RICHMOND — Finding a perfect state of balance while doing the thing you love the most is powerful enough to change the way you see the world.
That’s the feeling you get when you ask those closest to him just how significant the transformation Kory Nagata undertook after first tucking a football under his arm as a high school running back with Richmond’s Hugh Boyd Trojans back in the fall of 2010.
By this reading, of course, you likely already know of the tragedy which so quickly unfolded this past July 5th when Nagata, at the tender age of 24, drowned in the Fraser River after jumping into the water to retrieve a lost football.
Now, in the week since his passing, those who knew him best paint not only the portrait of a young man whose streak of empathy ran soul-deep, but also of one who through the sport of football, experienced an awakening as to the limitless possibilities of his life.
At the time of his passing, he was putting the premature, injury-induced end to his UBC Thunderbirds football career behind him, and was months shy of completing his degree within the university’s prestigious Sauder School of Business.
And while a football just naturally needs a little help to stay upright, you could say that when cradled by Kory Nagata, the picture was more than just true balance.
It was perfect equilibrium.
THE GAME OF HIS LIFE
The tape from UBC’s Sept. 1, 2018 game against the visiting Manitoba Bisons is all the evidence you need to know that Kory Nagata had blossomed into the kind of football player he had worked so hard to become.
The sweat equity he had invested over the prior eight seasons — four in high school at Hugh Boyd, two more in the BCFC with the Okanagan Sun, as well as his first two at UBC — had served to reveal a running back with not only athleticism, strength and vision, but extreme versatility as both a shifty, explosive grinder between the tackles, and a deceptively elusive, sure-handed receiver out of the slot.
UBC head coach Blake Nill had said as much throughout the off-season about the kind of weapon Nagata was threatening to become.
And as a new Canada West season opened that day at Thunderbird Stadium before just under 5,000 fans, circumstance would ultimately provide the 5-foot-9, 185 pound Nagata with the chance to show what he could do.
No. 1 running back Ben Cummings, one of the established stars of the Canada West, had been knocked out of the game due to injury midway through the second quarter, and when Nagata joined the huddle as the team’s primetime RB-1 for the first time in his UBC career, his versatility and his adrenaline turned the game on its ear.
On Nagata’s first snap of the contest, he got UBC out of a second-and-13 hole by hauling in a 26-yard pass from quarterback Michael O’Connor.
After O’Connor was flushed out of the pocket by Manitoba’s on-rushing Jayden MaKay in the third quarter, he was able to spot Nagata getting behind Bisons’ defenders Marcel Arruda-Welch and Kyle Gordon, hitting him for a 21-yard TD strike and a 23-13 UBC lead.
After Manitoba scored a major of its own early in the fourth quarter, the Bisons were within a field goal at 23-20 heading into the final two minutes of play.
Yet Nagata opened a drive near midfield with 3:12 remaining by peeling off a 12 yard run, then he capped the scoring with a dynamic 12-yard touchdown run with 1:20 remaining in what would be a 30-20 UBC victory.
On the afternoon, in what amounted to just over one-half of football, Nagata not only carried 13 times for 136 yards and a touchdown, but caught five passes for 93 more yards and a score, finishing with 229 total yards.
“That game was a microcosm of all of his abilities,” reminisced UBC offensive coordinator Taylor Nill, who that day was on the sidelines as an offensive assistant. “His performance was the definition of a team player. He came in as a back-up, and he carried the entire weight of the team.”
Indeed, his performance did just that, but it also spoke to the ways in which Nagata defined one of the game’s most enduring axioms, which goes something like this: Nothing confounds a defence more consistently than a true run-catch threat.
Examine Nagata’s big plays in that game, and the proof is in the pudding.
Of his 18 combined rushes and receptions that day, 12 went for 10 or more yards, illustrating as best as numbers can, the unpredictability he had suddenly brought to the UBC offence.
Yet beyond the numbers, the thing Taylor Nill cherishes most about that game was the intangible effect that Kory Nagata had on everyone in his world.
“I can still picture him hurdling people and running through people,” says Nill, remembering what he saw from his vantage point along the sidelines. “But the thing that I remember the most was the way our bench just went nuts. The energy of his teammates who just loved seeing Kory be successful is what sticks with me the most.”
FOOTBALL OPENED HIS WORLD: “…IT WAS LIKE THE FLICK OF A SWITCH”
First-hand information tells us that Kory Nagata came to the Hugh Boyd football program with a chip on his shoulder.
“But this chip was not a negative one at all,” assures co-coach Bruce Haddow, who along with his brother Bill, kept high school football alive in Richmond until both retired from coaching after the 2017 season. “He used it to fire himself up.”
It was, in hindsight, the first true barometre of a driven young man, one whose early success in football gave him the confidence to pursue excellence in every part of his life, including the classroom.
“He found his passion in football and once he decided to pursue it as far as he could, it was like the flick of a switch,” remembers Bill Haddow. “It was ‘OK, now I have to hit the books, now I have to make my grades, now I have to build my body’ And so that is what he did.’”
So much so that by the time his UBC football career was finished, Nagata had been named a U Sports Academic All-Canadian.
“And those things don’t happen by accident,” assures Bruce Haddow. “That is not a fluke. Some kids are gifted that way. It kind of falls for them easy. Not Kory. He had to work on his conditioning, his strength and his academics. It was no fluke. He set goals, He loved the game and he said ‘I am going to do this, this and this to get there.’”
And when he strapped on his helmet and took to the field with the Trojans over his 2013 Grade 12 football season, Nagata played like a force of nature.
Hugh Boyd missed the playoffs as part of a character-building 1-7 campaign in which it lost four games by a converted touchdown or less, including two in overtime, yet Nagata was just this side of unstoppable.
That season, despite Boyd’s limited number of games played (five fewer than some teams), Nagata still finished fourth in Double-A rushing with 1,297 yards, averaging 162 yards-per-game and over 10 yards per carry.
In one game, the Trojans were neck-and-neck with No. 1-ranked South Delta, locked in a 6-6 tie in the fourth quarter.
As part of an eventual 27-20 loss, Nagata not only carried 19 times for 209 yards and a touchdown, he took a Sun Devils’ kickoff 90 yards to the house.
And in that season’s only win, a 49-12 triumph in Victoria over the Spectrum Thunder, Nagata had the most productive day of his football career, rushing just 11 times for 318 yards and three touchdowns. He also scored on a 50-yard fumble return.
“The play I remember most, it was against either South Delta or Ballenas,” begins Ryan Carriere, a fellow 2014 Hugh Boyd grad and the starting left guard along Boyd’s offensive line during the 2013 campaign. “We were inside our own 10-yard line and I remember him running an inside route. I made a small hole in the line, and he was gone. He was a strong and powerful back, but he had speed. I wanted to help block for him, but no one could catch him.”
For Carriere, and for everyone who knew Nagata through his elementary and high school days, the news of his passing hit with hurricane force.
“I can’t even wrap my head around it,” said Carriere, who straight out of high school started work towards his engineering degree at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna, the same city Nagata had set down early post-secondary football roots, opening a two season stint with the B.C. Football Conference’s Okanagan Sun.
Both would eventually wind up at UBC’s Vancouver campus, and while Carriere was witness to the extreme popularity Nagata held at the Point Grey campus, none of it came as a surprise to him, given the way his late friend treated others all through high school.
“He was a very empathetic person, just sweet and caring, and he really made you feel like you were important and special when you were with him,” said Carriere. “He was the kind of guy who brought different groups of people together.”
Added Bill Haddow: “A lot of times, the guys in the upper echelon, the ones who are a step above… they kind of act that way. But Kory…. to him, everyone on the team was important, and he made them feel that way, too. He didn’t have any ego in him.”
“…HE WAS GOING TO EXCEL IN LIFE”
Coming out of high school, Kory Nagata made his first football stop in Kelowna with the Okanagan Sun, establishing friendships which would carry through his career with the Thunderbirds.
“You’re 17-, 18-years-old, it’s your first time away from home, you don’t know anybody and so you just bond,” offers UBC’s rising fourth-year receiver Lliam Wishart, who during the 2014 season as a rookie out of Kamloops’ Valleyview Secondary, wound up rooming with a pair of Hugh Boyd Trojans in Nagata and his close friend, future Regina Rams receiver Kyler Mosley.
“It was the best time of my life,” continued Wishart. “We’d be up until 4 a.m. every night. No responsibilities. Just football. Just laughing. Just having fun with each other.”
And it was within that environment that Wishart got to know Nagata as a true gridiron brother.
“Kory is one of those guys…he’s a special person and anybody that knows him will tell you that,” said Wishart. “He had the biggest heart. He was so sweet, and so funny. He had such big dreams and so much potential in everything. He excelled in football, and when that career ended, he excelled in school… he was going to excel in life.”
As Wishart verifies, walking away from football was extremely hard for Nagata.
Just one week after what would be his career-defining performance against Manitoba, Nagata got the start on the road against the Calgary Dinos, but as part of a 47-7 drubbing, he suffered a broken foot in what proved to be the final game of his U Sports career.
“I have never seen an injury like that,” says Wishart. “I think it was a tiny bone in his foot. For him it took like six-to-eight months until he was running again.”
Yet by spring, Nagata was feeling good enough to join Wishart and many of his other friends in the late spring on a touch football team called the Blue Mountain State Goats.
“It went good, he was running again,” said Wishart. “He said it was sore, but felt OK.”
But then in early August, during a casual, non-padded practice just before the start of main fall camp, the injury bug bit again, this time with cruel precision.
“He took this little random cut and just completely re-hurt it,” Wishart said of Nagata’s previously injured foot. “It was so random. The year prior was so hard on him, having to be around football every day when his foot wasn’t healing. Now he wasn’t going to be able to do that for a second year. It was tearing him apart. He was fully expecting to have another good season (in 2019).”
UBC football was headed into a rebuilding process, and without the likes of quarterback O’Connor, running back Cummings and receiver Trivel Pinto, Nagata was being looked upon as one of the team’s few game-tested skill-position players.
Thanks to @htsumura for this piece from 2018 following one of Kory Nagata's greatest games with the @ubctbirds. It's some terrific insight into the kind of outstanding teammate and person he was. RIP Kory. https://t.co/omrfcAp62L— Jeff Sargeant (@jeffthesarge) July 7, 2020
In fact based on the versatility he had shown against Manitoba in the 2018 opener, it was absolutely no stretch to call a healthy Nagata the early favourite as the team’s offensive Player of the Year.
“This past year would really have been his year,” agreed Taylor Nill, who ascended to the role of offensive coordinator for 2019. “He was trying to come back for the fall, and he was coming in as that fourth-year guy with plenty of experience and success to show for it.
“Other than him, we were relatively inexperienced at that position,” added Nill, “and with that skill set of his, we could have utilized him in so many different ways. Speaking from the offensive coordinator’s perspective, it would have been awesome.”
Wishart, who along with Jacob Patten and Trey Kellogg comprised the veteran trio of the receiving core, couldn’t agree more with Nill.
“One-hundred-and-twenty per cent,” he says when asked if he felt that Nagata was a player perched on the precipice of a true national breakthrough last season with the ‘Birds.
“Rookie seasons are tough, and in his second season, he tried to put on some weight and he realized he wasn’t his best self,” Wishart added. “But in his third year he was flying. Kory was an elite athlete with an elite mindset. It’s a mental game playing running back, but by that time, he did his training right, he had his diet right, he was just feeling it, and that first game (against Manitoba)… that’s what he could have done every game”
Nagata courageously turned the corner, and instead, threw everything at his academic pursuits. Wishart said Nagata “was grinding” by taking courses through the summer with thought of completing his degree in the fall term.
Carriere, in eulogizing his high school friend and teammate, further strengthens the narrative that Nagata had a true gift in his ability to constantly bond, inspire and empower others.
“You know, we never used to be the best students in high school, but football was a very important part of our lives and (Kory) was the quintessential student-athlete success story,” Carriere says.
“He applied himself through football and it brought him to amazing places in his career. We fed off each other’s ambitions and I always looked to him as a source of ambition just because of how tenacious he was in going after his goals. It’s so tragic that we can’t see where he would have gone. I’ll have to take the ambition he had, and try to apply it to my own life. But I can only hope that I can live with as much life as he had.”
Wishart adds: “I’d only known Kory for six years but he was just the best. I feel like I am always going to have a hole in my life without him.”
For those who knew him and loved him, that void is incalculable.
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