Of Football and Family

The Chapdelaine clan (left to right): runningbacks coach/recruiting assistant Justin, head coach Jacques, and receivers coach Matthew.

The coach comes full circle back to the huddle

By Howard Tsumura
Photography by Rick Etkin

It was a decision so full of audacity that, even decades later, a mere reminder of it is enough to bring a smile to his weathered face. The same face that, in the most full-circle way possible, has matured from wide-eyed teenager to professional football coach.

That decision was to come to Simon Fraser University.

“My first memories of landing in Vancouver were the smell of the cedar sawmills along the Fraser River and all the different people,” reminisces Jacques Chapdelaine (BSc’85) like the 18-year-old modern-day explorer that he was back in 1980. “I came here from a fairly small town [Sherbrooke, Quebec] that was not that diverse. When I saw all of this international population here I thought to myself  ‘Whoa, are we still in Canada?’ because my Canada didn’t look like this.”

It does now.

Some 34 years after the cross-country flight that brought him to B.C. to begin a collegiate football career for the SFU Clan, Chapdelaine has returned to the place where his grand adventure began, this time as the program’s new head coach, the man entrusted with bringing success to the only non-U.S. football team in the NCAA.

“Honestly, I wanted to play professional sports, and I wanted to leave home,” explains Chapdelaine of taking what was, back then, the next step in a sport he wanted to make his way of life.

In a figurative sense, everything that has happened to him since he finished his Simon Fraser playing career in 1982 is akin to making one big catch after another, of moving the chains from a CFL playing career, to a CIS title in 1999 as the head coach of the Laval Rouge et Or, to three Grey Cups, including two as the offensive coordinator of the B.C. Lions.

Those are the professional highlights. But beyond that, his is also a story of family and the way a love of sport has brought the Chapdelaine clan even closer together.

“I met my wife here. She was on a track scholarship,” says Chapdelaine of Kim with whom he has since raised three children, including sons Matthew and Justin, both assistants on his current Clan coaching staff. “So my college experience turned into a life experience as well.”

His is a story of chasing a dream, catching it, then coming full circle back to the huddle with lessons to share.

A triple threat

So athletically geared and gifted was Chapdelaine that for the greater part of his childhood he hadn’t even found the time to catch a football. In fact it was hockey and baseball at which he first excelled. And we’re not just talking “best kid on the block” kind of stuff.

Chapdelaine can remember the signing pitch he got from none other than Branch Barrett Rickey, the grandson of the former Brooklyn Dodgers owner, trying to persuade him to choose baseball.

“He was in my living room when I was 17, talking to me about a minor league baseball contract in the Florida panhandle,” remembers Chapdelaine, who would have begun play in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization had he signed on the dotted line.

There was also hockey.

Around that same time, Chapdelaine, a goaltender with his sights set on going pro, made his debut in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Sherbrooke Beavers. He later wound up in the training camp of the Trois Rivières Draveurs, but was soon cut.

“In between all of that, I had started playing football when I was 16,” explains Chapdelaine, who took up the sport at the CEGEP level at Champlain College in Lennoxville.

“I had only played the sport about a year and a half. I had gotten a few pokes from the NCAA, including Wisconsin, but that was way before [Seattle quarterback] Russell Wilson got there,” he continues with a laugh.

“But then [head coach] Rod Woodward from SFU came to recruit back east. I wanted to move away from home, so I decided to come.”

Despite his limited reps, it didn’t take long before his coaches and teammates noted the absolute intensity he brought to every snap of the ball.

“He was always a very determined and focused guy,” remembers the team’s quarterback Jay Prepchuk, who in concert with Chapdelaine would lead a Clan offence that set 16 school records before the pair departed following the 1982 season. “He was so extremely hard working. You just knew that this was a guy who had come out here with a purpose. He didn’t come to Vancouver to go to Grouse Mountain or the Capilano Suspension Bridge. He came, ultimately, to become a pro football player.”

Adds another former teammate, current TSN CFL lead analyst Glen Suitor: “We played on opposite sides of the ball, but what I remember about Jacques was that when we got into those third-and-six type situations, he was the guy that was going to get the ball.”

A running start

After his hiring in February to replace Dave Johnson as the Clan’s new head football coach, it was with the same focus and self-starting approach so fondly remembered by Prepchuk and Suitor with which Chapdelaine embarked on the first chapter of his new posting. On a cross-country trip oozing with symbolism, Chapdelaine returned to his own roots, making a recruiting foray into Quebec where he spoke from the heart, sharing his stories of choosing the Clan and, of course, his return in the late 1990s to Laval, where he helped lay in place the most significant pieces of the country’s reigning CIS football dynasty.

“We went through 25 CEGEPS over the first two weeks of May,” Chapdelaine reports. “It was my understanding that, as an institution, Simon Fraser didn’t send recruiters past Ottawa. But there is a lot of great football being played there, and I have a working knowledge of what is going on. Due to NCAA rules, we couldn’t meet with the athletes, but we drove around and met all of the coaches. The neat part is, I would say that 30 to 50 percent of those coaches were former players from Laval.”

In many ways, it was a pioneering trip, exploring new territory just as Chapdelaine did as a young man back in 1980, and the way the school’s namesake, Simon Fraser, did himself back in the early 1800s. But with a simple philosophy — one shaped both by his own recruiting experience and those that he and Kim experienced when their own children, daughter Kaela (basketball at NCAA Oregon) and sons Matt and Justin (football in the CIS), were courted by university sports programs — the next wave of Clan football players began their 2014 season in early September.

“My philosophy in life for all my kids is that any relationship has to be mutually beneficial,” Chapdelaine explains. “The two sides should become better because of each other, and I see recruiting with the same eye.

“If we are going to get a young man to come here, whether he is from B.C., Quebec, or wherever, we want him to not only be great at SFU, but we want SFU to become better because of him. So it’s important to be straightforward and transparent. At the end of the day, when a young man commits to Simon Fraser, it’s because he wants to come here and because he is embracing everything that we are offering.”

Just like yesterday, once more

The best memories are the indelible ones, the ones that never seem buried for too long.

“The way I can put it in perspective is this: every time we went on a bus trip to a road game, it was like discovering a new part of the world,” says Chapdelaine, vividly recalling the team’s travels through the western U.S. states.

“I can remember driving through the Columbia Valley and looking at tumbleweeds, thinking ‘Where are we?’ and then going through Idaho and seeing all of the potatoes. We went to play Central Washington the year after Mount St. Helens exploded, and I still remember seeing volcanic ash on the streets. I would talk to my parents back east on the phone, and every time, I would start with ‘You’ll never guess, but…’”

Those are examples of the powerful moments that emerge for every varsity athlete, and Chapdelaine wants his players to have the same kind of eye-opening experiences he did because it’s all of the little things that wind up making the college experience resonate forever.

“I have told all of my own kids that going to college may be the place where you meet your husband or your wife,” he says. “You are going to meet the friends that impact your life, you are going to gain values, and you are going to get a degree which will help steer you through life. You are going to get the wisdom and life knowledge to make the most important decisions in your life.”

Chapdelaine’s biggest one came the day he left home with nothing more than his self belief.

“We opened our senior year at Saskatchewan,” remembers Prepchuk of the 1982 pre-season contest in Saskatoon against the Huskies. “We had the wind at our backs. I remember throwing to Jacques on a post pattern, and when I threw it I was certain I had overthrown him.

“But then all of a sudden he goes into a gear I had never seen before. The defensive backs had no idea a guy could get that deep, that quickly. It was an overthrow, but he made it look so smooth, so routine. And it went for a touchdown.”

Some 32 years later, that same speed may have left him. But in his book, nothing about chasing down a dream ever gets old.