Lions alumni square off in CJFL
The Canadian Junior Football League season is underway, and for four St. Paul Lions alumni, it means a new year of competitive football, on a scale much larger than any player in the Wheatland Football League has ever seen.
The Edmonton Huskies recently picked up former 2012 Lions MVPs Jason Jubinville and Zac Smith, while 2009 and 2011 Lions graduates Nathan Gardiner and Mark Proskiw are entering their fourth and second CJFL seasons, respectively, with the Huskies biggest rivals, the Edmonton Wildcats.
“Just starting from the bottom once again pretty much . . . it’s not high school football anymore,” said Huskies defensive lineman Smith. “It’s a lot more learning too, a lot more game film, scouting reports. It’s just a higher level of football.”
At this season’s opener, they all got a taste of the renowned Huskies-Wildcats rivalry with the new added intrigue of two St. Paul Lions alumni on either side of the football.
While Jubinville was sidelined with a knee injury and Smith was only in the game for a handful of plays, they both said that they could sense an intense rivalry building between themselves and their fellow Lions alumni.
“It gets pretty intense. Even if you’re ex-teammates or friends, while you’re playing you don’t like each other, that’s just the way it is,” said Huskies running back Jubinville. “I wasn’t even playing and that was the most pumped up I’ve ever been for a football game in my life. It was the craziest atmosphere I’ve ever seen in my life, for any sporting event, even going to a CFL game or a hockey game.”
Smith said that while he has a great deal of respect for his fellow Lions alumni, when it came to the new Huskies-Wildcats rivalry, the only thing on his mind was victory.
“At that point it was most just thinking about winning. Those other St. Paul guys Mark and Nathan, I obviously love those guys, but just in the moment, I think me and Jason both, we just wanted to win that game, because that’s a huge rivalry,” said Smith. “In-season it might be a little tough but during the off-season we’re just friends.”
Proskiw, Jubinville and Smith spent two years together as Lions in 2010 and 2011, and the three said that they still keep in touch regularly, but friendship goes out the window between kickoff and the final buzzer whenever the Huskies and Wildcats square off.
“Wildcats and huskies hate each other,” said Wildcats receiver Proskiw. “But after the game we are still all friends.”
Gardiner added that while he never played with Jubinville or Smith, he said he’s heard about them through Lions coaches John Lumby and Todd Tanasichuk, who still keep in touch with all four CJFL players, and the offensive lineman said that he was excited to take on Smith from the other side of the line of scrimmage.
“I've heard about these guys and their achievements with the Lions from the coaches and now I get to see how good they really are for myself. Being on the o-line and going up against Zac for some plays is awesome. I treat it like my own little competition to see if he can get to the quarterback,” said Gardiner, adding that it is a nice sentiment to know his coaches were watching from the stands. “Having the coaches there to watch is a great feeling, knowing they are up there still supporting you through your junior career is really special.”
CJFL rookies Jubinville and Smith will both be using this season and the ensuing offseason to prove themselves to their new coaches in the hopes of obtaining starting roles, and Smith points out that it won’t be an easy process.
“Obviously I’m not happy with this right now, so it’s going to be a big offseason,” said Smith. “I’ll just be trying to lift a lot more weights, get bigger and try to compete for starting.”
While Jubinville is currently recovering from a knee injury, he pointed out that he should be back in full form soon, and hopes to make a strong impression and even start a few games this season.
“You’ve got pressure on you, you don’t know if you’re going to be the starter every week, it could be someone new. You’ve got to try all-out every single week, every single practice,” said Jubinville. “It definitely increases the intensity and makes you want to play harder, faster and more intense.”
All four players made a point of thanking their former Lions coaches, as Proskiw says they pushed him ‘to become better and move on to another level, and . . . become a better man,” and Gardiner added that they were “always pushing me to be better and supporting me every step of the way.”
Proskiw added that the transition from high school football to the CJFL isn’t an easy one to make, but encouraged all the young players out there who dream of a future in football that it can be done.
“Work hard and never give up. Push yourself to become better and you can make it,” he said. “It's all about one’s determination to become better. If you are determined to get better and make it to the CJFL you will have to push yourself to the limits to make it there.”
Gardiner echoed Proskiw’s sentiment, and went on to say that in order to reach the next level of football, he had to dedicate his free time to training year-round.
“You have to be in the gym lifting and on the field working speed and agility drills. Football is an all-year sport, you play your games during the season but its what you do in the off season that really counts,” said Gardiner. “If you sit on the couch all off season and don't lift or train the coaches will see that. Our motto is ‘the best players play,’ and if they don't think you can help us win, you won't make it past the first cuts.”
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