One was a sponge for coaching advice. One brought joy into every room he entered. And another was so good he often had to be taken off the football field to give the other teams a chance.
On Sunday, Stu Nixon will watch all three of his former players at Winnipeg’s Oak Park High School — Andrew Harris, Nic Demski and Brady Oliveira — represent the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the biggest game in Canadian football.
“The Grey Cup is going to be exciting when your team is in it for sure, right? But when your alumni are all in the game, it’s almost surreal,” Nixon said.
Earlier this week, students at the Charleswood high school packed into the gym for a pep rally ahead of Grey Cup Sunday.
Almost everyone wore blue and gold, and some held signs cheering on the Bombers — including a few oversized cutouts of Harris, Demski and Oliveira’s heads.
“The school was buzzing,” Nixon said.
“There’s three of them from one school. It’s hard to believe. And [the students are] excited about that. They’re a part of that tradition, right?”
WATCH | Oak Park High School students cheer on alumni:
The former football coach, who stepped down from the role a few years ago, already got to watch Harris and Demski win the Grey Cup final in 2019.
Oliveira was injured for that game, though — which means this year’s final marks the first time Nixon will get to watch all three compete in the big game.
A runner, a ‘real joy’ and a record-breaker
The former football coach said he remembers Harris, now a running back for the Bombers, as a dynamic player even as a skinny Grade 10 student.
“He was the best football player in the province his age. Every time you kick the ball to him, he’s going to score a touchdown,” Nixon said.
“Nobody could catch him. And for a skinny kid, he was really heavy to hit.”
But it wasn’t just Harris’s skill that set him apart in high school.
“He was very coachable. He would listen to and do anything you asked him,” Nixon said.
“That’s the difference between [him and] talented kids in high school that you never hear from again: the talented kids that you hear from again is what’s going on inside their head. They don’t allow egos to become a part of it.”
As for what it was like to coach Demski, now a wide receiver for the Winnipeg team, Nixon said one word comes to mind.
“It was a real joy,” he said.
“He just brought joy to every class he was in — just such a happy, fun-loving kid in the gym. His enthusiasm was infectious.”
And remembering coaching running back Oliveira, Nixon said he recalls a player who — while often late to the practice field — worked harder than anyone else off it, from the weight room to the track.
All that training created a player who often had to be taken off the field if the team was crushing their opponent, something Nixon said happened fairly often in the interest of sportsmanship.
The Weekend Morning Show (Manitoba)8:16Oak Park High School cheering on three alumni in the Grey Cup!
“It drove him nuts,” he said.
“He hated coming off. He was a competitor to the bitter end. He just wanted to go and go and go.”
But getting pulled out early from every other game didn’t dull Oliveira’s chances of shattering records while he was on the field, Nixon said.
“He broke almost every running record that there was,” he said.
“Literally, at least half of the games he would have played only two quarters and he still did what he did.”
Preparing for retirement
Nixon is now in his final year as a physical education teacher at Oak Park before retirement.
He said seeing his former players bring home the Grey Cup again — which he’s expecting — would be the perfect way to end his career.
And if there’s one thing he knows about those three players, it’s that they’ll give it their all.
“They were so much better than anybody else that they stepped on the field, but they were never satisfied with their own performance,” he said.
“They always were seeking ways of getting better. They were, like, impatient to become successful.”
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