By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Image caption: Micheal Ritchott evades an Edmonton Wildcats defender. Photo by mytoba.ca
Running back Micheal Ritchott didn’t have it easy growing up. But he’s honest about his past. It’s what has moulded him into the football player, and man he is today.
“I grew up in the north end of Winnipeg for the first nine years of my life. It was a little bit rough,” he says.
“I have six brothers and sisters as well, so things were a little bit tight on the budget, and my mom was a single parent for most of her life, so coming from that background, that’s definitely one of the things that was motivating for me and always made me want to get more in life.”
When Ritchott was going into grade six, he, along with his siblings were taken to Child and Family Services, as his mom was struggling to provide for the entire family. Unfortunately, the home that he was put in until grade eight was less than ideal.
“Things were a bit rough there,” Ritchott remarked.
“We didn’t have access to our fridge the entire time that we were there. We were never allowed to cook for ourselves, and I would be doing house chores regularly and extended amounts of school work just to keep us busy when they didn’t know what to do with us. They would find ways to do things that weren’t completely necessary, and looking back on it, some of it was actually kind of wrong.”
Ritchott coped with his surroundings by taking up football.
“When I got to foster care, I knew they said I could play any sport that I wanted,” he says.
“I found football, because my friends had said the practices were long, and I just had to do something to really stay out of the house.
“I knew football would be a good getaway for me. I wasn’t the nicest person at young age and was definitely more aggressive. Football let me control my emotions and was a big outlet for me.”
Just under two years after taking up football, Ritchott was able to move back home with his mom, who had gotten her life together.
“That’s when football started to take off,” he says.
Success with Grant Park
Beginning in grade nine at Grant Park High School, Ritchott started training with elite level speed coach Glen Bruce, who was also a teacher at the school.
Bruce had helped local CFL stars such as Andrew Harris, Anthony Coombs and Nic Demski elevate their game. He did the same for Ritchott, while also becoming a valuable male role model.
“[Bruce] is one of the biggest mentors I have. He really showed me what it’s like to be a professional athlete,” Ritchott says.
“He pushed me, and saw something in me at a younger age that I didn’t quite see. I don’t have many male figures in my life, so he was instrumental for me. I don’t think I’d be looking at the opportunity I’m looking at, or be the football player I am today without him.”
With the guidance of Bruce, as well as long-time varsity, and current junior varsity head coach Mike Kennedy, Ritchott tore up the Winnipeg High School Football League (WHSFL).
He helped his team make it to the inaugural junior varsity title game in 2010, thanks to a last second missed field goal return for a touchdown. The following year, he won the AA Offensive Player of the Year award, while also leading Grant Park to their first-ever championship in team history. In his senior year, he won top offensive player once again.
Move to Vancouver Island
Despite all of his accolades, Ritchott was never ranked in the top 100 at any point in high school, and received no offers from any U SPORTS schools. His size may have been a factor, as he stands at just five-foot-nine and a little over 180 pounds.
“That’s a chip I carry, but it’s not something that affects my game,” he says of his lack of U SPORTS offers.
“It’s definitely something that makes me better, because if you know me, you’ll know that I’m one self motivated guy, and I don’t need anybody else’s motivation, but if you’re going to give me that motivation, it’s just more fuel to the fire.”
One man that was high on Ritchott’s abilities however, was former Vancouver Island Raiders/current Langley Rams head coach Matt ‘snoop’ Blokker.
“Coach snoop was one of, if not the only coach in Canada to legitimately say, I want you on my program. I want to give you an opportunity,” Ritchott says.
Blokker flew Ritchott out for the BC junior football team’s 2013 spring camp, where the duo hit it off.
“After meeting the man, I just knew that it was fate, and that I needed to learn from and build off of him.”
The Raiders utilized a three back system that year, with Ritchott contributing 406 yards as a rookie while also making his presence felt as a return specialist. As a team, Vancouver Island made it all the way to the national championship, with Ritchott being named offensive player of the game in the national semi against Windsor.
“[Vancouver Island] ran such a pro style offence, and the way they ran their program as a whole was more professional than I could have ever imagined before heading out there,” Ritchott says with passion. “Going there, junior football was like the pros to them, that’s how they treated it.”
Off the field, life was more challenging, as Ritchott had trouble with the cost of living on the west coast. At just 17, managing bills was difficult. Thankfully, Blokker was right there to provide support, while also pushing Ritchott at the right times.
“After a couple weeks with [Blokker], he pulled me aside and told me, ‘you better start taking this seriously. You have more than an opportunity here.’ He told me point blank, you choose what you want to do here. You can be a pro athlete or you can play your five years and be done.
That really kicked the switch in my head that made me realize there’s a guy out here that sees an opportunity in me, and that was huge. It was one of the things that made me commit completely to football.”
The end of the 2013 season threw a minor wrench into Ritchott’s plans, as Blokker made the move to the Prairie Football Conference (PFC) to coach the Calgary Colts.
With his most valuable mentor out west gone, Ritchott was forced to adjust. While his rushing numbers decreased, his return yardage didn’t. He finished the season averaging 24.1 yards per punt return and 25.3 yards per kick return and also added three combined touchdowns.
He also made history in a 52-44 win in week five against Langley, becoming the first-ever Canadian Junior Football League player to return two 100-plus yard kickoffs for touchdowns.
Return home/debut with Winnipeg Rifles
Unfortunately, things weren’t going well back home. Ritchott’s grandpa was sick with cancer and his mom wasn’t taking it too well. At the end of his second season, he knew it was time to come back home and be with his family.
Not long after returning, the PFC’s Winnipeg Rifles got in contact Ritchott after finding out he had cut ties with the Raiders. The coaching staff helped him secure a job and made his transition to the team a seamless one.
“The transition to joining the Rifles was very easy. I don’t think I brought a negative impact to the team, I think a lot of guys were excited, and I got things fired up for those guys coming back home,” he says.
“I thought it was really exciting to be back home as well, and to get to be able to play in front of my mom and my family.”
Personally, Ritchott’s most grounding experience with the Rifles occurred during his fourth year, as his child was born.
He was in a position where he was working full time during the season in order to provide for his family. He’d go to work from 8-4 during the week, and then head straight to practice. He wouldn’t get home until around 9 p.m., when he would spend quality time with his son.
“[Having a child] brought things into perspective about what’s more important, and what to prioritize,” he says passionately.
“Before him, I saw nothing but football. But bringing him into my life created a different diversity for me. It was actually more motivating for me as a football player, father and support worker. It brought the best things out of me and made me a better person than I am today.”
On the field, Ritchott’s play was consistent. He recorded at least 800 yards rushing in each of his three seasons, and finished with 3,173 combined all-purpose yards, as well as 23 touchdowns.
He also got the opportunity to attend the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rookie camp in both 2016 and 2017. Ritchott impressed the coaching staff so much in his second go-around that they extended his stay for three weeks into main camp.
“[Practicing with the Bombers] was one of those phenomenal experiences,” he says.
“I was literally living like a bomber and doing everything they did. That was a huge step for me, just seeing everything these guys do on a daily basis to keep their bodies and minds right.
I matured from that and learned from that, and everything that I would receive as knowledge, I took it in and brought it as far as I could into my program as well.”
Recently, Ritchott was given more good news, as he was invited to participate in the CFL’s Western Regional Combine, taking place on Thursday, March 22 in Winnipeg. If he performs well enough, he’ll be invited to the national combine which takes place in the ‘Peg two days later.
For Ritchott, it’s just another chance to prove the doubters wrong, and make his CFL dream a reality.
“I do not do this for anybody except myself and my family now. I know there’s going to be a lot of people who say he’s too small and he can’t do this or that, but that’s just something I’m going to have to keep dealing with and having to prove people wrong until they get the sense that this is exactly what I’m meant to do.”