Eric Hamber's Luke Lee (left) and Mathis Henderson are the first Griffins recruited to join university football programs since Vancouver's Griffins started their own high school program from scratch back in 2010. (Photos courtesy UBC Football and Eric Hamber Athletics copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved)
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Eric Hamber’s gridiron pioneers! UBC-bound Luke Lee, Bishop’s-bound Mathis Henderson are Griffins’ first-ever university football recruits

VANCOUVER — They have spent the past decade as Vancouver’s only public high school football program, and now, the Eric Hamber Griffins are taking the next step in their gridiron evolution.

For the first time since planting roots as a start-up junior varsity program in 2010, followed by a debut senior varsity season in 2011, the Griffins are producing next-level talent.

“It’s a sign of real legitimacy for our program,” founder and head coach Bobby Gibson said Wednesday of the fact that, for the first time ever, Eric Hamber will be represented on a university football roster with athletic talent recruited from within its ranks.

Safety Luke Lee and middle linebacker Mathis Henderson will begin their respective U Sports careers with the UBC Thunderbirds and the Bishop’s Gaiters this fall.

“We have never had anyone make it past a main camp, so these two will be our first from the program when they go on to play at the next level,” Gibson added, noting the efforts of past players who attempted to secure positions through walk-on opportunities.

The progress of Hamber football has been readily apparent over the past four seasons.

Over its final two seasons in the now-defunct Tier-2 league, the Griffins advanced to the Subway Bowl final, losing 33-14 in 2016 to Pitt Meadows, then topping Spectrum 28-21 in 2017.

Making the move to a much higher quality opposition within the AAA Pacific Division in 2018, Hamber fell to 1-7 in league play with a minus-153 points differential in two eight games.

Yet with the likes of league all-stars Lee and Henderson carrying the torch in 2019, Eric Hamber improved to 2-4 with a minus-5 points differential.

Now, after putting in marathon training sessions together over the course of their high school careers, especially leading into the 2019 campaign, the pair are headed off in separate directions.

Eric Hamber’s Luke Lee is set to begin his university football career this coming season with his hometown UBC Thunderbirds. (Photo courtesy of UBC football 2020. All Rights Reserved)

Lee, at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, was a standout in the Griffins’ defensive secondary this past season.

Hamber played with a single safety, and that was Lee, whose film shows him to be an instinctive, sure-tackling and hard-hitting prospect. (Video here)

“He was a calming presence on the field for us,” Gibson says of Lee. “When he was on the field, everyone felt good. Our defence was set up for players to take calculated risks… if you see something, take it. And the way Luke played within our defence really instilled confidence in all of his teammates.”

Coming off a Grade 10 season with the senior varsity in 2017, one which ended prematurely after he broke his collarbone while filling in as the Griffins’ fourth-string quarterback, Lee made huge strides in 2018 as a Grade 11.

That season, former CFL No. 1 overall draft pick Shomari Williams, in his position as recruiting coordinator at Queen’s University, began to show interest in Lee.

Williams, this past season, moved out west to UBC to assume the same role with the Thunderbirds, and thus Lee says he felt a real level of comfort when he opened talks with the ‘Birds.

What kind of player is UBC getting in Lee?

Gibson marvelled not only at his on-field abilities, but in the voluminous extra hours of work he dedicates to his craft in terms of film work.

“Every week I’d write out a two-to-three page report just for myself, so I knew what the other teams were doing… what plays they were running,” Lee says.

He then began to put together summaries on every opponent for the rest of his teammates.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Gibson. “One of the biggest things I have wanted for the kids is opportunity. UBC has such a highly-recognized school and football program, so it’s pretty neat for them to take notice. Lots of great players from B.C. stay home, and for them to select Luke over so many others? It’s pretty humbling when someone else sees all the work a guy like Luke has been putting in.”

Eric Hamber senior middle linebacker Mathis Henderson, set to begin his university football career in Sherbrooke, Que., this fall with the Bishop’s Gaiters, has been making the most of the gym he’s installed in the garage of his Vancouver home. (Photo courtesy Mathis Henderson)

Ditto for Henderson.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound middle linebacker may be headed for the other side of the country to play his football in Atlantic University Sports at Bishop’s, in Sherbrooke, Que.

Yet shy of landing at one of B.C.’s two football-playing universities, it’s also about as close to home in one big respect for Henderson.

“My mom’s side of the family all live there, and I have spent a lot of off-seasons training there,” admits Henderson, who speaks fluent French.

Henderson is also fluent in flowing to the football, and like Lee has made huge strides in his game after missing his Grade 10 season, in his case, to rest a sore back.

“I just play at 100 per cent and I try to punish people,” Henderson says of his defensive mindset.

(Video here)

Recruited by Gaiters’ special teams coordinator Jerome Erdman, the former SFU Clan player and 1984 Grey Cup winner with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Henderson is a prospect that Gibson anticipates will grow into a key contributor, much like Lee.

“I spoke with Jerome Erdman, and they look at (Henderson) as a guy who can establish himself there in a few years,” Gibson says. “Both of our guys understand that they are probably not coming straight out of high school to becoming impact players right away… they understand they have a couple of years to work, and what’s most appealing about them is they are not afraid of hard work.”

Lee is looking to steer his academic course at UBC towards economics with the potential of law as well, while Henderson is interested in the Sports Studies program at Bishop’s.

When Hamber won the Subway Bowl B.C. Tier 2 title in 2017, it marked the first time since 1992 (John Oliver Jokers) — a span of 25 years — that a Vancouver public school had won a B.C. senior varsity football title.

Gibson’s efforts to revitalize the sport in Vancouver’s public school system has included visits by Hamber players to local elementary schools to plant the football seed at an early age, and in that way, there is something of a full-circle aspect to its impact over its first decade.

Lee, for his part, took that experience during his Grade 6 year (2013) at nearby Edith Cavell Elementary.

“In fourth grade my family moved to the west side and I didn’t know much about Hamber football,” admits Lee, who eventually followed in the footsteps of his brother Arthur, two years his senior and the quarterback of the 2017 B.C. champs.

“As part of a community outreach program, I remember that some of the Hamber players taught us how to play flag football, once a week for five weeks, and then we finished with a big jamboree.”

Now, as Eric Hamber’s senior varsity program sets hopeful sights on entering a second decade of football life this fall, the head coach reflects on the growth which has come in the move from Tier 2 to AAA.

“One of the biggest difference is the ability level of the average player at each of those tiers,” says Gibson. “I really think that a lot of our Tier 2 players could have been star players at AAA programs, but the 11th guy at Triple A is going to be a stronger player than the 11th guy at Tier 2.”

And while a Hamber player has yet to take a live university snap, both Lee and Henderson are determined to show their alma mater that the end goal is achievable.

“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” says Henderson.

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