HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
As Mason Wilson was playing through his high-level minor hockey career with the Upper Canada Cyclones, there was always a thought in the back of his mind.
He was wondering if there would be a day when he could play football. He always had an interest in the gridiron game and played the touch version while in Grades 7 and 8.
But he knew his U14 and U15 AAA hockey coaches wouldn’t approve of him playing football during the hockey season as they wanted all their players to be as healthy as possible for the games.
After Wilson was selected in the 2019 Central Canada Hockey League bantam draft in the 10th round by Brockville but later cut by the Braves, he was able to broaden his perspective on playing sports.
Two years ago, he took up weightlifting in his basement and later joined a local gym. About the same time, he eyed football and playing with his peers at St. Mark Catholic High School in Manotick.
When the COVID-19 pandemic landed with the crushing feeling of a linebacker sacking a quarterback and cancelled the 2020 National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association season, Wilson continued to pursue his new objective of learning to play tackle football for the first time.
“A bunch of my buddies were on the junior team two years ago that won the (Ottawa Valley Junior High School Football League) title,” he said in a phone interview. “I was influenced by them and we did spring training together in 2020.”
Based on his size (5-11 and 193 pounds), his peers thought he would be suitable as a linebacker. So for many months, he learned that position and trained to become a defensive football player.
When high school football returned this fall, the St. Mark Lions’ coaching staff held a 10-day developmental camp to assess the talents of their players. Just when Wilson thought he might be a linebacker, the coaches diverted him to the offence as a running back.
That was a brilliant move by the coaching staff and Wilson started from scratch to learn a new position. He excelled at his major challenge.
Two months after attending his first training camp and making the St. Mark team, the Grade 12 student/athlete produced some impressive offensive numbers and helped his peers win all four games in a shortened NCSSAA regular season and two playoff games to capture the school’s first tier 1 championship since 2007. St. Mark defeated St. Joseph Jaguars 29-3 in the final.
Wilson’s speed and ability to find open space on a talented offensive unit caught the attention of university recruiters from Mount Allison, Saint Mary’s and Toronto in his first-ever tackle football season.
“I’d like to focus on school,” said Wilson, who has yet to apply for university entrance, but would like to study life and health sciences at either Queen’s or McGill. “But if I’m presented with a (football) opportunity, I’ll take it. I have talked to a few teams and I’ve put in my tapes.”
His video highlight package shows his explosive running as St. Mark played five of its six games against schools ranked second through fourth in the 10-team NCSSAA league.
In his inaugural season, Wilson carried the ball 54 times and gained 729 yards for an average of 13.5 yards per trip. He also scored four touchdowns on a team that averaged 32.6 points a game. Having a varied offence with Mason Boomhower at quarterback and Nicholas Cerquozzi at wide receiver kept the opposition on edge.
“There was definitely a learning curve,” Wilson said about becoming a running back. “It wasn’t too crazy, especially after I had learned to play linebacker before.
“The easiest part of being a running back was my own athletic ability. The weight room definitely helped my ability. I was able to go around a few kids. We had a good O (offensive) line, but the long games pounded the body.”
Wilson added the hardest part was the daily 2½-hour practices at the end of the school day. He also started each day with his own morning gym session.
“When I started as a running back, I had no idea about my abilities (for the position). But I was bigger than most and stronger. I thought that I’d be a fullback and open holes for the others,” he continued.
“Once I got the plays down, I got lots of carries. We had a small playbook, but different variations. The first two games definitely were nerve-wracking. In the game against St. Joe’s, I scored a touchdown in the second quarter, but then nerves got to me and I fumbled on a long run. But with more carries, I learned a better technique for ball security.”
Being a defenceman during his minor hockey career also helped Wilson adapt to playing football.
“Since I was a defenceman, I would look up and see open space. That helped as a running back to find open spaces to run to. Physically, I knew how to hit, but (with football) there was constant stress on the body,” he added.
Winning the NCSSAA senior tier 1 championship is on top of Wilson’s achievement list. Scoring touchdowns and watching others score touchdowns on offence and defence also made his first season memorable.
“The atmosphere on the bench with the guys was awesome,” he explained. “I don’t want to say we called it (winning a championship), but after our first few practices, I knew we had the chemistry and size.”
A second NCSSAA title could be in the making for Wilson in his senior year as St. Mark is in first place in the boys’ tier 1, non-contact hockey league with four wins and two ties in the south division.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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