CIS commits opt for one more summer of Gladiator football
by Randy Pascal
Apparently, Sudbury has at least a few teenagers who just can't get enough football, and Sudbury Gladiators head coach Aaron Rehel is quite thankful for that.
After signing their CIS commitments this past off-season, the Lo-Ellen Park Knights graduating trio of Graeme Stevens, Brandon Maki and Simon Cope have all opted to return to the Gladiators for at least one more summer prior to launching their university careers.
This marks a notable reversal of the trend that has been seen since the inception of summer football in Sudbury, where the overwhelming majority of players who are either already part of a CIS football roster, or have committed to one for the fall, by-pass the opportunity to remain "game ready" in the off-season, largely for fear of potential injury.
That Stevens and Cope, both of whom will join the Mount Allison Mounties (Sackville, N.B.), and soon-to-be Toronto Varsity Blues lineman Brandon Maki do so with the blessings of their new teams bodes well for the continued competitiveness of the local OFC (Ontario Football Conference) franchise.
"My loyalty to the school begins once my Gladiator season is over," noted Stevens, the 18 year-old linebacker who has emerged as the most dominant defensive presence in SDSSAA football over the course of the past two seasons.
The move to the Mounties caps off a journey that was five to six years in the making, yet seemingly was always fixated on the very specific goal of playing university football. "When I was younger, I always threw the ball around with my dad," recalled Stevens recently, with the start of the Gladiators' dryland camp about to commence.
"In grade eight, I decided I wanted to play "Joe Mac" (Joe MacDonald Youth Football League)." Success not only did not come easy for Stevens, but seemingly, did not come at all, early on. "I played for the Lockerby Mustangs and we lost every single game," he said.
"I don't think we even had a close game. But I fell in love with the sport, everything about it. I found it more like chess, much more strategic, and I really liked that." For those who have watched Stevens in recent years, it is hard to imagine him as anything but a
"I wanted to play quarterback, because I had thrown the ball around, but I found that throwing with shoulder pads is a lot different than throwing without," he explained. "I had a lot of trouble with that. Linebacker ended up being a perfect fit for me, and I never looked back."
Of course, words of wisdom that have stayed with him to this day, all of which supported his love of the defensive game, certainly did nothing to deter any potential change of position. “In grade nine, one of the vets told me that it only hurts if you're the one getting hit,” Stevens recalled.
“If you're the one hitting, it feels great. So I just figured don't be the one getting hit – be the hammer, not the nail.” Even as he took to the field as a first year high school student at Lo-Ellen, looking to become that rarity who cracks the varsity roster as a freshman at the school, Stevens displayed a single-minded focus to his craft that few would match.
“To be totally honest, I was a bit of a dreamer in grade eight,” he said. “I was overly confident, which probably wasn't a horrible thing. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to do something with sports. And we had guys like Eric Donaldson, Jeff Neault, who were such good role models.”
“They taught me very early on that if you want it, you have to improve every year, and you have to be in the weight room.” If Stevens knew the end goal from the start, the awakening of Brandon Maki occurred far more mid-stream.
“To be honest, I never really saw myself getting recruited,” said the 18 year old 6'3” 210 defensive end. “I saw myself playing through high school.” A hockey junkie through his youth, Maki only took up football through the urging of Stevens.
“I was a casual football fan,” said Maki. “I would watch the odd game, the Super Bowl and stuff. Once I started playing in grade nine is when I started watching religiously and really started to follow it, getting really into it.”
This all or nothing approach, one which he carried with him in trying to maximize his potential, eventually paid off. “My goal for training, initially, was just to be the best player that I could be for my team,” said Maki. “It really didn't hit me that I could have some potential until this past season at Glads (summer of 2016), when I started racking up some sacks, getting some good statistics.”
A very well-spoken, if somewhat soft-spoken young man, Maki gradually developed a more fierce persona, one that kicks in once he has donned the gridiron gear. “I think the mentality has come with playing over the past couple of years. I have a lot more of an aggressive mentality now, whereas I would be kind of hesitant before.”
“I think it was always kind of there, but it really didn't start to come naturally until I got bigger and I started getting more confident on the field.” Where Stevens just looked like a football player, almost for the onset of his time with the Knights, the biggest transition for Maki came as he prepared to tackle his senior years at Lo-Ellen.
“It was after grade 11 year, after playing on the line with guys like Sam Sedore and Dexter Susteric, who are just monsters,” said Maki. “In the last couple of games of the year, I kind of got thrown around a little bit. I thought that in grade 12, I needed to be a dominant player, needed to get serious. That's when I really started working out.”
Neither the path that Stevens or Maki has followed, nor the one that Simon Cope has taken, as he joins his teammates in training camp this week, having just returned from a trip to Russia, mirrors the others. Yet it is the fact that the final destination, one which sees the entire troika fine-tuning their CIS skills with one more summer of Gladiator football, that provides reason to celebrate, both for Aaron Rehel, and Sudbury football fans, in general.