his uncle's legacy is something LaBatte said he will never forget. 

"Every O Canada on game day that thought rolls through my mind."

Brendon LaBatte speaks to fans during training camp in 2018. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Ain't nothin' gonna break his stride

Football players and teams are often very secretive about injuries. For example, a player with a broken leg might be classified as having a lower-body injury. Players don't like dwelling on injuries because they want to move on without having the fear of getting hurt in the back of their mind.

When LaBatte returned from an injury at the end of September, he was surprisingly candid. 

LaBatte required surgery for the first time in his career and he seriously considered whether he should retire.

"I didn't know what was acceptable to push through in rehab. They're saying, 'It's gonna be a little uncomfortable, you got to push through that' and just not knowing how much is too much and what is a warning sign to stop and when do you keep on going."

"That was my biggest thing: not knowing. Then I ended up hurting and re-aggravating and re-tearing my abductor [muscle] ... As soon as that happened, we really didn't know that had occurred and it was just like I was in a state of not progressing."

Living his day-to-day life with that injury wasn't "terrible terrible" according to LaBatte, but not knowing exactly what was happening for a few weeks was a difficult period for him.

"There was just probably six weeks in there where [he thought], 'OK I've had this fancy surgery that's supposed to have me all fixed up, feeling good as new and I feel like crap," he said. "I was starting to get like, 'What's wrong with me? Am I ever gonna be able to do this again? Do I want to do this again if I gotta risk this again?'"

LaBatte has played four-straight weeks now and he looks just as dominant as ever.

"You start just cherishing the little things I think a little bit more when you realize how close you've been to being permanently affected."

'The mood of the province'

When LaBatte last re-signed with the Riders, he said he didn't want to play anywhere else. But all athletes say that when they come back to a team. That said, Saskatchewan is a special place for the Weyburn product. It's also a place he understands very well.

"Just being a local guy ... I know how much the team means, how much games mean to the province, and how the mood of the province is really going to be affected on how well we do on game day. I just love that responsibility to go out there and be able to represent the people of this province and just try and do it as best as I can," he said.

"The rush of being able to be one of 12 people on offence that's going to be out there trying to score points for this province is one that I don't take lightly."