Joel Figueroa has come full circle.
The hulking offensive lineman is back for a second stint with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The 33-year-old American began his CFL career with the franchise in 2013, and returned to southern Ontario when he signed a two-year deal with the club as a free agent following four solid seasons with the B.C. Lions.
"Just the culture of everything is so intense, it's exactly how I remember," said the six-foot-six, 320-pound offensive tackle. "There's something about being here, about being in Hamilton, the excitement the fans bring.
"Even in practice, it's surreal."
Figueroa started 18 regular-season games and the '22 West Division final with B.C. The former Miami Hurricane has appeared in 108 career CFL games over nine seasons with Hamilton (2013-15), Edmonton (2016-17) and the Lions (2018-19, 21-22).
Three times Figueroa was named B.C.'s nominee for the CFL's outstanding lineman award.
While it's been nine years since Figueroa last played in Hamilton, there's at least one familiar face in training camp. Running back James Butler, who ran for 1,060 yards last year with B.C., also signed a two-year deal with the Ticats in free agency.
"Obviously James is a special talent physically but the things you can't teach are what make him such a great player," Figueroa said. "His effort, his willingness to learn, to always be in the meeting room after practice, to always be working out and trying to absorb more information, whether its from the offensive line and meeting with us or meeting with coaches.
"He's an every-down back. He's one of the best blockers in the league at his position and the work he puts in makes that possible. It's want-to and attitude and he definitely wants to do it."
Figueroa's outgoing personality ratchets up once he's on the field. Coming out of his stance, he plays the game with an infectious enthusiasm, physicality and intensity.
"That's just the way he plays," said Orlondo Steinauer, Hamilton's head coach/president of football operations, "We just want him to bring what he brings.
"I think everybody sets out to be physical. Is that a point of emphasis? Absolutely. I'd like to think we've been physical in the past but, yeah, we always want to be better in that area. Football is played physically and so if you don't play it that way, it makes it tough."
Figueroa said his intention is to add to what he believes is already a very physical Hamilton offensive front.
"I'm just here to bring what I can bring to help and physicality is one of those things I bring to the table," he said. "Of course, it's going to be a point of emphasis that we have on our offensive line.
"We expect to be the hammer, not the nail and we expect to punish people. That's what we want to do."
Offensive linemen traditionally prefer blocking on run plays than in passing situations because the ground game gives them more of an opportunity to impart their will upon defensive players. But Figueroa said that mentality can also be adopted in the aerial game.
"We (offensive linemen) understand this game is different, it's more of a passing league," he said. "But at the same time that doesn't mean you have to be passive on pass plays.
"You can still be physical . . . that's what the position is all about."
Figueroa will also be counted upon to protect new Ticats' quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, another facet of the game he takes very seriously.
"Protecting him is our job," Figueroa said. "We understand that's what we have to do and that's what we expect to do."
For the second time in three seasons, Hamilton will host the Grey Cup game, this year's edition slated for Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats played in the '21 contest, dropping a heartbreaking 33-25 overtime decision to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
And while winning a championship always remains the goal, Figueroa said that thought is nowhere on his current radar.
"We just have to take care of the small things and that's what we're focused on," he said. "The bigger picture will take care of itself.
"It's a little bit different here now (than in 2013) because of the staff but the core of the program is and feels the same as it did when I came into this league . . . work harder, expect big things but at the same time not look far ahead and just worry about today. Today is the most important thing, the next play, the next rep. It's just the culture around here in Hamilton and it's very special."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023.