BURNABY — You don’t get to the football crossroads without wearing your adversity.
Stephane Tanguay arrived there last season, standing tall after not only defeating a sleep disorder, but doing it while in the midst of physical rehabilitation from back-to-back season-ending back injuries.
And so, too, did Tyler Wood, who battled through the extreme anxiety that came with a case of homesickness severe enough that each day he seemed ready to throw in the towel on his collegiate career.
The best thing about crossroads, however, is that they can also be viewed as timely intersections.
And so through the eyes of a new prism, this is a story about how two Simon Fraser Clan teammates, strangers to each other before the start of this past season, managed to cross paths at the perfect time.
“Those two guys, they have fed off of each other,” smiles Clan head coach Thomas Ford, who is speaking as much about emotional support and personal development as he is to the football side of the equation.
So much so that along an offensive line in which they are the team’s only returning seniors, they seem to serve as the barometre of a positional group which not only returns in tact from 2018, but just might be the Clan’s most improved group from last season.
“The biggest thing that we saw during spring camp was the improvement of our offensive line,” Ford confirmed. “They’re just so much better as a group and they are at the forefront of our planning.
“We didn’t lose anyone,” added the coach, who enters his second season at the helm. “And I know that for those guys, they want to prove and show that they can be a physical group, mean and nasty in the trenches.”
SIX SEASONS IN, HIS COURAGE DULY HONOURED
Simon Fraser’s 54-7 season-opening non-conference victory over Willamette in Ford’s coaching debut last September at Terry Fox Field was a momentous way to open the 2018 season, snapping a 33-game overall losing streak.
The Clan, however, will enter the 2019 campaign looking to snap another 33-game streak, this one representing its consecutive losses in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play.
It was back on Oct. 18 of 2014, when Simon Fraser defeated the visiting South Dakota School of Mines 53-31 at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium, that the program last experienced a GNAC victory.
Lining up as the starter at left tackle that day for SFU?
None other than 6-foot-5, 300-pound pure freshman Stephane Tanguay out of the Ottawa region’s ESC Embrun high school.
Safe to say no other Clan players remain from that 2014 team which was coached by current Toronto Argonauts’ offensive coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine.
And with seven CFL players on its roster, what a team it was.
Tanguay lined up on offence that day with fellow lineman and current Winnipeg Blue Bomber Michael Couture, as well as current B.C. Lions’ receiver Lemar Durant and current Calgary Stampeders’ running back Ante Milanovich-Litre. Recently-retired Hamilton Tiger Cats receiver Justin Buren was also there.
On the defensive side of the ball there were three current CFL linebackers in Jordan Herdman-Reed and Mitch Barnett of the B.C. Lions, and Justin Herdman-Reed of the Argos.
All of this is brought to your attention because it is Tanguay’s dream, of course, to join his ex-teammates in the professional ranks. If he does, he night be arriving a little later than he had originally planned, yet there is no question that he has already put in his time dealing with the kind of adversities which might accompany the pursuit of a professional football career.
This past March 26th, at the Clan’s year-end athletic awards banquet, Tanguay was presented with the Rick Jones Award for Courage, a tip of the hat for his perseverance through not only his physical injuries, but the mental hurdles he also faced over what will end up being six seasons atop the hill.
In spring camp prior to the 2016 season, Tanguay suffered a separated hip which led to debilitating back pain. In 2017, he strained his back again, and was diagnosed with three herniated discs.
“The two went hand-in-hand,” Tanguay said of his physical and mental struggles. “It was the injuries exacerbated by my sleep apnea.”
As part of the latter condition, breathing can stop for extended overnight periods, denying restful sleep and leading to all manner of other issues, including anxiety and depression.
“Once I got that diagnosis it was a game-changer for me,” admits Tanguay.
And now it’s all dove-tailing towards what could be a senior season to remember for the persistent guard whose newfound energy has turned this current off-season into his most involved ever.
“I am closing in on finishing my degree (Bacherlor of Arts and Social Sciences with a double minor in Criminology and Kinesiology), so I am taking three courses this summer in addition to working 20 hours a week,” he explains. “It’s a busy summer
His current line of part-time work?
“I’m a mall cop, and I take pride in it.”
HOW BURNABY MOUNTAIN BECAME FRESNO NORTH
Tyler Wood still answers his phone in the 559 area code of his beloved hometown of Fresno, Calif., yet he’s happy to call SFU’s Burnaby Mountain campus his new home away from home.
A year ago, that wasn’t exactly the case.
“I’ve always been a high-anxiety kid,” the Clan’s 6-foot-3, 275-pound rising senior centre said with a chuckle earlier this week from the heart of the California agriculture industry. “I mean (last season), calling it homesickness was the understatement of the century. I went from being with the people I knew and saw every day to a place where I didn’t know anybody but a couple of coaches.”
Ford saw all the tell-tale signs of just that early on, but watched as Wood would rebound, empowering himself within the team’s tight-knit environment.
“He was a juco kid who had never been out of California, and then he came to Simon Fraser and was terrified,” begins Ford. “He was honestly thinking about leaving, but now he calls SFU home. He loves everything about this place and as our centre, he’s developed into the lynch-pin of the offensive line.”
Wood, who played two seasons of junior college football at Fresno City College, found himself identifying with many of the players profiled in the Netflix series Last Chance U which has chronicled the hard-scrabble environment of players wanting to move on from the two-year ranks of the so-called jucos to traditional four-year NCAA programs.
And when he arrived at Simon Fraser to begin the 2018 campaign, he found strength in telling his new teammates his story through that perspective.
“Especially coming from a juco and the Last Chance U world, people wonder what that’s like,” begins Wood “To be able to tell them, and to have them listen and respect what you had to say, really gave me a sense of leadership.”
For Wood, a kid looking to belong at the NCAA level, he had found his perfect storm.
“I was able to build chemistry with the coaches and players and that was vital to me staying,” he said. “If not for that, I was thinking about leaving, but they all made it easy for me to get comfortable.”
And now, Wood is taking a few weeks back in the 559 area code, this time anxiously awaiting a return to Burnaby for his final season of college football when fall camp opens Aug. 12.
While teammate Tanguay is on mall cop duty in Greater Vancouver, what is Wood up to in Fresno?
“My dad (Gordon) is the head coach at a high school in town (Sunnyside High) and he coached me from Grade 6 until I graduated,” Wood says.
“I’m coaching the O-line there,” Wood continues of the same school he starred in as a 2016 Sunnyside grad. “After I finish there, I go and train right afterwards.”
LAY IT ON THE LINE
Thomas Ford makes a rather bold pronouncement about the state of the 2019 Clan offensive line.
“Over the last five or six years, I am not sure if we have been this talented along the offensive line,” says Ford of the group brewing under position coach James Holan, who is also the team’s offensive coordinator.
Wood and Tanguay are the only two seniors within the group, one which spent so much of last season building chemistry.
“I think last season we were a mish-mash of talent,” says Tanguay. “I hadn’t played since 2015, we had a lot of transfers and younger players, and so we didn’t have any experience playing together. Really, last fall we collected talent, but it didn’t manifest itself until late in the season. It was a little frustrating in terms of knowing we were capable of more.”
This time around, as Ford enthused off the top, everyone is back and ready to give a deep quarterback depth chart led by rising sophomore Justin Seiber its best chance to succeed.
Some of the top names joining the two seniors up front are juniors Brayden Gatland and Scott Maki, and sophomores Nick Giffen and Reuben Buchanan.
There is also a six-player freshman class which includes perhaps the most decorated U.S. high school recruit in the Clan’s NCAA era.
Bailey Elder is a 6-foot-6, 310-pound three-star recruit from Tacoma who turned down a number of Div. 1 offers to play his college football under Ford, who had coached Elder up until this past season at Stadium High.
Yet there is little doubt how influential Tanguay and Wood will be when the Clan takes its first offensive snap Sept. 7 on the road against its Div. 1 FCS hosts, the Portland State Vikings.
Ford, upon his arrival last season, realized how good the pair were for each other.
“Steph needed to get faster and Tyler needed to get bigger,” the coach remembers.
Tanguay fills in all the details.
“Myself, coming back from injury, I had the size and the strength but I wasn’t technically consistent,” he begins. “Tyler is someone I looked to right away from that standpoint. It was like ‘Hey, I am having trouble with this or that’ and ‘How do you approach it?’
“And then from his standpoint, he was a bit under-sized and so I was able to help him from a physical development standpoint, with diet, training and recovery. Now he’s coming in 30-to-40 pounds heavier.”
It has indeed been a match made in football heaven.
“Our skill sets complimented each other,” adds Tanguay, “so last year, we learned to lean on each other.”
It’s true: You don’t get to the football crossroads without wearing your adversity.
Twelve months ago, two future teammates found themselves staring out at each other from that very fork in the road.
Says Tanguay, looking back in his rearview mirror: “You realize that you are a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. You focus on winning each day, and then you realize that there is very little you cannot overcome.”
Today, it’s easy to see how the crossroads became a most timely intersection on the map of two football warriors.
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