Sports

Nastasiuk went from gangly teen to CFLer 0

DAVE DAWSON

Beginning today, and then running every Saturday, the Examiner is profiling the nominees for induction into the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame, along with nominees for athlete and coach of the year. We begin today with Paul Nastasiuk.

When Paul Nastasiuk, a gangly teen, tried out for the first time for the Innisdale Invaders football team, he was unceremoniously cut -- along with about 100 others.

"I was a new kid; I had come from the old St. Joe's so nobody knew me and I was pretty shy back then," conceded Nastasiuk. "I knew a lot of other people were cut, so it wasn't a huge deal. I wasn't the kind to give up or quit."

So, when football tryouts rolled around the following fall, Nastasiuk was one of the first to sign up, looking to impress coaches Dave Mitchinson and Jim Brady. He did just that, cracking the lineup of a fledgling Invaders team that would win just one game that year.

"It was a new program that they were building," said Nastasiuk, the team's tailback and part-time punter.

Over the next three gridiron seasons, Nastasiuk became a go-to guy as the Invaders program developed into a winner. He would cap his third and final year with a strong season -- a win shy of a Georgian Bay title -- and win the school's coveted athlete of the year award.

It proved to be a stepping stone for Nastasiuk, who went on to Wilfrid Laurier University where, as a rookie, he had an unforgettable season.

The teen who was cut just years before helped the Golden Hawks to a stellar 6-1 season. But the team's success paled in comparison to Nastasiuk's individual achievements, as the newcomer won the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) rookie-of-the year awards. He was also named a second-team OUA all-star.

"I really have to thank Dave Mitchinson and Jim Brady; they hooked me up with the right people to get me to Laurier," Nastasiuk said. "They were great coaches, and I learned a lot at Innisdale."

At Laurier, Nastasiuk also learned a lot from legendary Canadian football hall of famer, Dave "Tuffy" Knight, the coach of the purple and gold that year. Looking back, Nastasiuk said the jump from high school to university was a quantum leap.

"I remember looking around the change-room and there were guys with full beards; they were huge," said Nastasiuk, who might have weighed 180 pounds soaking wet. "I wouldn't say I was intimidated, but it was an eye-opener."

Nastasiuk certainly didn't appear over-matched -- especially when a big break turned the spotlight on him. "That first year, I was slated to be the back-up wide receiver and I was fourth or fifth on the depth chart at tailback," recalled Nastasiuk. "But our starting tailback got injured and they needed someone with sure hands who could take the pitch-out because that was the type of offence we used then.

"I had fairly good hands," he understated "and I was fast, so they turned to me. I was in the right spot at the right time and I took advantage."

In his first game, he ran the ball for almost 150 yards. In the ensuing games, he would enjoy a pair of 200-plus yard conquests and score a pair of touchdowns during a magical season in Waterloo. Even then, Nastasiuk did not start thinking about a career in football.

"I was there to get an education; I wasn't thinking about playing football professionally," he said.

That would soon change, however. As Nastasiuk matured into a sure-handed, fleet-footed key to the team's success, CFL scouts started to take notice.

In his third year, he was invited to the CFL combine for draft-eligible players, where he impressed CFL scouts. He was later selected in the first round -- ninth overall -- by the B. C. Lions.

"From what people were saying, I was expecting to maybe go late in the second or in the third round, so that was totally unexpected," Nastasiuk said.

After two strong seasons with the Lions -- where coach Don Matthews and GM Adam Rita loved his sure hands and speed -- he was released when there was a regime change. He went to Ottawa in the equalization draft and then went back to the Lions before being released during an ownership crisis.

He was back helping out his alma mater in Waterloo when he got a call from Matthews, back at a CFL team's helm -- this time with the Argos.

That was 1991, when the CFL's flagship franchise had just been purchased by Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy.

"That was an amazing year," Nastasiuk said.

The Argos went 13-5-0 and earned a home playoff contest against Winnipeg -- with a berth in the Grey Cup on the line. In that contest, a 42-3 Argos romp, Nastasiuk entered the CFL's record books, with an incredible five special team tackles.

"That was the first time the dome had ever sold out for football," Nastasiuk said. "That was just an incredible atmosphere. You know, I had been flirting with the idea of going to teacher's college when I got the call from Don Matthews. So, I looked at this as sort of my last kick at the can."

That kick at the can ended with a Grey Cup -- a 36-21 win over Calgary.

"As a kid, I watched the Grey Cup on TV, so to be there and to win a Grey Cup was phenomenal," he said. "That year in Toronto was definitely the most fun; it was close to home, we were winning... it was just great."

And now the Grey Cup winner, former OUA and CIS rookie of the year, has been nominated to become a member of the prestigious Barrie Sports Hall of Fame.

"It's quite an honour to be nominated," Nastasiuk said. "The hall of fame has an impressive list of athletes, so to be considered in the same breath as them is an honour."

But he is the first to admit that he doesn't dwell in the past.

"My kids joke that those are the old days," said Nastasiuk, who is now a teacher at St. Michael The Archangel School, where he teaches Grade 8.

These days, he has also turned to coaching. In years past, he has coached numerous teams at his school and last year helmed the flag football, basketball and track teams.

This winter, he will also be the head coach of the 'AAA' minor bantam hockey team.

"I don't play a lot of sports any more, but coaching keeps the competitive juices flowing; I really enjoy it," he said.

And he admits to understanding the Innisdale football coaches who cut him many years ago.

"I know that I've cut a kid who tried out for our flag football team who went on shine at high school," Nastasiuk said, with a laugh. "But I tell kids that I was cut, I was released twice, I was traded twice -- and that's OK. It happens.

"It's what you do in the face of that that counts."

This Saturday:Brittany Gray.

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Paul Nastasiuk

A glance at Barrie Sports Hall of Fame nominee Paul Nastasiuk:

Paul Nastasiuk was born in Barrie in 1963 and started playing competitive football in Grade 10 at Innisdale Secondary School.

He went on to play with Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks. In his first year he won OUA and CIS rookie of the year award and was named OUA second-team all star.

In 1986, he was selected by the CFL's B. C. Lions in the first round (9th overall) where he played for two seasons before being selected by the Ottawa Rough Riders in the equalization draft. He was traded to the Toronto Argos where he won the 1991 Grey Cup and set a CFL record for most special team tackles in a playoff game with five in a 42-3 romp of Winnipeg at SkyDome.


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