Matt O’Donnell wears size 17 shoes. He ducks beneath doorways and sleeps diagonally across hotel beds.
“My growth spurt started in Grade 2 and never stopped,” O’Donnell, the biggest player in the CFL, says. “I grew two to three inches a year. I even grew two inches one year when I was in college.”
At 6-foot-11 and 350 pounds, the Edmonton Eskimos offensive lineman is 16 inches taller and 200 pounds heavier than Hamilton’s pass-catching sprite Brandon Banks.
He is so enormous that Edmonton’s quarterback, Mike Reilly, has to peek around him to find a receiver. Reilly is 6-foot-3, tall enough to look downfield over his linemen in college.
“He towers over the rest of us,” says Reilly, who played at Central Washington, an NCAA Division II school. “It’s not even close.”
O’Donnell has been a starter for the Eskimos for most of the past seven years, during a CFL career interrupted by brief tryouts in the NFL. He is the tallest player in pro football and lighter than only two: Trent Brown, an offensive tackle for the New England Patriots who is listed at anywhere from 355 to 380; and one of his own teammates, 356-pound guard Travis Bond.
Historically speaking, there have been few football players larger. The Oakland Raiders once had a seven-footer named Richard Sligh, but he was a bare wisp at just 300 pounds. Chicago’s Fridge, William Perry, and Tampa Bay’s Warren Sapp, were a well-padded 350 on frames of but 6-foot-2. Aaron Gibson flirted with 400, but started for the Bears for only one season.
O’Donnell is such an important part of the Eskimos’ offence that they rewarded him last year with a contract that he keeps him in Edmonton through the 2020 season. He plays a key role in protecting Reilly, the league’s most outstanding offensive player, and paving the way for running backs.
“He is like a road grader,” Reilly says.
O’Donnell grew up in British Columbia and enjoyed hockey in his youth. He was so big that he was made to play against boys several years older as a safety precaution.
“I’d go through two sets of equipment a year,” he said after a practice this week before Saturday’s late-afternoon game at BMO Field against the Toronto Argonauts. “I’d outgrow my pads and skates over the course of one season.”
He was a good skater and scorer, but his mere presence made referees jittery.
“Kids would just skate into me and I’d get called for a penalty,” he says.
O’Donnell became a standout basketball and football player in high school and ended up as an offensive lineman at Queen’s University. The Gaels won the national championship in his third year and he was twice named first-team All-Canada. At the end of his senior season, he was one of two Canadians invited to the NCAA East-West all-star Shrine Game in Orlando.
He played on the West squad under former NFL head coach Wade Phillips.
“It was a pretty big shock,” O’Donnell says. “These guys were bigger and faster and better all-around than anybody I had played against.”
He did well during drills at a predraft showcase for potential CFL players and was then put through a private workout by Paul Alexander, then the assistant head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders picked him in the second round of the 2011 draft, but when contract negotiations stalled, he accepted a tryout offer from the Boston Celtics. The invitation was arranged through his agent, Johnathon Hardaway, who also represents basketball players.
To prepare, O’Donnell practised at a training centre in Chicago with Bimbo Coles, the former NBA point guard. He hadn’t played organized basketball in years, but was so tall and agile that the Celtics wanted to take a look. So did the Raptors.
In Boston that day, he was put through the paces with other prospects. Ray Allen, the Celtics veteran shooting guard, dropped by to watch.
“Almost everybody was between 6-foot-8 and seven-feet tall,” O’Donnell says. “Physically I was stronger, but they were faster and in better condition.
“I’m sure the other guys were looking at me and thinking I was the most out-of-shape basketball player they had ever seen.”
Despite being rusty, he impressed Danny Ainge, Boston’s team president.
“He was definitely the surprise of the workout,” Ainge said at the time. “He is big. Really big.”
The Raptors invited him in for a one-day assessment, but nothing came of it. Hardaway says the Celtics offered O’Donnell a split contract where he could play football and test his skills in the NBA development league. He opted not to accept when the Bengals offered him a contract as a free agent. He spent the entire 2011 season on Cincinnati’s practice squad and was one of the last players cut during training camp in 2012.
He returned to Canada to play the second half of the season for the Eskimos, who had acquired his rights in a trade with Saskatchewan. He then played in Edmonton for the next two years before taking a final stab at the NFL, again with the Bengals.
“That offseason, they used their first two draft picks to pick offensive tackles,” O’Donnell says, chuckling. “I remember thinking, ‘This probably isn’t good.’ ”
He was one of the last players cut by Cincinnati and has been back in Edmonton since. He returned in time to play eight games in 2015 and win the Grey Cup.
When injuries struck this season, O’Donnell was switched from right guard to left tackle and hasn’t missed a beat. He plays to the left of the 356-pound Bond and centre Justin Sorensen, who is 6-foot-8 and weighs 311 pounds.
“When they are all standing upright, the entire middle of the field is blocked from my vision,” Reilly says.
O’Donnell weighed 8 pounds 6 ounces at birth. That is large, but not so big as to give a clue to what would come. He has two older brothers, one 6-foot-4 and 325, and the other 6-foot-2 and 250.
Big boys, but as Reilly says, not even close.
O’Donnell’s chest is 52 inches across and his arms are 22 inches around. He has a 42-inch waist, which is pretty slim for a guy who weighs 350.
On busy practice days, he takes in about 6,000 calories. For breakfast, he has four eggs over-easy and three cups of hash browns. As soon as practice is over, he will have a smoothie and a couple of portions of chicken, rice and veggies for lunch. He plans to have salmon for dinner and a few snacks.
Sounds reasonable enough.
“My serving sizes are a little different,” he says. Then, he holds his hands 25 to 30 centimetres apart.
He is 29 and affable off the field. On it, he has a temper to match his size.
“When he is upset, not many people will go over to talk to him,” Reilly says.
They have played together long enough that the quarterback feels safe to approach him.
“I have to be aggressive,” Reilly says. “I can’t show any weakness. He could probably rip my arms off and beat me with them if he felt like it.”