Becoming Bonecrusher Again: Derek Dennis’s Journey Back to Football

Derek Dennis hasn’t played in a meaningful game in the CFL since November 10th, 2019. It’s been over two calendar years since he played in the league, and even with a short stop in the XFL before COVID-19 forced the league to shut down, he hasn’t had much playing time. Still, Dennis is a big name. Think of him as you will, whether it’s as an elite offensive lineman, a guy who hasn’t played football for a long time, or even as the guy that ruffles feathers on Twitter, you can’t deny what he has accomplished in his career.

Through five CFL seasons, four of which have been with the Stampeders, Dennis has consistently been at the top of the rankings for offensive linemen. His best season came in 2016 when he was named the league’s Most Outstanding Lineman and earned the honours of being an All-Star. On three occasions, he has been named to the CFL’s West All-Star team. Oh, and let’s not forget that Grey Cup he won in 2018.

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But that was then, things have changed since then. The Stampeders aren’t the cream of the crop anymore, and Dennis is a few years older. He looks to make his return now at the age of 33 on a Stampeders team that is looking to buy a few extra years on their dynasty. In much the same way, Dennis is looking to build on what has already been a successful career, but there’s still more he wants to do.

“In my mind, I’m not old,” Dennis said. “When you compare me to other guys, it’s only natural to say ‘this guy is eight, nine, or 10 years older,’ it’s natural to think that. I don’t feel any different than any other football player does about knowing how to take care of yourself during the grind, not just physically, but also mentally.”

The battle to get back to being “Bonecrusher” has been months in the making for Dennis. One of the first things to deal with was his weight. In the past, Dennis has played at about 350 pounds, but this season, he is listed at 337 pounds. He says that weight still allows him to play the way he did before, but also still be athletic enough to get out and run when needed. Ultimately, it’s the way to become the best version of himself.

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“I lost about 15 or 20 pounds that I was carrying,” Dennis said. “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling athletic, and I’m ready to be the guy that everyone knows me to be. I’m ready to go out there and prove that age ain’t nothing but a number, it’s more of a mentality.”

Derek Dennis, Calgary Stampeders – Candice Ward, via Calgary Stampeders on Twitter

“I’m at the weight where, most of my career, I have felt slight,” he admitted. “That being said, I have felt fast, I still feel strong, and I’m still able to play with the power that I’m known to play with.”

“I wanted to get down to a weight where I can still be fast, but I can also still be strong. My biggest asset is that I’m a big, strong guy. I’m not easy to bull-rush, I’m going to get it popping in the run game, but I still need to be athletic to keep up with this new generation of football players.”

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Some could see the drop in weight as a side effect of being off the field for a few seasons. Some might think it means he’s out of shape, or even at a disadvantage, but Dennis made it clear. This was intentional.

“This was a conscious decision,” Dennis said adamantly. “Like everyone else, during the pandemic, not being able to go to the gym or workout, I had gained weight. When I knew I had the opportunity to come back and play ball, I made the conscious decision to change up my diet and make use of my time.”

When Dennis says that he made use of his time, he wasn’t kidding. He woke up at 3:30 every morning and went to the gym for two hours. He would then go to work, and then hit the gym for another two hours when he was done. When he got home, he went into Dad mode, looking after his young kids. He repeated this process every day.

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While motivated internally, Dennis found extra drive by some of the outside noise. One Tweet, in particular, got to him one day, and he took a screenshot. It was former Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive end Luc Mullinder, who questioned if players who had been away from the sport for an extended period of time would be able to compete when camps opened. That sparked something in Dennis, and he used that Tweet from Mullinder, and every day, before he went to the gym, he would look at it to get himself fired up.

Luc Mullinder’s tweet that Derek Dennis saved as a screenshot to use as motivation every morning before going to the gym.

“There were people that doubted me and people who expected me to come in and be unsuccessful,” Dennis said. “They expected me to come in and not be able to handle the grind of training camp, they didn’t think I could start in this league or be the guy I’ve been known to be. I took that as motivation, I took that as a challenge.”

It’s still only early, but already, Dennis is proving people wrong. He’s made it through training camp healthy, he’s earned a roster spot, and he’s earned a starting job. There’s more to do, but this early success only reaffirms what he has felt for the past two years out of football, he’s still good enough, and he’s not too old for this game yet.

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“I honestly feel a lot better than I did when I left,” Dennis said. “My body feels amazing.”

“I think the coaches are pleasantly surprised with what I look like. Everybody was asking questions about me being out of football for two years. Of course, there are going to be questions, but with being an older guy and knowing your body, you have been around long enough to understand how to prepare yourself.”

There was only one building, one organization, and one team where Dennis wanted to be. That, of course, was the Stampeders. The feeling was mutual, and the two are back together. Dennis has won a championship with some of the players on today’s roster, including Bo Levi Mitchell, Reggie Begelton, and Jameer Thurman, and even though the roster has changed considerably since, the familiarity is helping Dennis get back into the swing of things.

“It’s been good to be in familiar surroundings,” Dennis said. “I’m starting to get reacquainted with how we do things, the Stampeder way. There are a couple of familiar faces that I have played my entire career with, so I’m just trying to come in and contribute. Being one of the older vets on the offensive line, I’m trying to impart my knowledge to the guys. I’ve got 74 games of professional football under my belt, so I’ve seen a lot, and I want to pass that on.”

There isn’t a more important connection in football than a quarterback and his offensive line, and that’s no different in Calgary. Dennis has spent most of his professional career helping Mitchell be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and in their time together, they have grown together. Now back with each other, their play will elevate one another.

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“Bo and I have a lot of chemistry,” Dennis said. “Something I didn’t realize earlier in my career is that he trusted me. He trusted me to keep him on his feet so that he could go out there and make the throws that he’s known to make. I know that he’s going to take care of me, and my job is to take care of him. He’s super excited to have me back, and I’m super excited to be back playing with him.”

Dennis, although motivated by both his doubters and his teammates, his biggest motivation comes from within. He’s on a mission to shape his legacy and build on what he has already accomplished, and he’s determined that no one is going to stop him, especially not when he puts his mind to it. He will decide when he is done, not the fans, not the media, not anyone but himself.

“In the CFL, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the fame, it’s about the love of the game and wanting to leave a legacy,” Dennis said. “At this point in my career, it’s about legacy. It’s about being remembered as one of the best offensive linemen to come through the league. I want to be looked at in the same light as Stanley Bryant. I want to be the best tackle in the league, and maybe get a bronze bust in the Canadian Hall of Fame.”

Derek Dennis with his Most Outstanding Lineman award (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Now in week one of the regular season, there’s a whole different set of challenges. The focus has shifted to winning a game against the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night. In many ways, this is a first for everyone on the field. They have been there before, sure, but never before in this exact same scenario. Veterans and rookies alike will have nerves, Dennis included, but that’s normal.

“The biggest challenge is that it’s the first game,” Dennis said. “There will be jitters with a lot of people doing things for the first time. It’s just part of the game that comes with finding your groove.”

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Those nerves are justified. With the Alouettes coming to town, Dennis knows what he’s up against. Serious pass-rushing threats like Avery Ellis, Almondo Sewell, Nick Usher, and Michael Wakefield are coming to town, and their mission is to get to Mitchell as often as possible. Those jitters, however, aren’t fear. It’s excitement, adrenaline, and a dash of human nature as Dennis looks to prove himself right, once again.

“Those guys have a lot of guys that can get after the quarterback,” Dennis said. “The defence they have is high-motor, high-energy guys who want to go out there and play a physical brand of football. We’ve got to be able to go out there and match that energy.”

Week one is only the first taste of CFL football, and while expectations by fans and the media have gone down for the Stampeders from where they were during the peak of their dynasty, that isn’t the case in the locker room. The Stampeder way hasn’t hanged one bit since Dennis was last on the squad.

“That’s the standard here,” Dennis said. “It’s always next man up, it’s always Grey Cup or bust. We go into every season expecting to compete for championships, that’s why you play this game.”

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When it’s all said and done, Dennis knows why he’s here. The personal goals are there, of course, but it’s about the team, and about bringing the Grey Cup back to Calgary.

“I’m not here to prove anyone wrong, that’s not my main goal,” Dennis said. “My main objective is to come in here and be a great teammate, be a guy that everyone can count on that’s going to do his job. To be a leader with what I do on the field, but also be a little more vocal. I’ve gotta pick guys up and build that camaraderie. That’s what championship teams are built on.”


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