Heading into the two-game NFC final match-up pitting his Sudbury Spartans opposite the Soo Steelers, defensive lineman Randy Fournier had yet to firm up his post-secondary intentions for that fall.
Sure, the recent graduate of St Charles College had drawn plenty of interest from Canadian schools, with the University of Ottawa Gee Gees emerging as the most likely fallback plan.
But though it was almost unheard of at the time (1977), and certainly quite rare when it came to football lads from northern Ontario, Fournier still had his heart set on heading to the States. In the span of just seven days, thanks in large part to local teacher and football man Ken Naples, his whole world would be turned on its head.
And by the time the following Sunday arrived, mere hours after Fournier and company had hoisted the NFC hardware, the youngest of four children from the Northern Heights subdivision would be sitting on a plane, making his way to join the University of Cincinnati Bearcats - but not before he and Naples had criss-crossed a handful of states and come within a whisker of joining the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
It was a whirlwind adventure that defined much of the next four decades for the future CFLer. It was also a testament to the determination of the now 62 year-old long-time Ottawa resident, who first gained entry to the sport via a stint of flag football while attending St David Catholic Elementary School.
“I was playing receiver,” recalled Fournier, who would slide seamlessly from the fall football season to the winter basketball campaign as a member of the fabled St Charles College Cardinals, adding summer football with the Spartans during his final three years of high-school.
“I was big for my age, but this was before I started to mature and put more weight on,” he added. “I was a big fan of athletes playing more than one sport, becoming multidimensional.” At a time when single sport specialization was seldom discussed, Fournier appeared to strike a near perfect balance between demonstrating a clear commitment to his sport of choice, while allowing for the ancillary benefits of a more varied approach to athletics.
“I was very driven to being the best football player that I could,” stated the self-employed business owner who would make a point of attending high level summer camps at venues such as McMaster University and the like during his time at SCC.
“I started working out when I was probably 14 or so - a lot of guys weren’t into that yet. But I didn’t want to become a muscle-bound gym rat who couldn’t move his feet and had no hand-eye coordination. Basketball, to me, was very good at developing your foot skills, your lateral movements.”
Though his preference was clearly the defensive line - “I would much rather be the hammer than the nail” - Fournier appreciated that perfecting his techniques on both sides of the ball could prove extremely beneficial in the long run.
“At my last summer camp, the Super Instructional Football Camp, you practiced your position in the morning, but in the afternoon, you had to flip to the other side,” he recalled. “You got to see how the other side was trying to defeat you. You were taught the techniques, which in turn advanced your leverage as a defensive player.”
Throw in the mental toughness and attention to detail that was absolutely engrained by the coaches Father Black at St Charles and Sid Forster and Bruce Doran with the Spartans, and one could see the makings of an NCAA talent were there.
The issue, of course, was exposure.
“Ken (Naples) happens to come by a Spartans practice and asked me what I thought of joining him on a trip,” said Fournier. “He had contacts in Cincinnati and Tennessee. I had some game film and took a bus to Toronto right after game one (vs the Steelers). Ken had a big old station wagon with wooden panels and off we go.”
A meeting with future Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach Gerry Faust, in Cincinnati, gives way to an offer from the Bearcats. A visit with legendary Tennessee coach Johnny Majors two days later sees the Vols counter with a scholarship of their own.
Yet it was a middle of the night advice session, whereby Naples suggested that Fournier simply go with his gut (and please stop tossing and turning as the pair were housed in on-campus dormitory bunk beds) opened the door for a flood of local talent to southern Ohio.
Fournier would later be joined by Sudbury natives Kari Yli-Renko and Mike Derks, with Lou Pagan making his way down just after the trend-setter had graduated. But little could have prepared the locals for what they were about to experience.
“Some of the toughest guys that I ever played against were in Sudbury with the Spartans,” said Fournier. “But the thing that separated it was that the NCAA was a business. It was still a lot of fun, but it was a business.”
And while the Spartans, at their best, might draw a couple of thousand people to Queen’s Athletic Field or other venues, that setting is more than slightly dwarfed by the 100,000 plus Florida State Seminole fans that might greet the visiting Bearcats in two of the four years that Fournier played.
“Before the game, fans are almost on top of us, yelling and screaming,” he said. “The captains go out to midfield, do the coin toss and shake hands. As they are walking away, a dude dressed up as a Seminole indian rides to midfield and throws down a spear and the place goes bananas. So one of our captains walks back to the spear and breaks it in half over his knee.”
“Talk about pandemonium.”
His CFL journey would see Fournier enjoy stints with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, Ottawa Rough Riders and British Columbia Lions, from 1981 to 1985. In 1986, a victim of the Canadian-American ratio that the league employs, the Sudbury native would find his way back to the nation’s capital.
“A week later, I started getting calls to go out to Calgary,” said Fournier. “I was flattered for the offer, but I just didn’t feel that I had it any more. Two years after I finished in the CFL, I linked up with Ottawa U and ended up coaching close to thirty years.”
Spending time with the Gee Gees, the Carleton Ravens, the Western Mustangs and Ottawa Sooners, Fournier would look to emulate the very best that he had witnessed along the way. “A lot of people call themselves coaches, but not everyone is a teacher,” he said. “The best coaches are teachers.”
These were the lessons learned well before that fateful road trip. They were core values that date back to a much simpler time.
“I have nothing but fond memories of my football in Sudbury, both in high-school and playing for the Spartans,” said Fournier. “It was great to get in ten to twelve games during the summer and then step right on to the high-school field.”
“For me, this was heaven.”