LAVAL — He was never supposed to be the leading man, the one capable of effecting a fabled finish on the grandest stage in Canadian university football.
Yet on Saturday, when Brandon Deschamps leads the UBC Thunderbirds into the Vanier Cup national championship game in Laval (10 a.m., Sportsnet Pacific) against the defending CIS champion Montreal Carabins, the workhorse running back with the dark-horse credentials will have a chance to fashion a storybook-ending in the final game of his collegiate career.
The ultimate underdog?
You’re correct if you’re talking about the Thunderbirds team, one which hasn’t played in the showcase game since winning it all in 1997, and one which finished with a 2-6 record a season ago. They’ve re-invented themselves as a 9-2 team riding a seven-game win streak under first-year head coach Blake Nill.
But you’re also correct if you’re talking about Deschamps, a kid who grew up in the hinterland of the game in Prince George, and whose high school career didn’t exactly suggest a future as the bell-cow workhorse on a team attempting to win its first national title in a generation.
UBC Thunderbirds’ Brandon Deschamps hasn’t never weakened the grip on his role as the ‘Birds feature running back. (Ben Nelms, UBC athletics)
So how did the 6-foot, 212-pounder, who rushed 20 times for 128 yards and a touchdown en route to being named MVP of the national semifinal Uteck Bowl last Saturday, ultimately arrive at the pinnacle of the CIS game?
Through a lot of hard work and self-belief, with a dash of comical fortune thrown into the mix.
“Well, I was an offensive lineman when I started out,” Deschamps laughed over the phone after practice earlier this week in Laval, remembering fondly his 10th grade days at Kelly Road Secondary School. “After that I started playing fullback. The only reason I got to go in and be a tailback was that our starting running back didn’t show up one day because he went to a concert. Nazareth came to Prince George and so he went, coach got mad at him and then asked me if I would play tailback. I never gave the job back.”
What’s a good fable without a little Wally Pipp?
Yet there is so much more to the underdog story that doesn’t even include the fact that in his senior year of high school back in 2009, he was the third-leading rusher on a team which lost 47-0 in the opening round of the Subway Bowl playoffs.
“In Grade 12 I wasn’t an all-star,” says Deschamps, who had battled a knee injury for part of the season. “I might have been on some radars, but I wasn’t on the CIS radar by any means.”
Which is to say that when his coaches found a way to get him into the annual Senior Bowl high school showcase game in the early spring of 2010, he was pretty much a complete unknown.
“I just wanted to go there because I thought there was a chance that I might be able to learn from someone,” Deschamps says. “And I wanted to see where I was compared to the best in B.C.”
Turns out he wasn’t too far off.
Former UBC head coach Shawn Olson immediately recognized his potential and offered Deschamps an invitation to Thunderbirds’ spring camp.
“We really thought that against the best of the best, he competed well,” Olson recalls of Deschamps. “He had a lot of intangibles. He was raw but he had a lot of intelligence and you could see Brandon had something. He was a hard-charging runner that wouldn’t not go down easily, and he always pushed the pile. Those kinds of guys usually have a chance to be successful at the college level.”
The intuition was correct, but it still took Deschamps time to process the speed and complexity of the game at the CIS level.
“I can remember my first day of spring camp,” Deschamps chuckles of his leading role in a botched protection scheme. “I can remember having no idea what I was doing, and the next thing I remember, I was on my back with a defensive end staring over top of me. It was pretty crazy for me, but as the weekend went along, I got ahold of things and I grounded myself.”
He was a red-shirt for the 2010 campaign, played a limited role in 2011, but has assumed featured duties since 2012.
And although his career numbers don’t threaten the UBC record of 4,335 career yards held by Vanier Cup-winning running back Glenn Steele (1981-84), his 3,641 rushing yards puts him within the pantheon of program greats. This season, he’s rushed for 1,005 yards and eight scores.
“Deschamps is a tough nut,” begins head coach Blake Nill of the player he schemed so hard to stop the prior three seasons while leading the conference rival Calgary Dinos. “He is one individual on this team that to the rest of the veterans is that leadership guy. He is the face of the program.”
The latter comment speaks volumes about how Deschamps is the mirror image of his 2015 UBC Thunderbirds.
UBC wasn’t supposed to be playing football on the last Saturday of November, just like Deschamps wasn’t ever projected to be lining up in a CIS backfield, let alone for the 44th-and-final time this weekend in the biggest game of his life.
Ask Deschamps what it all means to him, and unwittingly, the guy so appropriately nicknamed Banger by his teammates, sounds like the title character in Rudy, telling his coach at Notre Dame what it would mean for a small-town kid to dress for just one game with the Fighting Irish.
“When you get to this time of the year, it starts to get colder,” Deschamps begins. “That gets me to thinking about where I started. When I run around the field before the games start, I think about all of the Prince George guys I played with. I think about all the guys I’ve played with at UBC, and about the ‘Birds who played before me and will play after me.
“All I can think about is how much I want to make them proud. I will do everything I can to make Prince George proud of me because I know there will be a lot of players back home watching me on Saturday. The stakes are high. But nothing in football is guaranteed. So I will leave everything on the field, and no matter what happens, I will be able to look anyone in the eye and tell them that I gave everything I had.”
Spoken like a true leading man.
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