Andrew Jean-Baptiste has never played a CPL game outside of a bubble. The 29-year-old Valour FC defender was in the midst of a dominant start to the 2021 season last July during when, in a cruel blow of sudden misfortune, he tore his ACL in just the seventh game of the year. Just like that, Jean-Baptiste was out for the season, after an MVP-calibre opening month at The Kickoff in Winnipeg. "It's part of the game," Jean-Baptiste told CanPL.ca during preseason. "It was a big punch in the face having to deal with it, and honestly from the moment it happened my mindset was like, 'Is this really what it feels like?' I couldn't really wrap my head around it." Jean-Baptiste, one of Valour's most vocal leaders in the dressing room and on the pitch, was certainly devastated -- but he didn't want to abandon his teammates. He remained around the group throughout the bubble and beyond, offering his unique brand of veteran wisdom and good humour. Still, he openly admits it was difficult. With football such a high priority in his life, being around the game but unable to play it was quite a challenge for him. "It made it real hard for the next several games after that injury to be around the bubble, around everybody," Jean-Baptiste said. "From being the guy that everybody was looking up to, opponents would look at me in the hotel and say, 'Oh, that's that guy,' and you go from being 'That guy' to 'That guy on crutches.' "It's such a fast change of scenario, you go from walking around and playing, to limping around the hotel. It kind of got at me, it got under my skin and the next several games after the bubble it was a bit hard, honestly, to come out and watch games... The guys understood in the scenario; I came out, did whatever I could, but just to actually watch was so painful for me. Not just how much football's important to me, but I felt like I let the team down in a way." Although not a Canadian by birth -- Jean-Baptiste grew up in New York, and he represents Haiti internationally -- he's fully embraced his new home in Winnipeg. Already, he's involved with the local footballing scene, dipping his toe into youth coaching with Bonivital SC, one of Valour's grassroots affiliate clubs. Plus, he's taken it upon himself to help nurture the many young Canadian players on his team. "We have this joke in the locker room quite a bit of, who's the best player to come out of Manitoba?" he explained. "Desiree Scott, obviously. "But for the guys' side, we take digs -- Raph (Ohin), maybe Fed (Peña), or Fed's brother Tomás in the Vancouver academy. Sometimes you say (Marco) Bustos, but Bustos isn't here right now, that kind of fuels everybody -- 'I want to be the best.' Okay good, be the best." After such a hot start to the 2021 season (winning six of the first seven games), Valour's form dipped significantly after leaving The Kickoff -- a turn that was not entirely unrelated to Jean-Baptiste's absence, surely. Still, the challenges continued to pile up as they slipped from the top of the table to outside the playoff picture. Ultimately, with 10 games left and the team sitting fifth, Valour made a coaching change. Phillip Dos Santos came in to replace Rob Gale, as the club sought to fight its way back up the table. They couldn't quite get into the top four -- a 3-3 draw with FC Edmonton in the final game wasn't enough for them -- but their form had improved. Dos Santos knew of the void Jean-Baptiste had left in his new team's defence, and so one of his first orders of business at Valour was re-signing the centre-back for the following year. Now that he's back in training, Jean-Baptiste is finally seeing properly how Dos Santos operates as a coach. "He is a man with a plan. A man with structure, a man with discipline. You have to keep in mind we have a lot of young Canadian players in this team, and they need a lot of structure," Jean-Baptiste said. "When Phil came in here, he brought in a presence that -- how to say it? -- he made some guys shake in their boots. And I absolutely love that, because nobody should ever feel comfortable that, I'm gonna just roll out there and stroll and do whatever I want. "I'm not trying to talk about, you've got to rule by fear, you know what I mean? It was more that he's not going to allow any of the B.S. to go down on the field, in the locker room; he's gonna nip it in the bud and this is how it's gonna be."
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Plus, there was perhaps nobody in the Valour organization more enamoured with the club's Canadian Championship draw -- a trip to BC Place to play the Vancouver Whitecaps -- than Dos Santos, who was fired by the MLS club just last year after they lost to Pacific FC in the same tournament. "The moment the draw happened, Coach went into the chat -- 'Welcome to the jungle, boys!'" Jean-Baptiste recalled. "I love that. We have the group to do it; it comes down to what happens in those 90 minutes." For his part, Jean-Baptiste is just happy to be back on the pitch with his team. The recovery process was, of course, a challenge -- rehabilitating an ACL tear is no easy feat, particularly for a high-performance professional athlete. This year, though, he's keen to prove that he can step right back into the lineup without missing a beat -- that he's still the dominant force he was in both 2020 and early 2021. "One thing about me, I'm a very positive reinforcing guy," he said. "I try to be confident without sounding cocky or conceited, but when I'm back, I'm back. It's as simple as that, I'm not going to miss a beat when I'm back on it." Trying to articulate what's most important to him heading into this season, technically his third in the CPL, Jean-Baptiste landed on a personal goal: "For me it's matching the level and intensity of my teammates," he said. "I don't want to be the person that brings them down in any sort of way, because at that point I would have to accept that the team has moved on past me and I'm playing catch-up. For me the most important thing is when I come into the team, regardless of what game it is, I'm not bringing the team down, because I've seen them progressing over these past months during my injury, so by the time I get in there I don't want to be the reason why they're taking steps back." After coming so close to the playoffs in 2021, Valour's focus this year will be on taking that next step, and putting themselves into the top four. "We're tired of losing. We're tired of that," Jean-Baptiste said. "We've seen it, we've dealt with it, no one likes it, but now we're done with that. We know what we need to do, and that's the mentality in our room."
To see CanPL.ca's interview with Andrew Jean-Baptiste in full, visit YouTube.com/CPLsoccer.
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