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Redblacks coach Paul LaPolice wanted to celebrate 50th birthday with win over Argos

In his mind, Ottawa Redblacks head coach Paul LaPolice had the greatest 50th birthday bash planned, with 24,000 or so people in the house watching a football game.

On the day of his birthday, June 12, he was hoping his team would beat the Toronto Argonauts in the Redblacks’ CFL season-opener at TD Place. It would have been his first win, in his first game, as the head coach of the Redblacks. It didn’t happen. The notion of holding any kind of birthday celebration or playing football in front of a large crowd of fans seems like such a yesterday thing now, with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying and perhaps cancelling the CFL season. There is still hope of salvaging a season — a reduced schedule that would begin in September. So LaPolice —who took the Redblacks job in early December, a bit more than a month after Rick Campbell quit —continues to prepare for the what-ifs and maybes.

It hasn’t been easy. LaPolice and his family —wife Tina and kids Payton, Joshua and Mallory (ages 12, 9 and 7)— are a month and a half into their move to Ottawa from Winnipeg. And with social distancing and COVID fears, everything has been turned upside down. People work from home, many stay home. Moving into a new city, into a new situation is tough enough, but moving during a pandemic? It adds plenty of stress.

The family got out a couple of times to the Drive On Movie Nights at TD Place, watching Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America Winter Soldier. But LaPolice is still a football coach, with plenty of stuff on his plate during the day.

“It’s really hard,” said LaPolice. “The kids don’t get to meet anybody new, Tina doesn’t get to meet anybody new. We’re cooped up together. In Winnipeg, the kids still had a core of friends they could play with because it was under 10 people. Really, we don’t have that here. Fortunately with technology, my kids can still talk to their friends online and play games with them online. We have a big backyard and a pool so we’re trying to make the most of that. We’re still trying to get organized. Usually when you go to a new house, you go to your office and don’t worry about all the boxes.

“(In a normal season) you leave for the building early in the morning and come home late at night … there’s more time now. But you also have to say, ‘I’m shutting my door for the next four hours because I have to work to do.’ I try to do my work really early in the morning while everybody’s asleep.

Winnipeg had become home. The LaPolices had lived there for the past 10 years, with Paul serving as head coach from 2010-12 and offensive coordinator from 2016-19 (the Bombers won the Grey Cup last season). In between, he worked full-time for TSN in its coverage of the CFL.

“When you move into a new house, there are a million things before you can get into that comfort zone,” said LaPolice. “Hopefully we’ll have another 15 years here, that’s what we’re hoping for.”

There has been talk of the possibility of some sort of CFL season, there have been whispers of hub cities—one or maybe more hosting each of the nine CFL teams in a closed-off environment. Because of that, LaPolice and his coaching staff are putting in the hours to prepare — for something that may not happen. If things were “normal,” Ottawa would have already played three regular-season games.

“You’re just not doing what you’d normally be doing at this time,” said LaPolice. “We’d be a couple of weeks into the season. We’re a whole new coaching staff, there are a lot of new players. You want time to teach and evaluate, you haven’t seen these guys on the field in your system. It’s pretty important that whatever we can do to prepare the players, we do it before we start. We’ve tried to put some stuff in place to be able to do that.

“I think about Opening Night a couple of weeks ago at our stadium, that would have been outstanding. As we always tell our players, ‘Control what you can control.’ We’re going to keep working on our stuff and making sure we get ready for when that football probability comes back. We’ll see what happens. But it’s certainly been a different off-season. There are so many variables that are still wide open — whether we’re playing, who we’re playing, how many games? You’re going to have a lot of stuff you’re not sure of, things like how long is the training camp? We have a training camp we built months ago, we also have started the process of building a 10-day training camp in case that’s what it is. When they say yes, it’s going to a flip of the switch and get after it pretty quick.”

The coaching staff gathers for Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams. It isn’t, of course, the same as seeing everybody on and off the field each day. But it is all they have, at least for now.

“We miss the daily interaction with the not only the players, but with the coaching staff,” said LaPolice. “A leader’s job is to define reality and give everybody hope. Right now, we’re preparing and I think we’re very preparing very well, for football. I can’t control whether we have it, but I do expect football to come back at some point.”

LaPolice has been in the CFL for 20 years, a tenure interrupted by his three years working for the league’s television broadcaster. He was 29 when he got his first CFL job with the Toronto Argonauts, turning 30 in his first training camp.

“To say I turned 50 and I’m still in the Canadian Football League, it’s a great thing, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s funny, I was the youngest assistant when I came into the league at 29, I believe I was the youngest coordinator at 31 and when I was hired in Winnipeg, I was the youngest head coach at 39. Now I’m the old man.”