BURNABY — This past Sunday marked a year since his passing at the age of 41 to esophageal cancer. 

Yet even without his daily presence in the classrooms and along the sidelines of the practice field at Burnaby’s St. Thomas More, the spirit of former Knights’ varsity head coach Bernie Kully has endured in ways which seem, to those who knew him best, as near-palpable.

“In his heart of hearts, he would say ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’” revealed his friend Steve De Lazzari, the former assistant who was passed the torch and assumed head coaching duties to start the 2017 campaign as Kully’s declining health forced him to take leave from the program.

“I can see him as the armchair quarterback up there,” continued De Lazzari, “just wanting us, in spite of him being gone, to play St. Thomas More Knights football and make him proud.”

Certainly, that is something the entire program has done since the beginning of last season.

And it’s something No. 4 STM (4-0, 2-0) has worked to continue this Friday (1 p.m.) when their most challenging stop along the AAA Eastern Conference regular season journey finds them in Cloverdale to clash with the No. 1-ranked Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers (3-1, 2-0).

When someone gives of themselves to the extent which Kully did, over 18 years coaching and teaching at the school, including his final eight as head coach of the senior varsity, imprints are sure to be everywhere.

Getting to the quarterback, STM’s Sam Steele (66) puts the pressure on Notre Dame’s Will Clarke during 2017 Subway Bowl quarterfinal win at B.C. Place last November. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of VarsityLetters.ca)

Yet you don’t have to look too hard to discover that Kully’s passion for the defensive side of the ball might well be where his spirit most resonates.

“The defence and how we run it, the philosophies, the schemes, all of that, it’s a carryover from the culture he created,” says De Lazzari, who has gotten tremendous play thus far from a defensive unit led by senior Daniel Auld and coordinated by 2004 STM grad Jared Power. “It was always his specialty, even though he was head coach. A part of his spirit is living through these guys. They still have that connection.”

Certainly, the Knights’ defence, since the start of the 2017 season, has been amongst the most special in provincial history.

Yes, STM suffered a 28-21 loss in last season’s Subway Bowl B.C. semifinal to PoCo’s Terry Fox Ravens, but that has been the team’s only loss since the start of 2017.

Over that span, they have gone 14-1 combined in non-conference, league and playoff games.

And within that span, the Knights have not only recorded eight shutouts, they have allowed no more than one touchdown in three other games.

In totality, STM is a perfect 13-0 in conference and exhibition play since the start of 2017, and over that stretch, one which includes league wins over both Terry Fox and Lord Tweedsmuir, they have outscored the opposition by an average score of 28-4.

St. Thomas More defensive tackle Sam Steele puts the grips on Terry Fox’s Cade Cote during Subway Bowl semifinals last November at B.C. Place Stadium. (Photo by Mario Bartel used through the permission of Burnaby NOW Newspaper)

Ask a kid who has come to define the defensive ideals of STM football where all of that recent success has come from, and senior tackle Sam Steele doesn’t pause in response.

“It all comes down to attitude,” says Steele, who is doing his best to wait out a nagging foot injury and will likely miss Friday’s game against the Panthers. “You need to have the right attitude when you step on the field to play. If you make a bad play, you need to forget about it. If you make a good play, you need to forget about it. You need to keep going. That is something coach Kully would always tell me.”

It’s hard to quantify just how much the Knights miss Steele’s presence, because as De Lazzari reminds, he is the kind of kid who helps set the bar of expectation for the entire team.

“He represents everything you want in a player,” the coach begins. “From the cognitive aspect of the game, to the way he prepares with his approach, to his tenacity and heart…ultimately this is what transfers into how we execute.”

So what advice does Steele think Kully would offer up to him if the two could sit down and talk about the frustrations associated with not being able to help his teammates in such a big upcoming game as Friday’s?

“He would tell me to keep my head and stay smart,” Steele begins. “It’s been so tough sitting out, but he would support me. He would tell me to pick my battles, that I couldn’t just push it right now, and try to come back too soon and put my entire team in jeopardy because they needed me.”

Then you ask Steele what it feels like for him to channel a little of coach Kully and his response seems to confirm how one full year later, a special coach’s near-palpable presence endures.

“I guess it provides me with a sense of comfort and an assurance,” Steele explains. “It’s kind of hard to describe, or to find the words for. It’s more like a mood.”

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to say, that to those he touched, there remains a sense of clear purpose that isn’t going away anytime soon.

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