Through five success-laden years at St Charles College, under the tutelage of coach Chris Bartolucci, Falconbridge native Brian Cluff learned the ways of football.
His continued development in the sport would see Cluff establish a record that stands to this day, earning a starting assignment with the Guelph Gryphons for no less than fifty games with a powerhouse program that captured the national championship in his third year at the school.
Though drafted by the Toronto Argonauts, Cluff managed secured employment as a teacher within just a few years, launching a commitment as a part-time coach at his university alma mater that now spans more than three decades.
Yes, Brian Cluff is quite well equipped to offer some insight as to the ways in which the gridiron gathering of young men differs from the team environment that he enjoyed growing up playing both hockey and baseball, and various other sports.
"It is partly that collection of everyone having to do their small job, whatever that job is, and to do it to the best of their ability," said Cluff. "Everyone has to win their one on one battle. But I also think what sets it apart is that it is so inclusive. There is a position for everyone, whether you're fast, tall, big or small."
"You have linemen, running backs, receivers. You have a place for everyone, for every athletic ability. And football is unique in that you practice so much more than you play," added Cluff. "You have to put so much time and effort into preparation and planning and the practice phase - I think that galvanizes the participants."
"I think it's those aspects, all coming together, that help in making it a special sport."
Long before the creation of the Joe MacDonald Youth Football League, the first taste of secondary schooling also typically opened the door to the gridiron dreams of local youth. "We didn't have the opportunity to play minor football, it didn't exist," recalled Cluff. "My first experience was in grade nine, playing junior football."
"Nobody had a head start in grade nine, we were all on the same page."
City championships at the home of the Cardinals were common place as Cluff and long-time friend Mike Fabiilli anchored a defensive unit that also signalled the first taste of his desire to coach, somewhere down the road, for the future Vanier Cup champion.
"We had Chris Bartolucci as a coach and he had such a great connection with his players, was such a good motivator," said Cluff. "He inspired me. He was my mentor - I wanted to be like that guy. Having those types of coaches influenced me to want to get into coaching and maybe give back a little bit to a sport that I really enjoyed."
Still, Cluff's playing days would initially take precedence, as the talented defensive end found himself investigating a variety of options as his high-school graduation neared. "I knew that I wanted to play university football," he said. "Some coaches would make a visit to your school, speak to your coach, and then speak to some of the seniors who had the ability to play at the next level. That's what happened for us."
"I looked at McGill, Queen's, Western, Laurier, but my older brother was at Guelph," Cluff continued. "They had a professional coach, Tom Dimitroff, and a really good program - that was a big draw."
"It was going places and that was attractive."
Making a seamless transition to the post-secondary ranks, Cluff earned a starting nod on the defensive line at Guelph in his freshman year, an assignment that he would not relinquish over the course of five highlight filled seasons with the Gryphons.
"There is a bit of luck, but there is also the preparation, the training," said Cluff, addressing the keys to his ability to remain healthy and productive for a stretch that has seldom been paralleled. "My position certainly helped. On the defensive side, you're hopefully doing the hitting instead of being hit."
Still, for the purposes of pursuing a career in the CFL, Cluff would also be groomed as an offensive lineman, one of the more favourable non-import positions in a league that featured strict Canadian/American roster ratios at the time. Working his way on to the Argonauts' practice roster, but no further, the northern Ontario lineman decided that it was time to re-assess.
"I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to tryout," said Cluff. "It was at that point that I decided that I enjoyed football so much that I wanted to get involved in coaching. I had some unbelievable coaches that I was blessed to have been associated with."
Supplementing his Bachelor of Arts degree with a year of teachers college studies at Mount Allison University, all while doing part-time coaching with both the Gryphons and the Mounties, Cluff would settle down as an elementary teacher, initially, in Brampton, before excelling for more than twenty years at Guelph Collegiate & Vocational Institute.
With his OUA crew making no less than ten appearances in the Yates Cup in thirty years, earning provincial bragging rights four times, Cluff has witnessed an interesting metamorphosis in the modus operandi required to succeed in the university football environment. "One of the biggest differences is simply the resources that we have at our disposal now," he said.
"Turf grass fields, giving us the ability to practice in early spring and late fall much more efficiently. Or technology, the amount of film and quality of the film, and therefore the quality of the feedback that you can give, the learnings from the film. There are larger coaching staffs and more full-time coaches."
"It's just more professional than it was initially, and it's the student-athletes that are the benefactors of all that."
As for working with the millennials that now dot the standard U Sports football roster, Cluff believes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. "To me, there's more similarities than there may be differences in the student-athletes," he noted. "You spend more time with the university athletes now than you did in the late eighties."
"I think you get to know the athletes quicker, develop stronger relationships."
"There is something special about giving the players that I coach the chance to experience a little of what I experienced, and make it their own."
For his is a football experience that Brian Cluff has always truly appreciated.