By Gail Lethbridge |
They were the little football teams that thought they could.
And they did. Big time.
The Saint Mary’s Huskies football team conquered Canadian varsity football, winning Vanier Cup, two years in a row in 2001 and 2002.
In Canadian university football, it doesn’t get any bigger.
It’s been said more than once, by more than one person, that the 2001 team—with its perfect season—was one of the best varsity footballs teams ever produced in Canada. The Saint Mary’s Huskies scored the national championship when they beat Manitoba in 2001 and then they did it again in 2002 when they were victorious over Saskatchewan. Not bad for a little school from Halifax.
“It was the Saint Mary’s era and the Saint Mary’s aura,” says player Cartier Shields, recalling his years on those teams. “We were like a fine diamond in the rough. And under all that pressure that diamond shone.”
So what is it that propels a small university football team to a national championship two years in a row? What enables a team to go undefeated in one season, as the 2001 team did? And then come back again and overcome challenges of injury and new players for a repeat championship?
Coaches and players will tell you that it’s a combination of grit, determination, hard work, talent, recruitment, and very high expectations from coaches.
“I never worked a group as hard or demanded as much,” says Assistant Coach, Steve Sumarah, who now coaches the Carleton Ravens in Ottawa. “We just kept raising the bar. With these teams you could push and push and they always had more to give.” Consider the numbers. In the 2001 regular season—the perfect year—the team outscored the opposition 480-35. In the post season, they outscored opponents 128-31. In the Vanier Cup, the score was 42-16 over Manitoba.
“When I look at those numbers, it’s mind boggling,” says player Eric Hakim, who played on both teams.
Gordon Beattie, another Assistant Coach, adds that there was also a mysterious and intangible force at play. “There’s hard work and there’s talent, but there was something else at play in those years.”
“There’s hard work and there’s talent, but there was something else at play in those years.” — Gordon Beattie
Players Shields and Hakim think it had to do with the relationships Head Coach Blake Nill built with his team and encouraged them to forge with each other. “There was brotherhood, camaraderie, and cohesion in the locker room,” says Shields. “Nill was like a father figure to all of us.”
These deep friendships allowed players to overcome individual ego and individual goals for the common good of winning a championship. Those still-close relationships were evident in 2016 when one of the members of the championship team—Jean-Michel Sylvain, the All-Canadian Outstanding Lineman of the Year in 2001—lost his battle to cancer. A dozen players, including Eric Hakim and Coach Nill, returned to Halifax from all over Canada to spend time with Sylvain in hospital. They joined members of his community, working around his house raking leaves, painting the deck, and trimming trees.
“To see all those guys come back to see him was very touching. It showed the camaraderie and friendships that still exist,” says Sumarah.
At this Fall’s Homecoming weekend, coaches and teammates came together again at the Homburg Centre for Health and Wellness. Family members and fans were on hand to witness and celebrate the induction of the 2001 and 2002 football teams into the Saint Mary’s Sport Hall of Fame. Their place is now forever sealed into Canadian varsity football history.