ABBOTSFORD — This is a story of enduring legacy and beautiful simplicity, about how carrying a football can so often be like carrying a torch.
It’s also a reminder that while 33 years have passed since a wet, bone-chilling night at old Empire Stadium, the year 1984 was actually a lot more like yesterday to those who remember the day the Abbotsford Panthers beat the Notre Dame Jugglers to claim their one-and-only B.C. high school football championship.
Last Saturday, Abbotsford earned the right to try to achieve what no other Panthers’ senior varsity football team has managed to accomplish since, when they came from behind to beat Vernon 28-25 in the Subway Bowl B.C. AA semifinals at B.C. Place Stadium.
This Saturday (4 p.m., B.C. Place), the No. 3 Panthers get their chance when they face the No. 1 Windsor Dukes in the title game.
Of course all of this was made possible after Abby mounted a 10-play, 90-yard drive capped by superstar senior running back Samwel Uko’s five-yard touchdown run with 43 seconds remaining.
On its own, the drive stands as one of the highlights of this month-long high school football love-fest known simply as Subway Bowl.
Yet the depth of its beauty, something that goes beyond its own 90-yard expanse, lies in the way its so-called schematics have been handed down through the generations.
Or should we say ‘handed off’.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
The world may be a different place than it was back in 1984, but in football, offensive lines still need to block, running backs still need to carry and coaches still need to scheme.
Last Saturday, after the Abbotsford win, Panthers’ assistant coach Elmore Abraham was strolling through one of the hallways at B.C. Place Stadium when he happened upon the Yoda-like presence of his old high school coach, the 70-year-old George Oswald.
“He sees me and he says ‘You took a play out of the Notre Dame playbook,’” Abraham relates of the fact that the Panthers ran Uko on the game’s defining drive out of the same Power I formation which was the bread-and-butter of Oswald’s Jugglers, the staple which helped them become the most decorated program in provincial history.
The reason Oswald, now a Notre Dame assistant and still someone who never misses a playoff game at B.C. Place whether his team is in it or not, had no compunction in making that bold claim to Abraham?
Back in 1984, Abraham was Notre Dame’s star running back on a team which, despite the 11-0 record it carried into the final, was stunned by the Panthers.
“He says ‘Don’t you remember? It was Elmore left, then Elmore right,’” Abraham continued of the friendly jabs Oswald continued to send his way of the feature back’s role in the Jugglers’ offence. “So I said ‘But coach, it was working!’ We were getting at least five-or-six-yards a pop. Coach Fooj (head coach Jay Fujimura) had put the play in, and we just figured ‘Why not continue until they adjust?’”
The Jugglers certainly didn’t have a patent on the play, but the thing with a play is, if you adopt it, respect it, and rep it until it’s a part of your own DNA, you can’t help but feel prideful ownership.
And then to realize that 33 years later, the same running back who executed it to try an beat Abbotsford in the B.C. final was now on the other side, offering expert quality control as it was being re-installed over a full generation later?
“It’s the same play we ran, the Power I, where we add the extra back,” continued Abraham, who is actually the team’s defensive coordinator but helps out where he can in other areas. “We love to throw the ball and we want to continue to do so, but everyone has been having a hard time trying to stop our Power I.”
Especially when you’ve got Uko, but also another special senior leader in Sahil Sahota, the Panthers’ determined two-way lineman.
“He has always been one of those guys that we have been able to count on heavily,” said Fujimura when asked about the 5-foot-10, 265-pound provincial all-star. “On that last drive against Vernon, I think almost every play we went behind Sahil. We kept running Samwel behind him on the left side.”
A DRIVE THAT UNITES THREE GENERATIONS
The first high school football story I wrote this season?
It came on a blazing hot day in late August.
I drove out to Abbotsford in the morning to catch the Panthers’ first session of the day, my idea to chat with Uko, who as it happens, didn’t practice that day.
Instead, I got to talking with Sahota about what senior year means to a high school football player.
When we re-visited on Tuesday, this time with just one more game remaining in his prep career, his answers were tinged with emotion.
“This is the last week of football practice of my high school career, and I realize what is happening,” he said. “It really is about one practice at a time.”
From a season that started with three straight losses to St. Thomas More, Notre Dame and finally the same Windsor team they will oppose Saturday, to later finding cohesion and confidence as a group, the late-November vintage Panthers, Sahota says, bear no resemblance to their August shadow.
Fujimura, Abraham and the rest of the coaching staff, like the best ones around the province, have coached the group up and gotten them to their second Subway Bowl final in three seasons.
And when it comes to last week’s winning drive, Sahota played such a huge role in it, how can its lore not include him alongside both Oswald and Abraham.
“It was the toughest drive ever, but what motivated me the most,” says Sahota, “is the whole time I could hear Coach Fooj’s voice in my head, just telling me to keep grinding, to keep going.”
These are exciting times to be a Panthers’ fan.
The school’s senior varsity girls AAA basketball team has opened the season No. 1, and coincidentally, has also not won the B.C. title since 1984.
This year’s basketball championships, however, won’t be contested until March of 2018, but potential for a near-identical double-title season over 30 years later is quite remarkable.
Windsor, however, beat Abby 44-27 earlier this season, and the Dukes come in as favourites, looking to cap an undefeated season with a win over the Panthers.
For his part, Abraham says he remembers the 1984 final like it was yesterday, although he admits it’s hard to forget since there are pictures posted near the gymnasium to remind him of his old school’s loss.
“We went into that final game not even knowing who Abbotsford was,” Abraham says. “We just figured we were going to run the football.”
Maybe a generation from now, at say the 2042 Subway Bowl, Sahota will be coaching a team with a brilliant young running back like Uko, and afterwards he’ll bump into an elderly Abraham.
That conversation, like the one between every ex-player and his coach, is sure to be lively, and in the end, help keep torches lit and memories burning.
It happened once, so why couldn’t it happen again?
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