BURNABY — Antonio Cusati is the cornerback who has been there and back.
And if you’re wondering right about now just why his football journey is best described without longitudes, latitudes and the usual wash of statistics that best define a high school career, it’s because hard luck has made the Notre Dame Jugglers’ senior a little hard to find these days.
“He is so under the radar, and just because of getting injured and not playing a lot,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jordan Liberman of the 5-foot-11, 175-pound slotback/defensive back, who as a Grade 11 had the misfortune of not only breaking his tailbone in the Jugglers’ 2019 season opener against St. Thomas More, but re-breaking it seven weeks later as part of a nightmarish campaign during which he was never fully healthy, yet somehow found a way to shine in the parts of the five games in which he was able to suit up.
“The recovery was tough because there’s not much you can do about a tailbone,” Cusati, 17, mused late last week. “I’ve had other injuries before but this was the most painful. All I could do was rest and carry around this big pillow that I had to use in class.”
Not that he’s ever looked for a soft landing.
Realizing he lacked the film he needed to showcase his skills to university programs coming off his injury-riddled Grade 11 season, Cusati set a himself on a determined off-season training regimen this past January, one which he hoped would would not only help fuel another long post-season Subway Bowl run for the Jugglers in 2020, but also make him more than just a mere blip on that so-called radar screen of recruiters across the country.
Yet with the fate of the current season hanging by a thread due to the virulence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and B.C. high school teams trying to keep their spirits high despite nothing more than limited practice opportunities, Cusati remains a young man shrouded in anonymity.
“Antonio would have been a key two-way starter for us,” says Notre Dame’s veteran head coach Denis Kelly, whose coaching ties at the East Van school date back to the early 1980s. “Through all of this, he has trained relentlessly and he’s maintained his honour roll status in the classroom.”
Cusati’s hope?: That in the end, he’s not just the best high school defensive back you’ve never heard of, but a student-athlete with the ability to suit up and help any university football program in the country willing to give him an opportunity.
“My goal, since I have very limited film due to my injury, was just to have the best senior season I could possibly have,” Cusati said. “I just wanted to be able to prove myself and get a chance at the next level. Obviously, that’s not working out right now, but we will have to see how it goes.”
IT’S ALL IN THE ROOTS
Study Antonio Cusati’s family tree as it pertains to sports of choice, and without a lot of deep burrowing, you’ll find an entangled system of roots from the worlds of both the gridiron and the diamond.
Yes, football and baseball.
For example, his uncle Frank Cusati, back in 1982, was the Notre Dame Jugglers’ B.C. title-winning quarterback under legendary head coach George Oswald, and then-assistant Kelly.
Antonio’s dad Neil, heavily involved in fund-raising efforts around the Notre Dame program, is himself a former Jugglers’ player and baseball coach, and Antonio’s cousin Anthony, another former Notre Dame player, went on to a varsity baseball career with the UBC Thunderbirds.
With all of that two-sport history pursing through his veins and dominating his DNA, it’s no surprise that Antonio Cusati would reach an inevitable crossroads in his own sports journey.
And for him, those two distinct forks would reveal themselves within a span of about four months, through the summer and fall of 2016, after he played a key role in two major championship moments.
A baseball player of some note, Cusati was the starting catcher on the 2016 Hastings Little League national champions, and in the August before he began Grade 8 classes at Notre Dame, he settled in behind the plate, completing the Canadian battery which shut down Japan at the Little League World Series and handed the global powerhouse a 10-4 loss at historic Williamsport, Pa. It was Japan’s first setback in the opening round of the Little League World Series since 1965.
“We didn’t make it past the first round,” remembers Cusati, “but beating Japan was a shock and a big deal for us.”
(Here’s a great piece written by The Province’s baseball writer Steve Ewen back in 2016)
But it didn’t end there.
Cusati was also a starting member of the Jugglers football team which won the the Quadra Cup Grade 8 B.C. title under the dome at B.C. Place Stadium just months after his World Series experience.
Although he would play a junior varsity football season with the Jugglers as a ninth grader in 2017, Cusati made the decision the next season, as a 10th grader, to hang up his shoulder pads and focus on baseball.
In hindsight, it made him realize just how much he missed playing football and being a Juggler.
“Right after I made the decision, I regretted it,” Cusati remembers. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy baseball, but I just saw football as the sport I needed to focus on, and the one I wanted to pursue for university.”
So Cusati set about making his return, earning a starting spot in the defensive secondary as Notre Dame prepared to open the 2019 season at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex against the crosstown rival St. Thomas More Knights.
After a year spent out of pads and away from football, it was for him, a personal moment of truth.
A BITTERSWEET RETURN
“Have you seen the clip?” Jordan Liberman asks. “(Cusati) was on one corner and he literally chased down and tackled Nick Osho from across the field. And we all know how talented Nick Osho is.”
Osho, of course, is the St. Thomas More senior who is coming off a 1,525-yard, 12-touchdown performance during the 2019 regular season. One of the very best running backs in the province, Osho announced recently that he has received his first U Sports offer for 2021.
Super honoured and blessed to say that I received an offer to play at York University!! Thank you to @CoachGriffith88 and @CoachCraney for the amazing opportunity🙌🏾 #BLEED #ComeToTheYU @YULionsFootball pic.twitter.com/5T3i7mNzXQ— Nick Osho (@nick_osho) October 28, 2020
And while Cusati may not have reached the 22 mph that Seattle receiver D.K. Metcalf did last Sunday in chasing down and tackling Arizona’s pick six-minded Budda Baker near the goal line, his pursuit and tackle were impressive nonetheless, especially considering it came not only in his first senior varsity game, but in his first game of any kind after taking a full year off.
Late in the third quarter of that same game, one eventually won 14-3 by the Jugglers, Cusati managed the feat again, only this time falling awkwardly and suffering the first of his two tailbone breaks. Both plays are a part of Cusati’s Grade 11 highlight package on Hudl, all culled from his only five senior varsity games.
“I landed right on my tailbone, but at the time I didn’t think much of it,” Cusati says in reflection. “I thought it was just bruised, and I came in and played another drive, but the pain never went away. That’s when I realized it might be something more serious.”
Truth be told, Cusati was never 100 per cent the rest of the season, and he himself admits that in hindsight he likely came back too quickly.
Initially injured on Sept. 6, he was back in the line-up as soon as Oct. 11, as the Jugglers pushed No. 2-ranked South Delta before losing 48-40 in a game in which Cusati was able to pick off a Hail Mary pass by Sun Devils’ blue-chip pivot Ben McDonald just before halftime.
Cusati played the following week in a 29-26 loss at Handsworth, yet in the team’s 54-43 win at home against Carson Graham on Oct. 25, a teammate fell on top of him and he landed right on his tailbone, experiencing the same level of pain from his original injury.
“I rushed it and I wasn’t 100 per cent,” he admits now.
After missing three straight games, including playoff wins over both Abbotsford and South Delta, he saw spot duty in his team’s 26-14 Subway Bowl semifinal loss to Lord Tweedsmuir.
“I just wanted to play in the dome,” said Cusati, who had not stepped on the hallowed turf since his Grade 8 title-game appearance in 2016.
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
Maybe the most impressive part of Antonio Cusati’s nature is that he has never let the uncertainty of his future impede on what he can do in the present.
“I think a lot of kids, if they don’t have a good perspective… a mature view of things, then they tend to view injuries as a devastating, game-over type of thing,” says Kelly. “But it’s all in the way you look at it.”
For Cusati, it meant never missing a team gathering or meeting. It meant filming practices. And on game days, it meant grabbing a clipboard to track defensive plays from the sidelines.
It’s a sense of sense of self-sacrifice that is pretty hard to miss, and one that makes others want to help.
“He has never gone out of his way to say ‘Coach, can you do this for me?’” Liberman says of the senior’s stoic nature. “He has a world of potential both academically and athletically, but he’s never come across as a guy with an ego… just someone who is prepared to do what is right for the team.”
And Liberman, who played at UBC, was later a member of the 2015 Vanier Cup coaching staff at his alma mater, in addition to also coaching at both SFU and Terry Fox Secondary, doesn’t hesitate when asked specifically about Cusati’s potential as a university player.
“He can definitely play at the next level,” Liberman begins. “He is so versatile that I have played him at all four DB positions which will translate very well to the next level, even to the Canadian game because he is big enough to play half, fast enough to play corner and smart enough to play safety. That’s what makes the kid so unique.
“A lot of schools don’t want to invest in a kid that won’t make it academically, but Antonio will,” assures Liberman of the honour roll student and student council member. “Denis and I really believe in his potential. It’s just a question now of who is going to give him a chance.”
For anyone interested, the cornerback who has been there and back has a story that is well worth repeating.
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