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For two ex-Gaels, Homecoming comes early this year

October 9, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Homecoming comes early this year for a couple of former Queen’s Golden Gaels football players.

While the banners, tams and paddy wagons won’t officially come out for another week, Aaron Gazendam and Boris Isakov will be revisiting Richardson Stadium Saturday, playing against their old team wearing the uniform of the Toronto Blues.

“Although a lot of the guys I grew up with and played with there have graduated,” Isakov said, “there are still a lot of guys there who I spent a lot of time and have a lot of good memories with.

“It’s definitely going to be exciting to be on the other side of the football.”

Gazendam, the national record-breaking punter from Holy Cross, and Isakov, the slotback whose Queen’s pedigree dates to the national championship season of 2009, are both in graduate school at Toronto.

The Ontario University Athletics nominee for the Russ Jackson Award last year as the player best combining athletics, academics and citizenship, Gazendam is in his first year of medicine. “It’s busy,” he said, “but I’m having a good time.”

Though he’s following in the career footsteps of his mother, Dr. Mary Kate Gazendam, Aaron chose not to take the same academic path, which would have taken him through the medical school at Queen’s.

“It’s a nice change of pace from living in Kingston my whole life,” he said. “Queen’s was fantastic for four years but I think it was a good decision to make a change and come to Toronto, experience the big city for at least four years. There’s also a lot of really great hospitals here.”

Medical studies are demanding, though—starting with 35 hours per week in the classroom—and as much as Gazendam wanted to continue playing football, the decision to do so wasn’t automatic. A receiver and backup kicker at Queen’s, Gazendam found a compromise in aiming to be the Varsity Blues’ punter.

“I definitely wanted to play at least one more year,” he said.  “It seemed like a perfect opportunity. It’s a little bit easier on the body being a punter, as opposed to being a receiver, a little bit less time, (and it allows me) to balance both, because it is a juggling act.”

While Gazendam wanted to get out of his hometown, Isakov, after getting a civil engineering degree at Queen’s, went home.

“The first year we won the Vanier so I never really played,” he said. “The second year I was hurt all year, so I really only got to experience two years of football there. I figured, once it’s gone, it’s gone, so I was looking around for opportunities to continue playing.

“Being from Toronto, raised here, living just on the outside of U of T, I took a shot to see if I could get in to do a masters program and was accepted for that. I’ve been able to live at home, stay close to all my family and continue to play football. It’s been really good.”

Though the Blues, 1-5 with no hope of making the playoffs, have had what Isakov calls a season that “hasn’t really played out the way we all expected it to,” each ex-Gael has had an individual highlight performance.

Isakov had a career-best 10-reception day against Laurier in the Varsity Blues’ first game this year, and his 24 catches this season are both six more than his best year at Queen’s (2012) and 12th best in the league.

“(It’s been) a pretty good year,” said Isakov, who had surgery last year to repair a hernia in his left hamstring. “This the first year in about two years where I can play healthy, with nothing holding me back. It’s been very exciting.”

Gazendam, meanwhile, unleashed the longest punt in the recorded history of Canadian intercollegiate football, a 101-yard kick against the Western Mustangs, in London Sept. 20.

“That was a crazy play,” Gazendam said. “I think I may have hit the jet stream or something. It carried for a while. We actually talked about it all week, being able to kick the field when we had the wind behind us, but it just went over (the return man’s) head and rolled forever on that hard turf at Western.”

Both players profess that this game is like all the others—“I’d love to get a win, but that’s just like every week,” Gazendam said—but it doesn’t take much to get them to admit that returning to Richardson Stadium will be special.

“I’m excited,” Gazendam said. “First time being home in a couple of months, and first time playing on Richardson since last November. I’m excited to see Coach Sheahan, and line up against the guys. A lot of (my old teammates) are gone but there’s still a lot of guys left. I think it should be a fun game.”

Just because the Gaels are 0-5 doesn’t mean that the Varsity Blues, who haven’t beaten Queen’s since a preseason contest in Toronto’s last Vanier Cup season, 1993, are licking their lips at the prospect of ending a losing streak that dates to before some of them were born.

“They’ve had a few tough breaks this season but they’ll still be a good team,” Gazendam said. “People are definitely optimistic but I don’t think anyone’s taking them lightly at all.

“They played (McMaster) hard, they played Western hard. They still have a lot of good players and Coach Sheahan always gets his guys ready to play every week. They’re younger than last year but they’re good athletically and they’re well coached. They’re definitely not to be underestimated.”

The last time Varsity beat Queen’s in a league game, Frank Tindall was coaching the Gaels, Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, Gerald Ford was the U.S. president and Pete Rose had two hits that afternoon for Cincinnati in the National League baseball playoffs. It was Oct. 4, 1975, and Toronto prevailed 32-10 midway through a season that Queen’s finished with a 3-5 record.

“The coaching staff, and especially the older guys, they see this as an opportunity,” Isakov said. “The season hasn’t gone the way we anticipated but because of the fact that U of T hasn’t beaten Queen’s in a long time, a lot of guys feel that if we can get this win, go out there and do what we need to do, it will be bittersweet for our season.”

And defenitely a feather in the cap of an ex-Golden Gael.

“It would be,” Isakov said. “Any game you go into you want to win, so there’s no difference, but after the time that I spent there, it would be nice. I had some of the best memories of my football career there, especially the games against Western, where you have the sellout crowd and you’re getting the full college football experience.

“It’s where I grew up and learned everything and got coached by some great coaches. It shaped me into the player I am now.”

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