Virden’s Westan Shiels loves a challenge.
This fall the Winnipeg Rifles rookie tackled the jump to junior football. The 18-year-old defensive tackle took on 300-pound linemen in their early 20s – and he loved it.
“I enjoyed having competition,” Shiels said. “Playing against actual grown men. Seeing what I’m capable of and what I need to improve on. Basically, a very big eye opener of what I need to improve on and what my strengths and weaknesses are.”
A 6-foot-3, 260-pounder, Shiels earned playing time with the Rifles.
“He’s a strong kid, runs well,” said Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson. “He has a very bright future as a football player.”
According to the Canadian Junior Football League website, he had two sacks, five solo tackles, two assisted tackles, and one special teams tackle. Shiels said he learned, “stats do not come as easy as high school.”
The Winnipeg team was very young this season as many veterans did not return after a 2020 season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those losses propelled youngsters like Shiels into bigger roles. Wilson said it was huge for the rookies’ development. He feels Shiels will “come back with the skill set and the game readiness of a guy going into his third year easily.”
“He’s a guy certainly we can build our defence around moving forward,” Wilson said.
The coach stated he would not be surprised if Shiels is an All-Canadian in his third season.
“He has the capacity to do it and he has the work ethic to do it,” Wilson said.
The Rifles sideline mentor explained that the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers have the rights to the junior team’s players who have not played in the U Sports or NCAA ranks. Each year about three or four Rifles usually go to camp with the storied CFL team.
“He’s a kid, if he keeps going, in the trajectory he is in, he would have a shot down the road,” Wilson said. “He’s got to keep working, getting better and everything else, but he has the physical tools and he also loves football.”
As well as skill and work ethic, Shiels’ personality and attitude make him a good fit for the Rifles, Wilson said.
“We look for guys that No. 1, they love football,” he said. “If you love the game, you are going to be willing to bleed for you and your teammates to get better and he’s willing to do that. …
“Character for us is doing the right things when no one is watching, and he exudes that.”
Moving up to junior football, Shiels had to adjust to increased size as well as the maturity of players. In addition, he went from playing nine-man football at Virden Collegiate Institute to 12-man. At VCI, Shiels played several positions on both sides of the ball including middle linebacker, defensive end, tight end, guard, running back and receiver,
“I went from having to play different positions and multiple positions down to I could focus on one position,” he said. “I have to be this size. I have to be this speed, this explosive.”
With the Rifles, he embraced playing defence.
“Everyone has to have their part and do their job to their fullest or the team breaks down,” Shiels said. “In a league like this, it really shows.”
He praised the Rifles’ coaches for their dedication to and hard work with a very young team.
“We have coaching staff who get up at four for work,” Shiels said. “They finish their job and sleep in their car for like 45 minutes and then they coach us. Our coaching staff is amazing. They do everything for us. These guys are phenomenal. They look out for their players. I really respect that.”
Shiels had success with the Rifles after not playing his final season of high school football due to the pandemic. Without games to play, Shiels threw himself into training. Some of Shiels’ workouts are a bit unconventional. He worked out regularly with tractor tires.
“With the tires, I could get down in my stance and I could push up the tire like I was pushing up a lineman or I’m doing moves on a tire like it’s a lineman or pushing it around like it’s a lineman. All positional stuff and then obviously deadlift and core work to strengthen that.”
At his peak, Shiels said he was training four to five hours a day. He split his workouts into speed, positional and strength components. That hard work paid off in the fall.
“When I went out there, I didn’t think I had a year off,” Shiels said of this past season. “I think if anything I think I had a harder year.”
Shiels started playing football when he was five. Since then, he has missed about only three seasons, including the 2020 campaign. After losing last season due to COVID-19, Shiels was thrilled to be back on the field.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was like Christmas, a little less cold.”
His love for the game has grown over the years.
“It’s a very physical game,” Shiels said. “It builds respect between yourself and other players. It is really rewarding knowing you put in all this effort and you’re doing this well … knowing that I’ve worked my (butt) off, I’ve gotten this far and I’m only going to go further. It’s a reward to me, that’s what it is. Don’t get me wrong. I love hitting dudes, but for me it’s the reward.”
Throughout his football career, Shiels has had the backing of his family. His brothers, Keegan and Lincoln, suit up for VCI. Shiels said his mom, Tera, “has been my absolute No. 1 fan and supporter.”
His stepdad Jason helped train him. Shiels said from the other side, his dad Tyson and stepmom Tara, comes the “farm side” – such as his respect for hard work.
“All in all, it came together and made what I like to call a hybrid – a perfect mix between city/town body building strength and farm strength,” Shiels said.