By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large
WELLAND – East meets West in Sunday’s Grey Cup game and for two participants, the road to the pinnacle of Canadian football just happened to pass through Welland.
Johnny Augustine of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Chris Van Zeyl of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are the two players. In honing their skills earlier in life, they share a common background: playing high school football, although at different times, at Notre Dame College School, Welland.
“Johnny played running back for ND for four seasons,” recalled Marnie Welch-Swayze who came to know Augustine during his high school days when he helped paint her house. She couldn’t be sure, but thought the two met around 2010.
“He is not afraid of hard work! I used to call him my kid but he has grown into a terrific man. I am proud of him.” She now thinks of herself as Augustine’s “adopted grandmother.”
Augustine, 26, came up from Florida when his parents moved here, according to Welch-Swayze. She remembers him as a multi-talented athlete: he has his black belt in karate and was a good track athlete. But he was determined to play football.
Augustine was recruited by the University of Guelph where he was a star running back on Guelph’s Yates Cup-winning team. He joined the Blue Bombers last year.
Welch-Swayze said they kept in touch over the years. Augustine called her after last Sunday’s game when the Blue Bombers defeated Saskatchewan Roughriders 20-13 to earn a spot in the Grey Cup game.
“He called me again on Monday, he was so excited.”
Offensive tackle Van Zeyl, a Pelham native, was named the league’s best offensive lineman during the CFL awards banquet just last night.
The 36-year-old former Irish standout came to the Tiger-Cats right after being cut by his former team, Toronto Argonauts. Van Zeyl was on two Grey Cup teams with the Argos, 2012 and 2017. He was a CFL All-Star twice and CFL East Division All-Star five times.
In December, 2017 Van Zeyl visited his former high school and St. Kevin church, bringing the coveted Grey Cup with him to both stops. He starred in an assembly at the school and met associate pastor Rev. Jim Mulligan CSC, a family friend and long-time Argos fan, and others at the church. Van Zeyl’s mother, Betty, regularly attends morning Mass there.
Over lunch at the Rex yesterday, I chatted with now-retired ND teacher Paul Turner about both students. He remembers them well and spoke highly of them.
Augustine was described as “solid” and “he always had a smile on his face.” Of Van Zeyl, Turner commented: “He was a kid who was so conscientious. He helped others whenever he could, he had a kind heart.”
Turner did not have either in his classes over the years but came to know them through school activities. For example, both were part of the school’s social climate committee, he said, where among other roles, they mentored younger students and worked on developing a positive, inclusive environment.
Turner said he will be at a Grey Cup party with friends, and cheering for both former ND students, when those opportunities arise