Lindsay Williams appreciates the value of education and the opportunities it can provide. Williams has become a familiar face to Gryphon Football players. Four years ago, she met with members of the coaching staff, who were aware of her previous work on campus focusing on student life. Their goal was to put similar tools in place so the hard-working student-athletes of the football program could have a better experience both on and off the field.
Williams took on the role of Academic Coordinator, the main objective being to support the approximately 100 student-athletes who make up the U of G varsity team each season.
She has made a significant impact in her time with the program. Pre-pandemic, it was common to see her tracking down a player at practice to discuss some schoolwork. Now, those meetings are virtual check-ins. And in an historic time when many people in all walks of life have felt the burden and limitations imposed by COVID, several Gryphons, enduring an unthinkable year without playing the game they loved since childhood, thrived in the virtual classroom.
Gryphon Football produced 19 Academic All-Canadians this past year.
“I’m so impressed with the commitment that the players had this season,” says Williams, who emphasizes that to be a successful varsity athlete, you have to be a student first. “As a coaching staff and team, we were committed to this mindset that, ‘We can’t do all of things we expected, but what we can do is focus on academics and set ourselves up for success.’
“The numbers just continue to grow.”
Head Coach Ryan Sheahan was thrilled to see the list of players who were able to achieve the lofty status by averaging at least 80 per cent in their courses. Coming from a demanding academic environment himself as player and coach at Queen’s University, he appreciates what this group of Gryphons has achieved, noting that five more players were within decimal points of making the Academic All-Canadian list and that 59 in total averaged over 70 per cent on the year.
“I’m extremely proud of all of our players,” says Coach Sheahan. “It’s been a challenging year and they’ve all had to persevere. Everybody has had different things to deal with during the pandemic, whether it be academic, social, economic, or otherwise. The fact that they’re still chipping away at their university degree, and helping out at home, or helping their friends, rallying around each other, just makes a coach proud.
“We had 19 players achieve 80-plus in a difficult year and that speaks volumes to the quality of people we have on our team and the excellent support structure that Lindsay Williams provides to our student-athletes.”
Receiver and Management Economics and Finance major AJ Chase was one of the 19 Academic All-Canadians. As a Gryphon Football veteran leader, Chase understands the need to balance books and football. It’s not easy. In more normal times, he points out there are small challenges to overcome daily, like being tired from practice and weighing whether to eat some junk food and watch a movie or cooking something healthy and addressing both schoolwork and game film. The combination of mental and physical stress can be overwhelming, but Chase says that if you “appreciate the struggle, it makes the grind much easier.”
This past season, the task was different.
“The message from our coaching staff was to stay healthy, stay active, focus on school, and do the best with what you’ve got,” says Chase.
“Football provides great structure for our lives and to stay on top of academics can be challenging without your regular routine. Having more time on your hands can make it more difficult to get things done because there is no pressure to squeeze in homework and studying through certain time blocks in the day. Since I had only one class that was a scheduled time, I would work on my other classes and do homework whenever I felt like it and my grades reflected that lack of scheduling at the beginning.
“I had to start scheduling time slots throughout the day to allocate to class, studying, training, and working to stay on top of things.”
Among those 19 Academic All-Canadians, six were first-year Gryphons, including heralded receiver recruit Ryan Ogilvie. The Stoney Creek, ON native and Sociology major didn’t get the experience he expected as a rookie player in his first exposure to university football. Ogilvie admits there were times he lacked motivation and he struggled with the idea his first year was essentially taken away from him. Academically, he wasn’t always clear of what was expected of him in his classes.
The issues are understandable. But what’s more telling about student-athletes like Ogilvie is how they addressed the problems. He leaned on the sources around him, like Strength Coach Adam Kania, who posted motivational quotes on the walls of the training facility. Ogilvie reminded himself why he was putting in the work. And with school, he reached out to classmates and used communication to better understand what was required.
“Being a rookie on the U of Guelph Football team during COVID was interesting,” he says. “I only had about a month of practice with the team at the beginning of the year but during that time, I got a good sense of how things ran. I had great first impressions of the whole team and how we responded to the pandemic. I had a lot of support from all of the coaching staff and my teammates through weekly meetings and check-ins, which made me feel like I belonged here.
“That was an integral part of my success.”
Both Chase and Ogilvie believe they are a part of a special family that has contributed to their personal achievements. They can’t wait to play football again, and Ogilvie in particular gets goosebumps when he thinks about taking the field at Alumni Stadium for the first time.
Until then, there is pride in what they accomplished academically this year. Williams appreciates what the players have been able to do not just this season but since she’s been around the program. There is an overall plan, which emphasizes building relationships with these Gryphons that began with the recruiting process and helping them through the transition at university. The weekly check-ins, for both rookies and veteran players, have been critical. That communication can mean all the difference in the world, enabling them to discuss topics in addition to school, like mental health and time management. The logistics can be a challenge when you’re talking about 100 student-athletes, but the benefits have been obvious.
That approximately 20 per cent of them are Academic All-Canadians is incredible.
“I feel honoured to be part of the players’ academic journey,” says Williams. “In terms of my own path, I have realized that there is this whole group of students that through sport, have had a chance at the next level of education. They’ve bought in. Four years ago, people looked at me like ‘What is she doing here?’ It’s evolved from the initial skepticism to me being the first person they call or text when there’s an issue. There is a trust that I am there to help them reach their goals.
“You can’t be a student-athlete if you’re not a student in good standing. That’s our number one priority. But they didn’t have a Cup to compete for this year. Everything was taken away. Our ultimate championship was the academic success we needed to strive for. I’m so proud they rose to the challenge and got a win.”
Gryphon Football Academic All-Canadians
Written by: David DiCenzo
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