Football: I love you, I hate you

Preface

While the backdrop of this essay is football, it is really much more. This is an exploration of some of my biggest highs and lows, and the incredible people that guided me through it. When I sat down to write, I thought it would be one-two pages but as I kept writing I kept going deeper, and in the end it came out at nine. If you have the patience to read all the way through, I hope something in here resonates – if anything it was cathartic to get it on paper. If I am being honest though, this is just scratching the surface. I think I used football as a cover for some bigger challenges that I need to unpack. Maybe one day I’ll write about those. For now, this is a start.

Growing up I was unathletic – in fact, I would still say I am still unathletic today – but I wanted nothing more than to be on a team. Year after year in elementary and middle school I would try out for every team: volleyball, basketball, soccer, track & field, and every year I would be the first one cut. Unlike me, all of my friends were athletic, so they made every team and were often the best players. I’d go to the games and want nothing more than to be on the other side, even if I never left the bench, I wanted nothing more than to be on the team. 

My parents moved right before I finished elementary school so I ended up attending a different high school than all of my friends from elementary school. Rather than MM Robinson, which was a bit rougher and not particularly competitive in athletics I was now going to be attending Nelson, the top school in the region for sports. Championships were almost automatic. As I got ready for grade 9 I prepared myself for the same process I’d gone through in elementary school – try out for every team, embrace rejection, try again next year. This time it was a little bit different though, I didn’t have many friends at this high school. In fact, I knew exactly one person – a girl I went to church with. So when an email came into my parent’s inbox in early August letting them know that the junior football team would be holding practices beginning the week before classes started I was naturally excited. “Practices” weren’t tryouts – the football team doesn’t cut people I found out (I quickly learned that’s because anyone will do as a tackling dummy). This was the perfect fit for me – finally I was going to be on a team. 

I showed up first day of practice to get my equipment standing 5’8” and 115 pounds. Not exactly a specimen the coaching staff was excited to work with. As such, I was given a pair of shoulder pads that looked like they used to be used by someone who was three times my size and played in the fifties. I was then given a helmet with a bar down the middle (anyone who watches or plays football knows this is the equivalent of making someone wear a dunce cap). I didn’t care though, I was on the team. 

My freshman year went about as you’d expect it. I’d get beat up for two hours at practice running scout team and then when games rolled around I stood on the sideline. This may not seem that odd to people given I was in my freshman year, but to put in in context, that year we would typically be up by around 50 points by halftime, so the second half the coaches would rotate everyone in, and I mean everyone. One game I remember they put a guy in who was a bit smaller than me at nose tackle just to be funny. Of everyone on the team I think everyone got to play at least a little bit, except me. Through ten games that year I saw exactly zero seconds of play-time. That bugged me, but at least I was on the team. The best part about it was that I met some of my best friends that year. One guy in particular, Cory Babiak, was also in grade nine at the time but looked like he was twenty. He was, and still is, one of the best athletes I have ever known. He also happened to be one of the most popular guys in school too – I remember in one of the first few weeks of school he got in a fist fight with one of the toughest guys in grade 12 because the older guy’s girlfriend had started talking to Cory. Cory won that fight handily, and at that point it was understood that he was the alpha. 

It turned out that Cory and I lived close to each other so we started carpooling after practice. As we became better friends he started inviting me to hangout with him during and after school. I now understood why Cory seemed like he was twenty – when he said “hang out” he meant “work out”. This guy would train during the lunch hour at the school gym and then in the evenings would be out doing sprints, pushing cars, and doing anything else physical he could get his hands on. I started joining Cory for all of his training sessions and by the time I rolled into grade ten I was now a full forty pounds heavier, and much faster. This is when football became fun. I went from never seeing the field to never leaving the field and leading the league in touchdowns. But more importantly, it was the relationships I built. Besides being a specimen and a generally cool guy, Cory is one of the smartest and wisest people I’ve ever known. I grew a lot as a person through our friendship. It wasn’t just Cory though, my high school journey couldn’t have been better and it was mostly because of the people I met playing this game. Being on a team really was all I thought it could be. 

But there is a dark side to football. I had my first encounter with this in my grade twelve year. We were playing a Friday Night Lights game against our cross-town rivals. The energy was electric – everyone came to the game, it was broadcast on the local networks. We always played at a neutral location so there was no home field advantage. This was the highlight of the year. 

I don’t remember much of the game to this day. Near the beginning of the game I took a big shot to the head and everything went black. Beyond that I can only remember short spurts of the game, even though I did play the whole game. My ears were ringing and my vision was blurred. Apparently during the game I kept asking what certain plays meant because I couldn’t remember what to do – I should not have been on the field, but I was. 

The defining moment of that game was at the end. We were up by 4 points with less than two minutes left. All we needed was to get one first down to win the game. I was playing running back. I took the handoff and on first contact I fumbled – my first fumble ever. The other team picked it up and ran it back for a touchdown. I was rattled, disoriented – again, I can’t remember much of the game. I was distraught but we did have just over a minute to get a field goal to tie it. I was the kick returner so as they kicked off it went right through my hands, again, another first, but I managed to pick it up and get some positive yardage. The next play we called a pass. My job on the play is to block the back side rusher – a play we’ve run a hundred times. But as the ball was snapped I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do. The linebacker came off the edge, unimpeded and hit our quarterback, Will Finch. But he didn’t just hit him, it was bad. The ball came out, they recovered, but Will laid there motionless on the ground. He was hurt, bad. Everyone was silent. The refs called the game without the formalities of kneeing the ball and called an ambulance. I was crushed – not only did I lose the game, I put us in this position, and now my friend, the highest rated football player in the country, was lying on the ground motionless because I didn’t do my job. I waited for the ambulance to come and when he was taken off the team got on the bus back to our school – I couldn’t stand to be on that bus though so I asked my parents to drive me home, shoulder pads and all. That felt like a low point for me in sports, but unfortunately that was just a taste. 

Will proved to be ok (kind of), a concussion and whiplash – he missed the next game but was back for playoffs. As a team we ended up ok too. We lost in the finals that year but a number of us decided to come back for another year. The one who didn’t was Cory. He left for university after grade 12. Although he was one of the best athletes around, he was ready to start his life. One guy who did stick around was Doug Corby. This guy was the all-world basketball player in the region. He got recruited to play everywhere, but in grade 12 he decided to come out for football, and of course, he instantly became the best receiver in the nation. But even better is that Doug is a selfless soul. He’s the first to celebrate others. The first to offer to help, even if you don’t ask for it, and he’s humble to the point you wonder if he’s oblivious to how good he is. Doug, like Cory, is a special person – and without football we never would have connected. I consider them both like family to this day. That’s one of the best parts about sports. You’re bound to meet some incredible people.

The cool thing about the team we played on was that a lot of us got a chance to play at the university level after graduating. In total, 24 of us went on to play at the next level. I was fortunate to land at Laurier – and what a transformative experience that was. 

One of the lessons I learned from Cory was to over-prepare. So leading up to my time at Laurier I did everything I could to get up to speed with the vets on the team. I was not interested in being a regular rookie. As has become a central theme in my football journey, I was blessed with another great friend. This time it was an existing veteran on the team who was also from Burlington, Jeff St. Louis. He was heading into his fourth year and played the same position that I would be.

Jeff is an all-time good guy. Smart, charismatic, hilarious, and athletic as hell. As I’d soon learn when I got to campus he, like Cory, was the man. During the summer leading up to training camp Jeff tutored me in the playbook, he’d take me with him to team workouts that were typically just for existing players – anything I needed Jeff had my back. He even took me to get new equipment that matched the rest of the vets I’d be playing with. Because of Jeff, when I showed up for training camp I already felt like I was part of the team. 

On day one of training camp I was slotted in as Jeff’s backup but in the very first practice one of the team captains pulled his hamstring. I could also play his position so the coaches slotted me in for him instead of elevating his backup who was a veteran. For the rest of my Laurier career I never came out of the starting lineup. The tough part was that when Carlos, the injured captain came back, the coaches moved me back to my old position, instead now I was the starter and Jeff was the backup. This situation goes to show why Jeff is an all-time good guy. After this move Jeff only supported me more – he would spend extra time with me going through the playbook, helping me study for games – he was a friend and a teammate. Exactly the kind of guy you want in your life. 

As Jim Collins has put it, everyone has varying degrees of “Who Luck” – meaning that luck is not confined to situations, but that there is an incredible amount of luck in the people you get to meet. I have had incredible who luck. 

One of the who luck instances came out of a fight. On the second day of training camp an offensive lineman smoked me on a run play, it was a bit of a cheap shot because I was away from the play. I figured it was a “welcome to the team, rookie” kind of moment. I didn’t know how to react, but as it turned out I didn’t have to. While I was still on the ground I looked over and a second year player who was probably the best on the team was feeding this lineman with uppercuts. That was Chris Ackie – a man who needs no introduction. He was rookie of the year the year prior and was already one of the top draft prospects for the CFL. Chris made sure that I wouldn’t be on the receiving end of any cheap shots again. After practice I went to thank Chris for that but it was as if it never happened – for him it wasn’t even a thought to defend me, that’s just how he’s wired. If you need something, Chris is going to have your back, even if you don’t ask for the help. Again, an all-time good dude. 

Chris played free-safety, I played boundary half (slot corner for Americans), and Felix Odum, a fourth year draft prospect played corner beside me. The three of us would spend all of our evenings and weekends together watching film, taking notes, and gameplanning. The nature of the defense was that the three of us would work in tandem on every play. By the end of the year we didn’t even need to talk to each other during games, we’d see the play unfold and knew exactly what each other was seeing and was going to do. It’s like the no-look pass but for football, on every single play. That year was unsatisfying as a team. We lost in the first round of the playoffs. But on a personal level the season went well. I got rookie of the year which was especially cool because Chris won it the year before me, and Jeff the year before him, so we got to keep it in the position group. I was also named an Academic All-Canadian which was nice one to make mom proud. But I was unsatisfied – I wanted more. 

Another big dose of who luck was reconnecting with Eric Morelli. Eric and I had known each other from elementary school. We went to different schools but lived near each other and would play road hockey after school (he was good, I was not). We lost touch through high school but when I showed up to first day of training camp there he was. But Eric had a bit of a different journey than a lot of first years. He wasn’t recruited, he reached out to Laurier to ask if he could come out for the team. They originally told him no but then came back and said, yeah you can come. For all intents and purposes, he was a “camp arm” in their view. A guy who can throw during training camp against the starting defence so that the other quarterbacks can get some rest. This is like the sacrificial lamb. Eric, being the guy he is didn’t care – he was in for it. On day one of training camp Eric was listed as seventh string and was relegated to end of practice reps against the second string defence. But if you watched the way he prepared and how seriously he took practice you would have assumed he was the starter – Eric had a fire. A fire I never felt myself.

Eric and I were in the same program so we spent a lot of time together. The rookies had the earliest workout slot: 5:30am, we then had 8:30am – 1pm class, a short break, and then had to be at the field 3-8pm and then study-hall from 8:30-10pm. We became very close. 

The offseason was where I felt most at home. I loved training, I loved the early mornings, and I loved school. The offseason was the perfect mix of all three. I could throw myself into studying and break that up with intermittent trips to the gym and the field – the offseason was heaven. And that offseason couldn’t have gone better. Chris, Felix and I would hit the field and watch film almost every day. When we showed up to training camp for year two, the boundary side of the field was on lock. Within the first three practices I think we each had 5 or 6 interceptions – by that point people knew not to throw at us. This was going to be our All-Canadian season. That came true for 2/3 of us. 

We had gotten to the end of training camp – no more two-a-days, it was time to dial in for our first game. At the beginning of practice coach shared the results of the vote for team captains. Chris, Felix and I were all named captains. This is far and away what I am most proud of in my nine years playing. To be voted captain by your peers was the biggest honour I could ask for, especially as a second year player where most of the team is older than me. I couldn’t have been more excited to carry that honour through the season, except the season ended before it started. Just two hours later, right at the end of practice, the second string defence was getting their last few reps. I was on the sideline joking around with some of the guys – I was about to start taking my cleats off because coach was going to bring us in any minute. The guy who plays my position had an issue with his helmet so he asked me to jump in for a play. Eric was playing quarterback on the other side and as he dropped back I could read him all the way. He threw a back-side post and I came off my route to make a play on the ball. I went up and picked it off, but the intended receiver also jumped up to try and make a play on the ball. We both fell awkwardly and I felt a small pop but no pain. I thought I was fine but the trainers rushed over to check everything out because it looked awkward. After a minute of them playing around with my knee they yelled for the golf cart. I didn’t know why because, again, I felt fine. The trainers loaded me up and drove me back to the locker room. The head trainer abruptly told everyone to get out – it was just her I and I staring at each other when she told me my ACL was gone. I asked what she meant. That didn’t make any sense, my knee felt fine – but what she explained was that it was likely such a clean tear that all the nerve endings probably went with it, which is why I didn’t feel anything. She explained that the worst ACL tears don’t hurt, it’s the partial tears that do. I broke down. The whole offseason, the tight training camp, all cut short on a fluke play. That day was bookended with the best and worst moments of my athletic career – funny how life works. As the trainer explained what this meant I wondered if I’d ever come back and be the same. I wasn’t. 

Our head coach, Michael Faulds, is a legend at Western so he put in a call to the team doctor to see if they could see me. Less than an hour after hearing that I tore my ACL I got a call from Dr. Willits, the best orthopaedic surgeon in the country asking if I could be there Monday for surgery (that was on a Wednesday night). What a blessing. A lot of people wait many months or years to get surgery. I was getting in four days later. 

But rehab started before Monday. The good part of a clean tear is minimal swelling, so I was able to get right back to it leading up to surgery. As long as I didn’t need to change direction or slow down quickly my knee was safe, so lots of sprints, stairs, cycling, and weight training. Although I wasn’t going to be on the field I was committed to getting back as soon as possible. 

Surgery went well and rehab couldn’t have gone smoother. I had the best team of people to work with at Laurier willing to spend hours with me every day. I tried to get all my work done early in the mornings though because I still wanted to be in film and on the field during practices. While I couldn’t be out there I still felt like I had a lot to give with my eyes and ears. 

Besides the training staff, I had incredible friends helping me through the process. At this point Eric and I lived together off campus. We were about a 15 minute walk from the business building which normally wouldn’t be an issue, but coming out of surgery I was on crutches for a couple of weeks, and when I got off crutches, walking more than a few hundred meters was a big effort. Eric, being the guy he is, would drive me to campus every day to drop me off for the class we had together, he would then turn around, drive home, and then walk back to campus, join me for class, and then after class walk home, get his car and then pick me up. He did this for a month straight, and no matter how much I protested he wouldn’t let me walk. That’s what I mean by “who luck” – it’s not often you find friends like that. 

Chris and Felix were two other guys who were and have been a big blessing. After the injury, Chris moved over to play my position (a big upgrade) and he and Felix had an all-world season playing together. Both were named All-Canadians – Chris got an invite to the East/West game and Felix an invite the CFL combine. But even in the midst of this dominant season for them both, I still felt like I was part of it. We’d talk on the sidelines during games, they’d invite me over to watch film. Besides the fact that I wasn’t on the field, everything felt the same. When I look back, that year might be my favourite even though I didn’t play. Which still makes me wonder, what could have been? 

My knee healed quickly. I was cleared to come back 5.5 months after surgery, just in time for spring camp. My anticipation couldn’t have been higher. I had been taking mental reps the whole time I was out, and was now stronger than I had ever been, even pre-injury. I was expecting to pick up right where I left off but reality couldn’t have been further from that. I got worked, and worked, and worked again. I don’t know if I’d ever played football that poorly before. While physically I was back to normal, I had this mental block. I used to play with reckless abandon and now I’m playing first not to hurt my knee and second to make a play. Spring camp ended, and although I was nowhere near where I wanted to be I had hope for the summer offseason. Chris moved in with Eric and I that year so we started training together every day. Living with these guys couldn’t have been better for me not just as an athlete but as a person. Both have relentless pursuit of their goals. Chris was determined to be the best in the country at his position, and Eric, who just two years prior had to ask the coaches to let him be on the team was now battling for a roster spot for the toughest position to crack, by a mile. Irrespective of the domain, the respect I have for both of them in their diligent preparation and unrelenting energy is incalculable. Not only that, these guys cared – they pushed me to prioritize self-care, to open up when I’d established a habit of being guarded and removed. They wouldn’t let me run away – I had no choice but to take on life with focus and energy. Not only did they push me, they supported me. We supported each other. 

When training camp rolled around we were ready, well 2/3 of us were. Chris was already widely-regarded as the number one defensive back and linebacker in the country after a stellar showing at the East West game that summer, playing two positions. And Eric came into camp guns blazing. The once seventh string quarterback was now battling for reps with the first and second team offence. Me on the other hand, lined up first play and got flamed. Greg Nyhof, our starting slot receiver ran a go route and not only did I not keep up with him, he stiff armed me on his way by. I fell to the turf like I had been shot – not exactly how I wanted to open camp. To be fair to me, Greg has a body that rivals statues you would find in ancient Greece. Still, I got worked. 

Despite my struggles the coaches kept me in the starting line up seemingly to let me shake the rust off. I did improve day over day but I still wasn’t feeling like my old self. I couldn’t get past the mental block. My knee was also twice its normal size and all kinds of purple and blue. The doctor said that might happen with the level of volume but that I shouldn’t worry about structural damage, just to rest. But with a starting position hanging on by a thread I couldn’t miss a practice so I resolved to wear leggings at all times as to not tip off how bad my knee looked. I showered at home so no one could see and wore pants even though it was the middle of summer. By the time our first game rolled around my knee looked normal again and I was starting to get into a groove. What I was most excited about though was that Eric was elevated to second string – that meant we’d both be on the active roster together for the first time. To me, the game itself was secondary, this was a chance to go out there with my friends. And it was fun. It was fun to be back under the lights – I somehow managed to pull together a half decent game, and I got to share that with Eric and Chris. The summer paid off. But from there the season got darker. 

Like I said, my style of play was one of reckless abandon. I am not a big human, so I have to throw my body around, and what that usually meant was throwing my head around. One thing I didn’t share with anyone was that the day I tore my ACL I got knocked out cold on one play. It was near the beginning of practice and I was chasing a receiver across the field when I took a shoulder to the chin, I went down like a sack of bricks, but since the ball wasn’t thrown that way no one saw it – it wasn’t until much later that I saw it on film. I don’t remember much from that instant in real time, all I remember was getting clocked and then coming to and getting back up. But on film you could see I was face down for a good 5-6 seconds. I never played again that season so I didn’t think much of it, but now in my third year, between the barrage of hits I took in high school and my first year I was becoming more and more susceptible to head trauma. 

The worst was a game against Western. It was a night game and the stakes were high. Our head coach was the Western legend who just years prior had set every major record at this school. Now we were back to play in that stadium for the first time under him. Night games at Western are no joke – the fans are insane and the lights are bright. Within the first five minutes of the game I am running across the middle and took a shot to the head just like the one that knocked me out in training camp the year prior. This time I didn’t just get knocked out, when I came to I was out to lunch. I don’t remember any of the rest of the game, but I will share what I saw on film and what I heard from others. For the next few series I was running around like a lost child. When I watch film of myself, again, with zero memory of playing the game beyond those first few minutes I am baffled as to what I was seeing and thinking. Teammates told me they looked me in the eyes and tried to talk to me but it was as if they were talking to a dead man walking. Apparently I stared straight ahead, not registering people in my periphery or any audible queues. 

According to my teammates and coaches they told me I was done for the game and to see the trainer, but the next series I ran out on the field and told my backup to get off. As he ran off the coaches didn’t know what was happening. Western ran a hurry up offence so it was easy for me to keep myself off the field, there was no break in play really. Finally the coaches called a timeout and pulled me from the game. They him my helmet so that I couldn’t find it and go back on. Finally we got to halftime, and this is where my memory starts to come back. I remember sitting in the locker room listening to the coaches going through mid-game adjustments. I didn’t see my name on the board as they were drawing positions and I asked where I was supposed to line up. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy, like I didn’t register that I had been pulled from the game multiple times, and they had taken away my equipment – that I was still standing there without a helmet. It was like I had amnesia, and in effect I did. I had no recollection of any of this. When everyone filed out to go back for the second half the coaches told me again that I was not coming out and that I should shower and get dressed, and that I had to stay with the trainers at all times. They were concerned about my health, as they should be, so I couldn’t do anything without supervision. I got undressed and headed to the shower. This was a low point for me. I stood there under the hot water with someone supervising me. I felt like a child, or an inmate – maybe a bit of both. I couldn’t process thoughts and struggled to keep my balance, all the while feeling trapped. 

The game ended and the mood was heavy. We got worked. I don’t remember much from the rest of that night and really much for the rest of the season. I didn’t play again, and I was in a bad place mentally and emotionally. 

My mood was dark. I still attended all of the team activities but I was muted, I felt numb. It had nothing to do with not playing, this was deeper. I just felt empty. When I tried to close my eyes to go to sleep I would hear screams, during the day the bright lights affected me to the point where I wore sunglasses everywhere and I avoided campus because the fluorescents were unbearable. Worst of all, I became a different person – I didn’t want to be around people, I felt an intense grip of remorse and guilt for things in the past, things that were inconsequential but that ate away at me. I didn’t want to be around people. But at the time I was still the captain, I was leading the study halls now as a mentor to younger student athletes, and I was a lab instructor for the business school, so I couldn’t afford to disappear. Every day I’d put my mask on and go to work, trying my best to seem normal and to keep spirits up. But I couldn’t have been further from normal. I remember one night riding my bike home from campus around midnight – a car came blazing around the corner and almost hit me. If they did I would have certainly been dead. The eeriest part of that experience is that it didn’t phase me – my heart-rate remained the same and I just kept riding. For days the only thing I thought about was “what if they hit me?”. I wanted them to hit me. Sometimes I still think about that.

The one person I couldn’t hide my mask from though was Eric. He knows me. Most importantly he would challenge me. Eric didn’t let me continue on in a state of reclusive self loathing, he made me get help. He made me come out with him on the weekends, and do things with friends – he forced me into a state of normalcy. Although I didn’t feel normal he made me live a life that demanded normal and supported me as I got myself back there. But it didn’t stay that way. 

When the season ended I disappeared from the team. I stopped going to workouts, or Friday practices. I was working during the day at this point and doing classes at night, so I had a plausible excuse to not show up, which is why no one asked – but if I’m being honest with myself, I was running away. I didn’t know what I wanted for myself or what I should do, so I figured I would just become more and more insular until I figured it out. In the spring I showed up at the coaches offices and told them I wasn’t coming back, that I didn’t think it was right for me or the team and that I thought it was for the best. They agreed, we hugged, and I was on my way. I just asked that they not tell the players because I wanted to tell them myself. 

One thing I will be eternally grateful for was the support I got from Coach Faulds, Coach V, and Coach Cameron through this process. They didn’t question my decision or try to convince me to stay. Instead, they could see something was not okay and they did everything they could to keep me engaged and get me the help I needed. Even though I was technically off the team, I would get texts every few days, or invites to get coffee – they could tell I was trying to pull away but they pulled me back in. Coach Faulds made sure I got help. He pushed me to see a counsellor, he connected me with campus resources, and he made sure I still felt like part of the family, even though I was running away. I will forever be grateful for that.

The one highlight of that offseason was the CFL draft. Chris had another stellar season and blew up the CFL combine – he was high on everyone’s draft boards, it wasn’t a question of whether or not he’d be in the first round it was just how high. We all gathered at the campus restaurant for a draft party. About a hundred people were there to support Chris and a few others that were draft hopefuls that year. I was standing beside Chris when the draft kicked off and twenty minutes later his phone rang. Chris disappeared into a hallway for a minute and then came back and calmly told me that Montreal was about to draft him – they had the fourth pick. As the third pick was being announced on TV almost no one knew what was about to come. I felt like I was holding the world’s best secret at that moment. What I couldn’t believe was just how calm Chris was – this was one of his defining moments and there he was, standing amongst friends and family as stoic as ever. When they announced his name the place erupted. What was so cool was that Chris immediately went to his parents. For Chris it felt like this was about others more than about him – that’s the type of guy he is, selfless beyond measure. To cap it off, the very next pick was BC and they took Ese, another Laurier Goldenhawk and another all around awesome guy. Ese is an infectious personality – he takes the time to get to know you, I mean really get to know you. When you talk to him you can tell he cares – and he has no trouble lighting up a room. If Ese is around it’s impossible to not be in a good mood. He’s another example of the great people I got to know playing this game. It was so fitting that they got drafted back-to-back with everyone cheering them on – well deserved.

As we got closer to training camp, I still hadn’t told anyone I wasn’t coming back, other than Eric and Chris, but as time was coming up I realized that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell the guys that I was out, that I was going to let it end like this. I called the coaches and asked if they’d have me back, if we could pretend it never happened – they said they never thought I’d stay away anyways. It’s not lost on me how empathetic this was from the coaching staff to take me back after I walked away from them.

I reported for camp a few weeks later, ready to give this one last go. Looking back, I should have stayed away. I don’t think I ever escaped the head injuries from before. We played a pre-season game in Saskatchewan and in true Tanner fashion, I threw my head and my body around more than I should have. After that game my ears were ringing, but I chalked that up to lack of sleep and travel. But when we got back to Ontario to prep for our first game I took a light shot, nothing out of the ordinary for football, and I was dazed and confused. The trainers could see it and they shut me down that week. I protested and protested saying that I was fine, just over-tired. Eventually after unrelenting pressure I got them to agree to let me do a cognitive test to get cleared. I passed. But to be fair, the cognitive test is a measure against a baseline test you take in the offseason (memory games, mental math, etc.) and I purposely sandbagged my test the first time to establish a low benchmark – looking back, not my best idea. I think if I did the test properly I would not have been cleared. That has nothing to do with the training staff, that is all me. I take responsibility for my stupidity.

As the season progressed I felt like I was playing in a constant state of fog. I was never 100%, but I just accepted that as normal. Not only that, I went from a straight A student to barely passing. I was a shell of my former self. I couldn’t string sentences together, I was forgetting people’s names, people I’ve known for years, and when I’d take tests I would stare blankly at the page unable to process where to even start. It was bad, and I was scared. I was scared I’d never be the same. Even today I still wonder that. I’ve never stopped being scared. 

The stupidest part of it all was that I was scared to own up to the truth myself. I felt like it was all in my head (ironic, I know). That I just had to snap out of it. And if I owned up to this, or shut it down, that I would be admitting this was real, that it wasn’t my imagination, that I actually was hurt. I couldn’t do that – not because I was too prideful for other people to see me throw in the towel, but because I was too afraid to face the truth. I was not, and am not okay. 

I don’t want to dwell on my personal struggles that season though, because there was a lot of amazing things that did happen. After that pre-season game in Saskatchewan, Eric got elevated to starter. I couldn’t have been more excited for him. Here’s a guy who worked for everything he got and was now leading one of the best teams in the conference week in and week out as the starting quarterback. The highlight came in our second last game of the season. We were neck and neck with Ottawa for a playoff spot, and they were coming in as the slight favourite. Well, Eric Morelli, the Mailman as we call him (because he always delivers) hung 65 points on Ottawa and set a school record with six touchdown passes. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited in my life – I was more elated about that game than just about anything ever. This was special, and I was so pumped I got to be a part of it. One of my favourite pictures is one of Eric and I post game, him on my back holding up six fingers in front of the scoreboard. Who would have guessed that the Laurier single-game touchdown record would have came from the seventh string quarterback from three years prior. No one would have guessed it, but I wasn’t surprised. Eric worked for this. And I got to see it day in and day out. 

Eric’s big game sent us to the playoffs. This was exciting because it meant we were playing Queen’s, which meant we were playing Doug (my best friend from high school). One of us was going to have our last university football game against the other – the stakes were high for eternal bragging rights in our friendship. 

The game was cold and wet out in Kingston and we gave it to them. By halftime we were up by a few scores and the game looked like it was going to be out of reach. Right near the start of the second half one of their receivers came out to block me. The play was going in the other direction so it wasn’t a particularly forceful block, more so a formality. Our helmets collided with the level of force you would give if you were patting someone on the back, but even that light blow brought me to my knees. I was out of it – my head was spinning. I think the receiver thought I was faking it because it was such a low contact play – it was at that moment I knew it was over. This time when the training staff told me I was out for the game I didn’t even fight it. This was it. 

I was at peace about it this time, at least I thought. The bus ride home I stared out the window in what felt like suspension. No music, no talking, just thinking. Thinking about nothing, really. 

I didn’t practice for the first few days that week. The rule was that if you didn’t practice Wednesday then you didn’t play. In my stubbornness I figured I would suit up. I put my pads on and went out to practice, but before I even got to the field, the coach told me to turn around and take my pads off. It was at this moment that it finally hit me. This was it. I was done. Like, done done. I would never play again. I walked back to the locker room and waited for everyone to get out to the field before it really came out. I was standing in the exact same place that I was when I called my Dad to tell him I tore my ACL – I guess this was my official place of commiseration. Rather than take my pads off I went back out but just stood on the sideline – I told the coach I wanted to finish the practice suited up, even if I didn’t play – he agreed. And I appreciated him for that. 

After practice everyone slowly trickled into the locker room like any other practice but for me this was different. Whether we won or lost that next game I knew this was the last time I’d be wearing the pads. As everyone went into the locker room I climbed into the stands instead, alone with my thoughts. But one person knew I shouldn’t be alone in that moment, Eric came out and sat with me. We didn’t say anything, I just cried. I don’t even know why I cried, I don’t know what I was crying about. If I’m being honest, I never really liked football itself. In fact, part of me hates it. I hate what it did to my body, I hate what it made me become – some of my darkest moments came because of football. But on the other side, I love football. What I really loved was being on the team. I wouldn’t have built these friendships if it wasn’t for football. 

I guess what I was most upset about in that moment was that after all of these years of finally being on a team, that chapter was coming to a close. But even as I sit here today writing, I am reminded that I do still have a team. All of the incredible people I mentioned here, and the countless others that I didn’t mention by name, but are in my thoughts as I write – they are friends and teammates, even today. 

One person who was a friend through all of this that I haven’t mentioned is Leanne Holland Brown. When I was in a dark place, struggling to keep up with school I went to seek her out. She had just recently assumed the role as Dean of Students, and quite honestly I was just looking to get my exams deferred. Rather than just write me a note, she took the time to care. I opened up to her, more than I had opened up to just about anyone before. I felt safe with her. Not only did she take care of my exams, she would come find me on campus periodically, just to talk. It was like she knew I needed a friend – a friend that was removed from the social setting I found myself in. She saw I was wearing a mask but never asked me to take it off – she just created a safe place to take a break from the mask. I haven’t told many people about the relationship we built, mostly because I didn’t want to tell people why we built that relationship. I regret that because that was really special. Just a few months ago Leanne was killed by a drunk driver. That was felt throughout the entire community. I felt that. I still feel that. Since then I have heard more and more stories of how Leanne helped others like she helped me. Leanne was special, and I miss her.

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