Published on CFL.ca June 29
Walking in to the Fighting Irish locker room at Vancouver College, it’s unavoidable. Dotted along a wall of the decades old club house is a vast collage of 8 ½ x 11 pictures of every young man who once laced up his cleats in that room and currently plays football in the NCAA, CIS or the CFL.
At first, the display was intended to be a novel motivation technique — but the coaching staff at Vancouver College is quickly running out of real estate.
“It’s half a wall — it’s big,” explains Todd Bernett, the current head coach of the storied high school football program in west Vancouver which just celebrated its 81st year with a provincial championship. “That does a lot to create the excitement that ‘I could be the next one.’”
The next ones, evidently, continue to pour out of the hallowed halls at Vancouver College where they will be adding seven faces to the wall next season as they graduate six players to the CIS and one to the NCAA. That’s not to mention a pair of former Fighting Irish who are joining CFL rosters this year. And from there the numbers only get more staggering.
In total, 125 football players have graduated from Vancouver College to play in the CIS while 47 others have gone south to play at colleges in the United States. Thirty Fighting Irish have been drafted into the CFL in the last three decades alone with ten going in the first round.
Presently, there are seven Vancouver College alumni on CFL rosters, joining a total of 49 former Fighting Irish who have played in the CFL. Every Canadian team has had an alumnus take the field at one point or another and since 1998 only one team has won the Grey Cup without a Vancouver College graduate on the roster — the 2008 Calgary Stampeders.
Add in former BC Lions President and Canadian Football Hall of Famer Bob Ackles plus the 11 former and current Fighting Irish coaches who have played in the CFL — including hall of famers Grover Covington and Greg Kabat — and the list of football alumni is as impressive as you’ll find at one single school on this side of the border.
Vancouver College isn’t a football factory — it’s a football gold mine.
“We have a very high commitment level and very high expectations of what we ask our kids to do,” Bernett, who joined the staff at Vancouver College in 1999, said. “So when they go to play CIS or even NCAA they aren’t overwhelmed by the commitment asked of them. Part of getting to the CFL is just finishing playing. A lot of guys [in Canada] end up going to CIS schools but they play two, three years and then they burn out. Our guys finish.”
The one thing they all have in common
Bernett’s professional-style program demands more out of its players than arguably any other high school in the nation — regardless of skill level. There are no cuts at Vancouver College and any player who can show up to practice wearing pads and cleats can make the team. All Bernett will ask is one simple yet consuming core requirement — unwavering commitment to the program. To meet his standards means living and breathing Fighting Irish football. It means surrendering your mornings, afternoons and nights to practice, film study, weight training and anything else that ultimately improves the team. It’s the one thing Bernett asks for above all else — devotion.
Of course, the players get a tremendous amount of return for dedicating the majority of their time outside the classroom to the team. There’s the sprawling, state-of-the-art weight room and new artificial field, both multi-million dollar facilities built within the last three years with the help of alumni donors. There’s the large, veteran coaching staff with a proven track record of turning athletes from any sport into next-level football players. And, of course, there’s the network. Vancouver College alumni are littered across the CIS and Bernett has deep connections with several recruiters and coaches at schools throughout the United States and since 2002 has sent 12 players to NCAA schools to play football.
Offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski was one of the first players Bernett helped sign with an American college, sending out hundreds of VHS tapes to schools south of the border and eventually landing the big Vancouver native at Louisiana State University. Dyakowski would go on to win a national title with LSU in 2004 and, after trying out for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who drafted him in the second round of the 2006 CFL Entry Draft. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played a down of football in his life until he got to Vancouver College.
“Coach Bernett sent out a huge amount of tape on me. I owe him a massive debt of gratitude,” Dyakowski said from Hamilton’s 2011 training camp as he prepares for his fifth season as a pro. “He put in a ridiculous amount of work helping me get recruited. He does the same thing for all the kids that come through there. It’s impressive and it’s great to have a tradition like that.”
Even still, the most astounding fact about Vancouver College might not be the abundance of players that move on to the pros, but the percentage. Vancouver College’s graduating class was around 160 this year, with more than half those boys being academically inclined and not nearly as interested in athletic pursuits. That leaves Bernett and his coaching staff with a crop of just 40 to 60 willing, athletically-motivated individuals to build a team from in each graduating class. And most of them don’t even begin playing football until they get to the school.
Vancouver-native Brody McKnight was a soccer player when he arrived at Vancouver College as a 13-year-old. Bernett turned him into a kicker and eight years later the Alouettes made him the eighth overall pick in the 2011 CFL Entry Draft.
Alexander Robinson, a defensive lineman drafted by the Argonauts in the third round of the same draft, was also a soccer player and hadn’t touched a football when he came to the school in grade eight.
Even Joseph Malabuyoc, who signed with the Tiger-Cats this year after going undrafted, was a sprinter and sometimes baseball player when he was growing up. That was until Bernett took him in and turned him into a linebacker who led the Fighting Irish in tackles in his junior year and was named the defensive MVP of the conference as a senior.
“Some of the kids who do end up playing are not that special — some of them are not that good,” Bernett said frankly, calling the limited football experience of most of his recruits his biggest challenge. ”On a varsity team of 50 players we have a wide range of abilities, but the one thing they all have in common is devotion and that’s really all I care about.”
A higher standard
A dogged devotion to the program is undoubtedly the most important element of playing for the Fighting Irish, but it’s just one of a number of attributes needed to play for the ever galvanizing Bernett.
“Bernett … set the highest standards with respect to training, practicing, studying film and performing on game day,” said Rob LeBlanc, a 2001 Vancouver College grad who won a Grey Cup with the Eskimos in 2005. “The whole culture — as well as the tradition — sets a high standard to strive for excellence. Not just on the field but around the whole person.”
Bernett, an American, first heard about the program himself in the late 1990’s when he was playing quarterback at Eastern Washington University. Bernett was dating a Canadian at the time, Andrea Prout, whose interest was sparked when Eastern Washington signed a young Canadian running back by the name of Mike McKenzie from a Catholic school called Vancouver College.
Bernett and Prout took McKenzie under their wing during his rookie season, inviting him to Prout’s apartment for Canadian thanksgiving and helping him get accustomed to life in another country. It was at that dinner table where McKenzie told Bernett about the football passion at Vancouver College and the American collegiate-like atmosphere around the program. Bernett was intrigued and when he moved to Vancouver with Prout to get married, he immediately applied for a job at the school. He had to wait two years for something to open up and taught at St. Thomas Aquinas in North Vancouver, coaching girl’s basketball in the meantime. He jumped at an opportunity to join the school in 1999 and took over the football program three years later. Prout also joined the faculty to teach sciences.
“I learned about Vancouver College quickly — we had a long conversation about what a storied program it was and how devoted people were to it,” Bernett said. “It’s been interesting being here for the last 12, 13 years. It’s played out exactly the way I would have imagined in terms of the commitment from the community.”
Those are the type of stories that make Vancouver College’s lore so exceedingly fascinating and movie-like. The school’s narrative is laced with similar tales but maybe no CFLer knows the history and culture of Vancouver College quite like Angus Reid who is entering his 11th year with the BC Lions and his ninth straight as the team’s starting centre.
If you trace his lineage back far enough, you’ll find Reid is actually the grand nephew of Jimmy O’Hagan — the school’s first ever graduate and the namesake for O’Hagan Field where the Fighting Irish play their home games. O’Hagan was chosen as the school’s first graduate in 1925 when the school Principal at the time lined the entire graduating class up by height and chose Jimmy to go up first because he was the shortest.
Of course, Reid — all 6-foot-1, 305 pounds of him — probably wouldn’t have won that competition. But when he arrived on campus in 1982 Vancouver College was simply a no-nonsense, all-boys Catholic school with a good but not great football team.
“It was all about being disciplined. It was a tough, tough way to go to school. You were hard-nosed,” said Reid, who played 142 consecutive games for the Lions from 2002 through 2008. “It was just a bunch of kids who had a tough Catholic education and they got the best out of you when it came to athletics.”
But by the time Reid was ready to graduate, Vancouver College began to emerge as a true football factory. The school’s football program had always been successful, but in 1985 when Paul Dal Monte took over as head coach, something changed.
During Dal Monte’s ten years the Irish won two provincial championships including 1994 which stood as the last time the team won the province until this year when Bernett and company captured the title.
“When Dal Monte came in as head coach, you could see right away — football became a powerhouse almost overnight,” Reid said. “We always had good players in school. But from ’85 on, the athletes really started being churned out. It was a combination of the athletes being there and then a coach coming in that really made the program professional.”
Dal Monte’s tenure as head coach was the catalyst that began Vancouver College’s assault on the professional ranks as player after player found their way to successful college careers and shots in the pros.
Along with Reid, Dal Monte and company were responsible for the development of Sean Fleming who won three Grey Cups over 16 seasons with Edmonton and holds practically every Eskimos kicking record. Vince Danielsen who graduated in 1989 and played eight seasons as a receiver with the Calgary Stampeders, winning the Most Valuable Canadian award at the 1998 Grey Cup. And Bryan Chiu who was named a CFL All-Star seven times and won two Grey Cups while playing centre for the Montreal Alouettes and currently serves as the offensive line coach for the Concordia Stingers.
“When I was at school there, the biggest thing was seeing the older guys ahead of me that went on to play at the next level. The Flemings, the Danielsens — those type of guys,” said Chiu who graduated from the school in 1992. “I had a lot of guys to look up to. … The alumni would always come back and check in on the younger guys. Whether it’s to stop in and say hi or tell a story or whatnot. There’s a bond there and guys never seem to forget that.”
It’s true — it would not be unusual for a current student at Vancouver College to look over in the weight room and see a CFL veteran lifting dumbbells next to them. Virtually all of the school’s alumni who go on to play professionally stop by when they’re in the neighbourhood and some even make a habit of conducting their off-season training at the school’s state-of-the-art facilities.
“I saw that and I said ‘hey, this is possible,’” Dyakowski said. “I really looked up to the players. Maybe if I had gone to a school where they didn’t have that strong connection I might not have seen playing in the NCAA or CFL as a plausible goal.”
“It mattered that much”
Today, Vancouver College is a destination for any college football coach, recruiter and scout from across the country looking to bolster their lineup. The school has always fed players to the west coast universities like Simon Fraser and the University of British Columbia, but now Vancouver College grads are dotting rosters from coast-to-coast. The school will send six football players to CIS schools for the 2011 season, not to mention seven athletes in other CIS sports including three rowers and two swimmers.
This year’s starting quarterback Jeff Tichelman — an undersized pivot who boasts a 94 per cent average academically — is off to McGill to play for the Redmen. Nick Blanchette, who protected Tichelman on the offensive line, was recruited to play at Bishop’s in 2011 against Chiu’s Stingers in the Quebec league. Sean Mayzes played both ways and returned kicks for the Fighting Irish and is one of the Queen’s Gaels’ top recruits this year.
Meanwhile, linebacker Charlie Thorpe and running back Adam Konar are both staying close to home, committing to UBC for the 2011 season. In fact, Konar — the MVP in this year’s provincial championship — will become the third boy in his family to play football for both Vancouver College and UBC. His father Kevin Konar played linebacker for ten years with the BC Lions and he’s even a cousin of Jamie Boreham, another Vancouver College grad who has been a kicker in the CFL since 2001.
That’s not to mention Christian Covington, the team’s standout defensive tackle and son of Canadian Football Hall of Famer Grover Covington, who is headed to Rice University.
“I think we are in a window right now where a lot of things have gone our way and worked out well for a lot of our kids,” Bernett said. “Each one of them is a unique, separate story, but the one thing they all have in common is they made the decision to devote great amounts of time and energy into this and that’s what has got them to where they are now.”
Another thing they all have in common — each one has squared off against the cross-town rival Notre Dame Jugglers for the Archbishops’ Trophy. Played annually since 1957, the game is easily the biggest event on the high school football calendar in British Columbia.
Vancouver College won 27-6 this year under the lights at Empire Stadium giving the Fighting Irish seven Archbishops’ victories in a row and ten of the last eleven as the team has begun an era of dominance in the rivalry not seen since the 1970’s when it was Notre Dame who won seven straight. Any such streak is strange considering the all-time series is remarkably even at 27-26-1 in favour of Vancouver College.
The game has lost some of its luster over the years as the Fighting Irish begin to forge rivalries with other teams around the province, like The Terry Fox Ravens, the top ranked school this year until Vancouver College beat them in the provincial championships.
But it isn’t an Archbishops’ Trophy game without a prank and there’s no shortage of mischievous tales to be told around CFL locker rooms. Like in 1991 when some members of the Irish went to Notre Dame in the middle of the night and assembled an elaborate cemetery in the school yard with a crucifix for every member of the Jugglers’ starting lineup bearing their name and R.I.P.
“You know the way it is in late October — it’s misty and foggy. They rolled into school and that’s what they saw,” Reid, who was in grade 9 at the time, remembered. “It was healthy. It was just part of the rivalry that people helped create. … There were some big time things people used to do because it mattered that much.”
It’s the truth — nothing seems to matter more at Vancouver College than football where year after year there’s more pictures to hang on the vast locker room wall. At the going rate, Bernett and his staff may need to find a bigger wall, but they would never get rid of it. The alumni display is just as essential as every other little detail that sums together to create the Fighting Irish legacy.
“It’s very important. As a coaching staff, we are constantly connecting back to past players and using whatever we can to get the best out of our players,” Bernett said. “We tell them ‘you remind us of this guy or we think you could be the next that guy.’ It’s an easy and logical way to give a player a picture of who we feel he could become. It also gives them a living, breathing goal that they can work towards.”
It’s just another small cog in the vast, intangible Vancouver College legend.