Bennett’s Breakdown: Leaders of the League, Leaders in Life

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Toronto Toronto’s Simon Nassar & Western’s Will Finch / Photo credit Martin Bazyl & Samantha Fischer

By Donnovan Bennett – Host and Reporter for Sportsnet360

Follow Donnovan on Twitter:@donnovanbennett

I believe there is no better way to carve out leaders in sportthan having them be part of the rank and file of a collegeteam. No other position in sports embodies the qualities ofleadership than QB. The quarterback has to not only be able to leada team made up of various personalities and abilities; he has toastutely follow a predetermined game plan.

Two of the CIS’s most intriguing quarterbacks illustrate howgreat personal characteristics can help a pivot personally lead afootball team to greatness.

Simon Nassar is much more than his 62% completion rate and 1549yards passing in 2013.

An OUA recruiter told me after recruiting Nassar that “he’s gotthe type of character that you’d feel comfortable with him datingyour daughter and leading your football team out of the tunnel. Hehas the type of charisma that everyone in your complex willgravitate towards.”

What I love about Simon Nassar’s game is the gumption he has tomake the throws that he probably has no business making. He readshigh to low in his progression – always looking to push theenvelope and push the ball down field. Part of that is the factthat in his career he’s often been asked to come off the bench andrally a team that is trailing. But a bigger part of it is becauseas a general rule he tends not to take no for an answer. He dreamsbig and wants the very best for himself and those around him. Hemakes a habit of doing things he has no business doing, at least inother people’s eyes.

Growing up in an under serviced neighbourhood in Torontonicknamed “Jungle” because people didn’t tend to make it out,Nassar was never supposed to be a university student never-mind auniversity athlete. He reminisces fondly about his father teachinghim the value of a dollar. “You earn everything you get in life,”he recalls hearing. With the lessons of frugality and hard worktaken to heart, he admits he’d never dream of being a scholarshipathlete plying his trade in a multi-million dollar complex likeVarsity stadium. “This isn’t a dream come true because it’s farabove my wildest dreams,” Nassar sheepishly reveals as he recountsall of the hard work and sacrifice he’s put in.

As a 250 plus pounder in high school, Nassar was an o-lineman.Despite the fact that he was bullied about his weight as ayoungster, his sense of self gave him enough confidence to pitch tohis coach that he should be playing quarterback after his team’soffence struggled. Given the challenge of slimming down andrefining his skills, Nassar took the challenge head on and workeddutifully towards his goal. Nassar not only became the powerhouseMetro Wildcats starting QB, he eventually led them to achampionship.

His late start at the QB position contributed to him not being asheavily recruited as he should have been. Despite not being on manypeople’s radar, he landed at U of T but had some heavilyrecruited QB’s in front of him. Even his signing with Toronto wasseen to be an aside to Toronto landing coveted recruit JustinBabin, his Wildcats receiver. When the more “prototypical QB’s”Toronto played struggled, Nassar was constantly called on to bailthe Blues out of the mess the men above him on the depth chart hadcreated. It’s a dynamic Nassar is used to, both personally andbecause he admired his idol – Doug Flutie – doing the samesort of thing. No longer does he have to play the role of DougFlutie to Richard Quittenton’s Rob Johnson.

I’ve said before, in preparation for Varsity Blues broadcasts,that the offence responds when Nassar is in the game. Instead ofhaving him try and kick start the offence to a comeback late, whynot have him start the campaign? Well, after biding his time overthe last 3 years, he now has that chance as he was named the team’sstarter coming into fall training camp.

The other players on the offence aren’t the only ones that aregoing to benefit from his newfound position. In the offseasonNassar, in anticipation of being a fixture for the Varsity Blues,reached out to manager of events and sports information Mary BethChalloner – asking her to help him create “Simon’s squad.”The initiative will allow players and families of his former MetroWildcats program to be VIP guests at Varsity Blues home games. Forthese families – many of whom may not be able to affordtickets – the gift is far more than 3 hours of free football. Thehope is access to the field and the locker room post game willserve as a sense of inspiration for the kids who are in the shoesNassar once wore. Being able to see and touch a success story thatcame from the same community they did should service notice thatthey can use academics and athletics to earn themselves a fantasticpost-secondary experience. When he fellowships with these kidsafter games, who better to deliver the message of “bullied toballer” than the man leading the once picked on Varsity Blues?

Mirroring Nassar’s personal transformation the VarsityBlues have gone from doormat to potential contender for the lastplayoff spot in the OUA this year. No member of Toronto’s team hasplayed postseason football and the man nobody wanted may lead themthere. Nassar wants to leave a real legacy. Long after peopleremember if Toronto finished in the top 6 in the OUA in 2014, theSimon’s squad participants will remember the opportunity his hardwork provided. If just one of them goes on to garner a scholarship,Nassar is partially responsible. The dream is big but yet again,Nassar is using his humble opportunity to lift others up.

Will Finch is much more than his OUA record breaking 3047 yardspassing in 2014 and 21 TD passes.

Yet the pursuit of continual records drives the conversationwhen his name is brought up.

What I love about Will Finch’s game is his anticipation and hispatience – two skills that are hard to simultaneously perfect, evenfor a seasoned QB never mind a second year full time starter. A bigstaple in the Western offence is the deep sideline route, acomeback along the sidelines. If the ball is hung up or poorlyplaced, a fast breaking defender is going the other way for 6points. The route takes timing, precision and trust since the ballhas to be out of the QB’s hand before the receiver makes hisbreak. It is that same QB to receiver trust that allows Finch to bepatient in the pocket. With players all around him Finch’smost impressive characteristic is that he unflinchingly stands tallin the pocket, eyes fixed on his read progression. He never bringshis eye level down and stares at the rush, never gets happy feetand alters his throwing mechanics. Standing tall on his tippy toeswith great in pocket posture, he allows his receivers everymillisecond to get open before he vacates or gets hit. It’shis trust in his skill group that affords him his personalsuccess.

Therefore it makes sense that his only personal goal is theultimate team success. The two are tied hand in hand. As everyoneelse is debating what type of week by week numbers he’ll haveto put up to break the CIS single season passing number, Finch has“no idea to be honest” what the records are and admitshe doesn’t think much about it. It’s been long expected WillFinch would go on to do great things. He’s long been preordained asthe next Mike Faulds, who was anointed as a youngster as the nextJesse Palmer, who was long thought to be the next Russ Jackson. Itseems every generation there is a quarterback who Canadian footballenthusiasts believe can be the next Canadian quarterback to play inthe CFL. Will Finch is the current prodigy so all-Canadian awardsand even a Hec Crighton would be perceived as par for the courseand, quite frankly, unsurprising. The penalty of his earlygreatness is having such a high bar to reach.

The bar he sets for himself isn’t exactly low. Asked whata successful season would be he responds “anything short of aVanier Cup would be a disappointment. That’s my mindset and that’sthe mindset of the entire team.” A repeat Yates Cup victory is nota goal, it’s an expectation. As long as Finch is healthy theMustangs are going to be heavy favourites in every game they playuntil they potentially face the Can West or RSEQ champion in theVanier Cup. With that outside expectation, the pressure could becrippling, but not for Finch. He’s circled the rivalry Queen’s gameon his calendar, but it’s a means to an end. The only way he’ll behappy is if his season ends with a victory.

No use asking a rival OUA scout about Western’s starting QB, asall I’d receive is superlatives. Instead I asked a coach on a CFLstaff who is heavily involved in the scouting of Canadian talent,what his opinion is of Finch. He was dead pan in his assessment-“There is no question the kid can make CFL throws. Heck, I’ve seenhim make a couple NFL throws. The question is can he make CFLthrows consistently and against CFL calibre defenders. Every onceand awhile he’ll hit a spell where he goes 1/4 or 3/9. At our levelthat’s the difference in winning and losing. But he’s got some timeto get that straightened out.”

It’s often forgotten that Finch has 2-3 years left as acollegiate athlete, 2-3 years of growth, maturation and likelyimprovement. Finch does have spells where he gets in a rut and yethe still finished 2013 completing 69% of his passes. The prospectthat he could still get appreciably better is scary, which is whyit’s interesting to watch him work up close. It’s impressiveto see the way he goes about his business – his attention todetail, his fixation with seeking out new ways to improve hiscraft. It’s a borderline obsession with being the best. Thepatience he demonstrates in the pocket is not exhibited off thefield, yet the anticipation of something much greater and the razorsharp focus on his goals parallels the way he plays to a tee. It’sVanier or bust for Finch in the short term. A CFL career is thesuccession plan for Finch in the long term.

Two different quarterbacks, two different upbringings, twodifferent stages of their careers, two different short term goals,and probably two vastly different futures ahead. Both, however, theunequivocal leaders of their teams and the players that need to bethe most valuable if their teams have any chance to besuccessful.

Football by its very nature is a quantitative sport. It’s 10yards to make a first down, you get 3 downs to do so, and you arejudged on wins and losses – weighed, measured, and tested as soonas you report to camp. However, the qualitative side of the sportis what makes it special. Both young men playing the same position,in the same conference, born in the same province yet havedifferent definitions of personal success. Yet all define personalsuccess based on the level of success by the group.

Despite what happens on the field – they’re bothwinners in the game of life; however, they lifted weights, ranstairs, and watched film this summer to win on thefield because football is their life. They grimaced in thespring so they can smile in the fall. Let the gamesbegin.

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