ABBOTSFORD — Mathis Baumbach remembers how he never felt like a stranger in the summer of 2008, even though he had flown halfway around the world from Germany to join his new teammates on the Simon Fraser University football team.
And all of that was due to the presence of one of the most iconic athletes in SFU’s half-century-plus of collegiate athletics: The late Bernd Dittrich.
“I remember coming to camp and Bernie welcoming me with open arms,” Baumbach, 33, said Monday morning, paying homage to his former teammate just two days ahead of the 11th anniversary of his sudden passing at tender age 21 following an accident at the SFU pool.
“I didn’t even have a locker, and so he told me to put my stuff in his locker,” continued Baumbach, who these days works in wealth management as an associate portfolio manager. “So we were locker-mates that first summer, and he was the starting quarterback. But that was a typical Bernie move. He didn’t care who you were, where you were from… if you needed help or advice, he was there to give it to you.”
Gone but never forgotten, Bernd Dittrich’s legacy over the past decade-plus within the university has done nothing but grow.
In fact, his name has lived on through the efforts of the SFU Football Alumni Association, which on the annual Remembrance Day anniversary of his passing has gathered to raise scholarship dollars for the football program through the Bernie Bowl flag football tournament.
And while the pandemic may have shuttered what was to have been the actual playing of Bernie Bowl X on Wednesday, the association has nonetheless taken the cause to another level, this season launching a donation challenge created to establish his scholarship trust in the form of an endowment.
For every 10 donations (in any denomination) the SFU Football Alumni Society will contribute $1,000 up to a maximum of $15,000 towards the endowment. Donations can be made by clicking here.
A pioneer before his time in terms of making the courageous journey from Europe to North America before any kind of accepted college/university pipeline had begun to flow, Dittrich is remembered today as a true student-athlete without borders.
Coached in Austria for five seasons at the Vienna Vikings club by Shawn Olson, UBC’s former Vanier Cup-winning quarterback, Dittrich threw all caution to the wind, leaving his native country and finishing his final year of high school in 2006 at a small high school in Oklahoma.
The next season, with Olson installed as offensive coordinator atop Burnaby Mountain under then-head coach Dave Johnson, Dittrich came west, then quickly came into his own, impacting not only his team, but his campus community as well.
When asked about the way Dittrich greeted each and every day, Olson told your author back in Sept. 2008 for a story I wrote at The Province newspaper: “More than any player I have met, his work ethic is astounding. The mentality I had to work three hours a day at 21, he had that when he was 14 or 15.”
And a nod of the cap to his popularity beyond the SFU locker room?
“Bernie not only impacted the football team,” remembers Baumbach, the 6-foot-5 receiver who red-shirted in 2008, but got his chance to run routes for Dittrich over the 2009 campaign. “He impacted the whole campus, from the guy at the equipment desk to a student in the dining hall. He used to be a security guard on the campus. He was just a special guy. We still mourn him. And every time his name comes up, it’s not just an emotional roller-coaster for us, but for so many other people on campus who knew him.”
Perhaps most memorably was his first game as SFU starter on Aug, 23, 2008.
Taking to the field at Swangard Stadium for that season’s CIS opener, and with the Simon Fraser program feeling the weight of 25 straight losses over the three previous seasons, Dittrich threw for 315 yards, three touchdowns and no picks, as SFU beat UBC 24-10.
Fittingly, one of those scoring tosses was a five-yard strike to his fellow Austrian, receiver Daniel Stanzel, who these days is the offensive line coach for Finland’s professional Helsinki Roosters.
In retrospect, Baumbach admits his journey to Canada was made vastly easier by the fact that Dittrich and Stanzel had already arrived the season before.
And Baumbach, who remained in the Lower Mainland after his university career ended, and these days is an assistant coach for North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles, was quick to admit how his late friend’s courage to come to the heartland of the game at such a young age was filled with historic precedent.
“There was this first wave of Europeans coming overseas to play college football and today there is a whole pipeline to Europe,” Baumbach says. “There’s guys that might play five games of German high school football and then get recruited by a Div. 1 team.
“For us, it was a different process… all self-initiated,” he continued. “You sent all your tapes to these schools and maybe, one of them called back.”
Of course, Baumbach is quick to credit Olson, the Surrey-Holy Cross product, who would eventually leave his posting as SFU OC to become the head coach of his collegiate alma mater at UBC.
“Bernie had an outstanding relationship with Shawn Olson,” Baumbach added. “And I have to say, Shawn Olson has had a huge impact on my life, and that can never be understated. Bernie and I each came over here with hopes. I never thought I would end up in Canada, but I am so very happy that I am here.”
It was an absolute dedication to his craft that many believe was the reason Dittrich had gone over to the SFU pool on that fateful day, set to do a rehab workout for a shoulder injury which had kept him from playing in the team’s final two games that season.
“He was probably already thinking about next season,” Baumbach theorizes of the mindset Dittrich likely took to the SFU pool that day back in late 2009. “That was very Bernie. In his mind, he was getting ready for his off-season workouts.”
Baumbach lauds the efforts of fellow SFU Football Alumni Association members like current president Mark Bailey, past presidents Mario Luongo and Frank Roberto, as well as board members like Jamie Clayton for keeping the tradition of SFU football both vibrant and impactful during these strange and challenging times.
Yet perhaps most of all, for him, it’s important to talk about the reasons why student-athletes like Bernd Dittrich, who were willing to travel the world to chase their dreams, should never be forgotten.
When asked to describe the memorable pass he caught from Dittrich, Baumbach referenced one which he snared and turned into a long gainer as part of a 41-7 home win against the Manitoba Bisons.
“It was on a day when there were the most people I can remember seeing at Terry Fox Field, and as I was running down the field, I can remember looking up and seeing them all,” he states. “But I also have a picture of that catch, and when I look at it, I can see Bernie in the background. It just reminds me of my time playing with him.”
Which brings us to the following 2010 season and a game which stands above all others as a B.C.-only football showcase.
The emotions of Dittrich’s passing the season before were still raw, and Simon Fraser carried all of that into what history now tells us, is the last Shrum Bowl rivalry clash against UBC (pending a hopeful revival) to have been played.
In that game, one which SFU won 27-20 behind the dual 100-yard-plus rushing performances of running backs Gabe Ephard and Bo Palmer, Baumbach first caught a 44-yard pass, and on the same possession, a drive-capping 33-yard touchdown, both from reserve quarterback Ryan Schwartz.
“I told you about the pass I caught in the Manitoba game as being special, but that touchdown in the Shrum Bowl was also special,” said Baumbach.
The reason, despite the fact that it didn’t directly involved Dittrich?
“Ryan Schwartz came to SFU with me in 2008 and for two years, Bernie mentored him,” Baumbach says of the North Vancouver-Seycove grad who played community football with the Vancouver Trojans. “So for Ryan to get the start in Shrum Bowl and for us to win? By extension, in this whole entire cosmos of Bernie having a lasting impact on all of us, to me, that just made it an extra special moment.”
All of which bring us back to Bernd Dittrich’s first-ever college football start.
As I talked to him on the field after he engineered that win over UBC a dozen years ago, he sobbed uncontrollably.
“In Austria or Oklahoma, I never cried after we won or lost a game,” he would say to me a few weeks later. “I don’t know what it was.”
So I asked Shawn Olson, who in an emotional moment of his own as not only SFU offensive coordinator, but as Dittrich’s longtime coach back in Austria said: “It was because of his journey. “I think when you’re a 12-year-old boy in Europe and your dream is to play college football, you think ‘How am I ever going to make that happen?’ Well, he achieved it.”
Over a decade later, remembering who Bernd Dittrich was as a person is an exercise which will never lose relevancy.
Yes, these are challenging times for all, yet if the kid could huddle us all up right now, his words would be all about being our best selves every day, even in those moments when it’s so easy and it’s so natural to feel afraid.
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