Wearing his Duchess Park Condors football team jersey, surrounded by his Condor teammates, Zack Bundock talked about some of the life lessons he learned from coach Matt Pearce on the high school football field and how Pearce used his abilities as a teacher and a father to get his message through to everybody.
“He believed in values that you should play hard, honest and play by the rules, he was just so instilled with sportsmanship – it was alright to knock the other guy over as long as you picked him back up after,” said the 16-year-old Bundock.
“It didn’t matter if was with the Blue Bombers or university or teaching, he always wanted to stick to his values and that’s going to keep with me for the rest of my life. He will be sorely missed.”
Pearce, a science teacher at College Heights secondary school and a former president of the Prince George District Teachers Association, died in the early-morning hours of Jan. 23 of a heart-related incident at age 48, leaving behind his wife Sherrie, daughter Tenley, son Colburn, sister Kirsten and father Ross.
“He was just a great role model for the kids and for the entire community, just one of those unselfish guys who never talked about himself. It was always about the kids and giving back to the community, which rubs off on everybody,” said Tony Reynolds, a teacher at Vanway elementary school who helped Pearce revive high school football in Prince George in the spring of 2007 when they formed a team at Duchess Park for an exhibition game against College Heights.
“If you talk to any of his players, it’s the unconditional love he provided and the guidance he showed for everybody. He was such a great competitor and at the same time he was honest about everything. He was our leader in the teaching community (during their strike in 2011-12) and his positive outlook just kept us going. When he started something you knew he was going to finish it because he educated himself about what was wrong with the system and how to fix it. It’s a great loss for the entire community.”
Born in Cranbrook, April 22, 1967, Pearce moved to Prince George in 1970 and soon emerged as a talented young athlete, following in the footsteps of his older brother Paul and father Ross, an accomplished marathon runner.
Pearce attended Foothills elementary, Lakewood junior secondary and Prince George secondary schools. He excelled in academics as well as athletics, developing a passion for track and field, basketball, football, rugby and later on in his life, golf.
In 1985 he accepted a football scholarship at UBC, following his high-school sweetheart Sherrie, who left for UBC a year earlier on an academic scholarship. Majoring in botany, he played as a fullback for the UBC Thunderbirds for four seasons, earning Western Intercollegiate Football League rookie-of-the-year honours his first season. In 1986 he helped the T-birds win the Vanier Cup national football championship, and they repeated the following season as Vanier Cup finalists.
In his final year at UBC, Pearce was drafted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and played seven seasons in the CFL, a career highlighted by the Bombers’ Grey Cup win in 1990.
While in Winnipeg, he became active in the community representing the team at fundraising events such as charity hockey games and was twice given the Bombers’ Ed Kotowich Good Guy Award for his football abilities, team cameraderie and community work.
“By all accounts, the hockey games were not only terrific community events, but they also served as the only evidence we have that Matt did not excel at every sport he tried,” joked longtime friend Kent Jomha, in his eulogy at Pearce’s memorial service Saturday at Westwood Church.
It was Jomha who convinced Pearce to sign up to play in the Prince George Minor Football Association. Pearce showed up for his first day of football practice at age 12, having never worn his gear before and he was wearing his tailbone protector backwards. His teammates formed a human shield around him so he could drop his pants and put it on the right way, a mistake Jomha confessed he also had made two years earlier at his first football practice.
Like many who got to know Pearce, Jomha was inspired by his friend’s work ethic, which Pearce drew from observing his father Ross and mother Eileen.
“Watching Matt, I was always amazed at how hard he worked at getting better, because he was already so naturally gifted that he could have gotten by on talent alone,” said Jomha. “But that wasn’t Matt’s way. No matter if it was sports or school, Matt was going to work hard. I realized pretty early on that Matt was always giving me an example of how to do things the right way.”
Pearce retired from football in 1995 and realized his lifelong ambition to become a teacher after completing the off-campus Simon Fraser University education program. He was hired to teach science at Duchess Park secondary, where he worked until he accepted a position as the first vice-president of the PGDTA in 2009. He became the district’s president in July 2011 and led local teachers through a tumultuous time of labour strife which boiled over that September with the start of a 10-month job action – the longest province-wide strike in the 93-year history of the B.C. Teachers Federation.
The strike escalated in February 2012 when the province tabled Bill 22 legislation, which made it illegal for teachers to bargain on class size and composition. In March, the province’s 41,000 teachers withdrew from all extracurricular activities and took up picket lines in a three-day walkout, with Pearce leading the protest marches through city streets. He returned to teaching biology at College Heights secondary in September 2013, where he worked until the time of his death alongside his wife, who teaches high school chemistry and math.
Pearce was a fitness buff who loved to golf and he was known to walk the hilly course at Aberdeen Glen for 18 holes twice in the same day, with a two-hour workout in between. Johma wasn’t all that keen about golf, at first, but looked forward to the conversations he and his buddies had with Pearce while they were on the course.
“We talked about sports and politics and just about anything else you can think of,” said Jomha.
“But Matt had three topics which he loved to talk about more than all the others. They were called Sherrie, Tenley and Colburn. Matt spoke of them with love and pride and gratitude. He knew how lucky he was to have a wife who he loved just as much now as he did when they first met, and who was his equal in every way.
“He knew how lucky he was to have children who were so accomplished in academics and athletics, but also in just being good people with the same kind of integrity and strength of character that Matt and Sherrie have. Matt was often busy coaching, or attending union meetings or any of the countless other things he did to try and make our community better. But he was never happier than when he was with his family, and nothing was more important to him.”
Al Erricson, co-coach of the Duchess Park Condors senior boys basketball team along with Pearce, played in the senior men’s league against Pearce, back when Pearce was a teacher at Duchess Park. Erricson, talked about the day he made a bet with Pearce he would outscore him that night and had one of his most productive games, but still came up a few points shy of Pearce’s total.
Said Erricson: “I congratulated him for outscoring me and in a rare moment of athletic humility, Matt said, “Yes, but you guys won the game.’”
Pearce’s sense of humour was never far from the surface, like the time he picked up Sherrie at the airport in Winnipeg following his first Bombers training camp after he found out he’d made the team. Newly-married, they hadn’t seen each for four months and he showed up dressed in a gorilla suit and handed her a bouquet of roses as she stepped into the terminal. He loved to stand out in the crowd, sporting a loud Hawaiian shirt or covering his bald head with an afro wig for the staff picture.
“How does a man slip into so many lives and become a genuine friend, a formidable opponent, a rock-solid teammate, a colleague, a keeper of the rules, a trusted leader, a respectful son, a caring brother, a devoted father, a loving husband?” asked Erricson.
“By making all you do positive, passionate, and sincere. Matt did this. It’s a choice he made to love, live and laugh – always. I believe this is why so many loved Matt.”
The family has created the Matt Pearce Memorial Fund to establish a scholarship for Prince George high school graduates. Donations can be made through the Vancouver Foundation at www.vancouverfoundation.ca.mattpearce.
The annual P.G. Bowl city high school championship in October has been renamed the Matt Pearce Memorial Cup championship.
Photo: Matt Pearce offers a few instructions to his atom football players during a 2009 practice session. Pearce died last week at age 48. - Citizen photo by Brent Braaten