“Not everyone gets the opportunity to play in front of that many people, so you kind of cherish it”: Ravens Star and Redblack-Draftee Kene Onyeka Prepares for His Final Panda Game
Photo courtesy of Carleton University
“I was kind of wide-eyed, like ‘holy sh-t I’m playing in front of this many people’.”
That is Kene Onyeka’s memory of the first time he stepped foot onto the TD Place field, a stadium that holds over 24,000 people, for his first Panda Game. He has come a long way in the subsequent four years.
Since then, the Carleton University defensive end has the led the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) conference in sacks, been voted First Team All-Canadian and been drafted by the Ottawa Redblacks in the fourth round of the 2018 CFL Draft.
Now in his fifth year with the Ravens, Onyeka is accustomed to the weeklong hype that leads up to the Panda Game, the yearly matchup between crosstown rivals Carleton and the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. Carleton won in Onyeka’s first Panda Game in 2014 and the three preceding years after that.
This Saturday, Onyeka’s Ravens will attempt to win their fifth consecutive Panda Game and give themselves the edge over the Gee-Gees in the OUA standings. Carleton boasts a record of 4-1 on the season and is in the midst of a four-game winning streak. On the opposing side, the Gee-Gees are riding high as well at 3-1.
The matchup always has meaning, but this year’s game has a heightened significance and not only because it is the 50th Panda Game. The game will feature two of the nation’s top teams. Carleton is the fifth-ranked team in U Sports and Ottawa is the ninth. Both are looking to improve their positioning with just over a month left until the start of the Yates Cup Playoffs. It will be Onyeka’s last shot at OUA football’s top prize.
Onyeka chose to delay the beginning of his CFL career by returning to Carleton for a final year. Finishing his mechanical engineering degree was his top priority. He told teams as much even before the draft process began and still the Redblacks chose to take the 21-year-old pass rusher.
Even though he returned to university, Onyeka had the opportunity to attend Redblacks training camp this summer and work alongside seasoned professionals and experienced coaches. One of those coaches was Redblacks defensive line coach Leroy Blugh.
Blugh had a Hall of Fame career at defensive end during his time in the CFL before joining the Redblacks coaching staff in 2014. Even though his time was brief with Blugh at training camp, Onyeka says what he learned has made a noticeable impact on his approach this season.
“I’m attacking offensive linemen more which is making it harder for them to do their job,” said Onyeka.
Motivation should not be hard to come by for the Ravens this week, but that is nothing new. According to Onyeka, he can’t remember the Ravens coaching staff needing to say anything inspiring in the lead up to a Panda Game since he has been at Carleton. The initial “allure” of Panda has worn off for Onyeka but he still recognizes the intensity of the rivalry and the stage it offers.
“Not everyone gets the opportunity to play in front of that many people, so you kind of cherish it,” said Onyeka.
Playing at TD Place, home of the Redblacks, for the Panda Game has given Onyeka a glimpse of what it will be like to play on the professional stage. That is something a few in his own family have already gotten experience in.
Growing up in Brampton, Ontario, Kene competed with and alongside brother Godfrey and cousins Nakas and Kosi.
“Around grade seven, grade eight we used to go to my cousin’s house every weekend just to play football in the backyard. I think that is when we realized how competitive we were,” said Onyeka.
According to Kene, each Onyeka is driven to make sure they aren’t the worst of the group. That competiveness has remained to this day, leading the Onyekas to the highest levels of Canadian football. Along with Kene to the Redblacks, Godfrey was drafted earlier this year to the Eskimos and Nakas in 2017 by the Argonauts, where he picked up a Grey Cup ring last November.
Two weeks ago on Homecoming weekend, Onyeka injured his ankle and was forced to leave the Ravens’ double overtime victory over the Queens Gaels. The injury kept him from travelling with the team to Toronto last weekend. Onyeka says they are taking the injury day-by-day, but that he should be set to return to action this weekend.
For the fifth and final time Saturday, barring an injury setback, Onyeka will take the field at TD Place with the Ravens. Not only is he trying to finish his Carleton career a perfect 5-0 at the Panda Game, but he is also looking for one last legitimate shot at the Yates Cup.
“I think we are more confident in our ability to win than ever,” said Onyeka.
This weekend’s Ravens and Gee-Gees Panda Game clash will be at 1p.m. on Saturday at TD Place.