By Martin Cleary
The time had come for Alex La Vecchia to play tackle football. He was a little late arriving, but better late than never.
Three years ago at age 16, La Vecchia was cleared to play contact sports for the first time in his young life.
From the time he was five years old, he had been dealing with a painful nerve problem called Vagus. It’s the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system and responsible for the regulation of internal organ function such as digestion, heart rate and respiratory rate plus vasomotor activity and certain reflex actions like coughing, sneezing, swallowing and vomiting.
“I had been diagnosed (with Vagus) and was super sensitive to motion and felt nauseous,” La Vecchia said in a recent phone interview.
Then something totally unexpected happened.
When he wasn’t sick and vomiting because of migraine headaches for a period of four months, he started wondering if his nerve issue had disappeared. He visited his doctor, who determined La Vecchia had grown out of the condition that had halted his desire to play contact sports like football.
“There was a lot of relief,” he added, when he learned Vagus was now in his rear-view mirror. “Two weeks later, I was playing football.”
In two months, he’ll be flying to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia and join the training camp of the Thunderbirds’ football team as a freshman quarterback with a five-year plan for success.
La Vecchia wasted no time entering the crunching world of tackle football. He posted two impressive seasons with the Bel-Air Norsemen U19 team in the National Capital Amateur Football Association, had one summer season with the Myers Riders organization and attended one football camp in Florida with many quality quarterbacks looking for NCAA scholarships.
His stats caught the attention of several U Sports football coaches and UBC head coach Blake Nill had the inside track on recruiting La Vecchia.
“There were five or six universities interested,” he explained. “I decided to go to UBC because one of their coaches was super. Coach Nill was great … super classy. It was very like a D1 (NCAA) school.
“I was most interested in whoever had the most interest in me.”
After the 2022 football season, La Vecchia, 19, travelled to UBC to see the university and talk with Nill, who later offered him a position on the team. In mid-February, La Vecchia, who graduated from St. Pius X High School in 2022, committed to the Thunderbirds.
Ottawa’s Michael O’Connor spent four seasons with the Thunderbirds and Nill from 2015-18.
“Ottawa pivot coming west,” Nill wrote on Twitter. “Alex La Vecchia has the size, athleticism and arm skill, all suggesting a bright future.”
La Vecchia, who stands 6’3″, knows he has a lot to learn about the game and has developed a five-year plan to start his university football career. He only played two seasons with the Bel-Air U19 team, but his poise and talent led him to two impressive individual campaigns.
“My first year (at UBC), I just want to soak it all in. I’ve played three seasons in less than two years. I’m still trying to learn everything. I’m still so new, reading defences and how systems work,” said La Vecchia, who attended Carleton University in 2022-23, but only to study economics for one year as he searched for a home for his football talents.
“I don’t expect to start any games, but I will be ready if my number is called. My plan is hopefully by my second or third year, I’ll become the guy and bring a Vanier Cup to UBC.”
La Vecchia was named the Bel-Air offensive MVP for the 2022 fall NCAFA U19 season, after throwing for more than 2,300 yards and 23 touchdowns in eight regular-season games and one playoff semifinal, which was a 26-24 loss to Ottawa West Knights.
Quickly developing into a starting quarterback, La Vecchia gave a lot of credit to head coach Tony Violante.
“He encouraged me and gave me a chance. He helped me believe in myself,” La Vecchia highlighted.
During his years living with Vagus, there was no medication to take or treatments to ease the medical issue. He simply lived with it and occasionally and cautiously ventured into sport.
“It was super tough,” he recalled. “I was sick … very skinny.”
While his younger brothers played high-level hockey, he opted to get a taste for the game at the house league level in the Ottawa West system.
“I played house league for fun. Everything I did, it (Vagus) was in the back of my head. Every house league hockey game I hesitated to go into the corners. You understand you have it, but sometimes you forget. Sometimes it irritated me.”
La Vecchia got his first taste of football at age 15, when he and a group of his peers formed a flag football team called La Mafia to play in the Nation’s Capital Flag Football League. In their second season, La Vecchia’s strong passing arm led La Mafia to their division title.
When he learned he could play tackle football in 2021, he filled out an application to try out for the Bel-Air Norsemen. One of the questions focused on previous experience. His answer was simply: flag football.
“When I went to my first camp, everyone looked at me and the coaches were doubtful,” said La Vecchia, who wanted to become a U19 quarterback with no tackle football experience.
But La Vecchia’s determination, skills and inspiration from the 20-year NFL career of quarterback Drew Brees allowed him to show well in the battle for the quarterback role. He started the opening game, tossing three touchdown passes in a 28-21 loss, and finished the season with three more starts, nine touchdown passes and five interceptions.
“He got me into football,” offered La Vecchia, who has a Brees’ autographed No. 9 jersey. “I watched him … and liked how he controlled his team (New Orleans, San Diego). That’s how I’ve modelled my game.
“He’s my mentor and why I wear No. 9.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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