Twenty-three years had passed since the Lockerby Vikings last hoisted the Copper Cliff Jewellers Trophy, emblematic of high-school senior football supremacy in Sudbury, when Jason Cecchini and Kevin Garbuio first suited up with the team in the fall of 2003.
Three short years later, the Vikes were two time defending city champs - marking the last time the school would lay claim to the banner.
And while many were the key contributors to this successful stint at LCS - the likes of Neil Petrin, Ben Quinn, Jamie Corkal, Brett McKnight, Kyle Tremblay, Ben Hotson, coach Geoff Richer and countless others all come quickly to mind - there is little doubt that the dynamic defensive duo (Cecchini/Garbuio) were at the heart of it all.
When one considers that the era was simply the pinnacle of a stretch of some eight years or so where the tandem was nearly inseparable, it's easy to forget that football was indeed the connection that made it all happen.
"Jason and I started playing together the first year that we were allowed to play in Joe Mac," said Garbuio, a product of the catholic elementary school system, having attended both Corpus Christi and St Francis in his youth. "We played together from grade five or six, right through to grade 13, and then coached together with the Gladiators."
"Both Kevin and I kind of just had a knack for the game," suggested Cecchini, a public board student who had never even met his partner in crime, so to speak, until the pair registered in the Joe MacDonald Youth Football League. "Even in Joe Mac, we just kind of figured things out. It just came naturally."
As young men who enjoyed a degree of multi-sport talent - Cecchini was also a very accomplished wrestler in high-school - football was indeed "the natural".
"My dad was steering me to football, because I was heavier," recalled Garbuio. "Football was just a good sport for heavier kids to have a chance at success. I wasn't successful in hockey or soccer or any of those ones. The five second bursts of energy really fit my nature."
Coinciding with their arrival at the senior level of football in the Sudbury secondary school scene was the advent of summer football in northern Ontario, at least for this particular age bracket. Sure, the first year Northerners would be outscored about a gazillion to one as they cut their teeth against older and larger southern opponents initially - but they were improving.
"As soon as you are out of your area and you start playing against different styles, different speeds, a different caliber, you become better," said Cecchini. And within the SDSSAA ranks, that progress offered tangible results. "In high school, we would care a lot more about the plays and things, in general, because you knew if you did it properly, you would win," added the now 32 year old soon-to-be Port Elgin resident.
"With the Northerners, there was a point where a lot of us had given up hope. No matter what we did, we were going to get crushed by these guys. It was nice to have some closer games against the lesser teams in the league."
For as much as winning in the OVFL (Ontario Varsity Football League) would pose an incredible challenge, the lads were still willing to put in the work. At Lockerby Composite, it paid dividends.
"In grade 11, we lost our last game, a game we needed to win to make the playoffs," recalled Garbuio. "We weren't ready for success - but that was a big off-season for us. It really started coming together. A bunch of us really started to workout, even if we didn't really know what we were doing in the gym."
Making sense of it all, at Lockerby, was head coach Geoff Richer, who now lives in Edmonton and continues to enjoy success on the football front, recently guiding a regional team into the Alberta Summer Games. "I didn't realize it at the time, because you're only a dumb high school kid, right, but after going through that and then coaching on my own, you realize just how much time he put into it - selflessly too, not asking for anything in return," noted Cecchini.
As with most of the better high-school football programs in Sudbury in the past decade or two, championships would be built upon a combination of true life-long football players, athletes like Cecchini, Garbuio, Petrin and such, mixed in with other very athletic lads who may not have been exposed to the game much in their elementary years.
"We just started going around grabbing kids to come out and play, just because they were big," said Garbuio. "One day, Jon Gregoris and Ben Quinn came out, and that was kind of how the recruiting process started. We grew it from 20 kids to 40 in a couple of years."
"On defense, we were really simple," Garbuio added, alluding to the work of both coach Richer, as well as defensive coordinator Ozzie Wilson, at the time. "When I look back and think about it, with a guy like Ben, for instance. With most kids, their first move on the defensive line is to learn a rip and swim."
"He's doing this push-pull, in his first few practices, just because he was so darn powerful. We didn't tell him to do anything other than go straight and take outside leverage on the quarterback. I think he had eight sacks in that final against Notre-Dame (2004)."
"Jon Gregoris would blitz every single play," Garbuio continued. "We were running kind of a 4/4, but it as more of a 5/2, with Jon blitzing. I would play outside, and Jason would play sideline to sideline, because he was so fast."
A 28-12 victory over CND would give way to a tougher 7-6 triumph in the finals a year later, facing the Confederation Chargers in the fall of 2005, with Cecchini and Garbuio now becoming even more multi-dimensional. "Kevin and I were the jumbo package," said Cecchini, with a laugh. "Neil was our feature back, super talented and shifty, but if he needed to bowl someone over, he just didn't have the size."
Cecchini, who was named as game MVP, scored the only Lockerby touchdown on a two-yard run and combined with Garbuio and others to block the Confederation PAT that would have tied the game.
These days, he has limited his gridiron involvement to a flag football league in Kitchener-Waterloo and an annual fundraising tournament in Port Elgin, while Garbuio is currently the head coach of the Father Mercredi Saints in Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
"This is something that I love doing, something that I am struggling without, right now, something I am really proud of," said the Special Ed teacher who has called the northern community home for the past eight years.
"The nature of the population here is that we have people from all across Canada, from all over the world, coming in. We've had some really, really talented kids, a real diversity."
Last fall, the Saints played an independent schedule of six road games, none at home, the closest encounter of which was a five hour drive from Fort Mac. Still, with all of that before them, the memories of Sudbury are never far away.
"Jamie Corkal, Neil, Nick Vrbanac, Pat Flemming - I keep in touch with a lot of those guys," said Garbuio. "Those are the guys I get together with when I come home, typically once a year."
And, of course, there is that timeless connection with Jason Cecchini.
"We were always goofy, always keeping it light," noted the latter. "The group around us would change, but the atmosphere and attitude kind of remained. We laughed every day, with stupid antics in the change-room and stuff. Those are the things that you remember the most."