Small town boasts big football talent

Four players from Salmon Arm are on the UBC Thunderbirds’ roster: Jordan Grieve, Brent Borthistle, Jeff Burt and AJ Miller.

Hitting the turf: Salmon Arm’s Jordan Grieve

Hitting the turf: Salmon Arm’s Jordan Grieve

A phone call to Salmon Arm’s Jordan Grieve in Vancouver regarding his great season with the UBC Thunderbirds ended up in interviews with two other Salmon Arm football players.

Not because Grieve supplied their phone numbers, but because they were in the room when the Observer called.

Such is the nature of Salmon Arm’s unprecedented presence on the Vancouver team.

Four players from Salmon Arm grace the Thunderbirds’ roster: Grieve, along with Brent Borthistle, Jeff Burt and AJ Miller.

Grieve was just named a second-team All-Canadian by CIS, Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Being a part of the all-star team means Grieve has been recognized as one of the best at his position in Canada.

He’ll be graduating from UBC in the spring with a commerce degree majoring in real estate, but has one more year of eligibility with the Thunderbirds – if he chooses to use it. He hasn’t decided yet and plans to talk it over with his parents during Christmas break.

“I think the end goal is to try and play in the CFL, whatever I can do to get there. If coming back next year is the best option for that, then I’ll see what I can do.”

The ultimate would be to play for the Lions.

“I’d say B.C. would be the dream, where I live – that would be awesome.”

Grieve spent the 2007 season with the Thunderbirds as a redshirt quarterback, the position he’d played in Salmon Arm since he was 13. In 2008 he switched to receiver, and has been more than impressive.

“I’m happier with the change, I think it was a good decision for me. Being a quarterback gives you the knowledge you need to understand offensive… The switch put me up to that level and helped my development.”

Grieve praises the minor football program in Salmon Arm.

“It was always really supportive, the coaches were always trying to get us looks at the provincial level. Coach Ellis and Coach Neid were both very supportive of development.”

His advice for young athletes is to work hard.

“That’s the one thing everyone can control, not everyone is blessed with extraordinary talent. It’s something you can do every day and if you do that, you often find yourself in a position to be successful.”

For Salmon Arm’s Brent Borthistle, he came back to play this season after a brutal injury in his second year sustained from a vicious hit on Oct. 23, 2009 – that date is ingrained in his brain. A defender dove at the side of his knee, popping it out from the side. He was taken away by ambulance after doctors first treated him for the unbelievable pain, then snapped his knee back.

The recovery was long, difficult and lonely, particularly when he was told by doctors he would never play football again. The psychological uncertainty about his knee has been one of the toughest aspects to overcome.

“People say, ‘how’s the knee doing? how’s the knee doing?’ I think the psychological part is the big part of it.”

He’s been understandably nervous a couple of times, but is successfully overcoming it.

“I’m doing really well. I think coming back I was a little shaky in August and September, but playing football every day and staying working with physio, about halfway through the season I started to tighten up. I ended up playing the last four or five games.”

He was pleased to be part of this season’s playoff run, and his goals around football have changed over the past two years.

“I think when you first get here, the goal of every small-town Canadian kid is you want to go pro. After an injury like that, I had a really big shift. You know that maybe football isn’t the be-all and end-all. One play and that could be it,” he says, noting that football is allowing him to get a bachelor of arts degree, something he’s very grateful for.

“If I play a little football after university, that would be great too.”

Entrance into UBC isn’t a walk in the park simply because you’re a football player. The former Salmon Arm students say they needed at least an 80 per cent average in high school to be admitted.

Salmon Arm’s Jeff Burt, who is roommates with Jordan Grieve, notes that a problem for student athletes can be the big commitment.

“Football 30 to 40 hours per week, and you have to do that on top of your classes.”

Burt will be graduating in April with a degree in business, focusing on finance.

Burt and Grieve share similar backgrounds. Both played soccer and then football together in Salmon Arm starting when they were 12.

This was a tough year for Burt, heading into the season plagued with injuries that made practising difficult.

“On top of that, when I was finally getting back to practising in August in training camp, I broke my ankle and my finger.”

That put him out for six weeks, making it difficult to come back in game shape. At the same time, the first-year who had taken his place was doing pretty well.

“So I just ended up playing special teams, and backing up and coaching.”

While it was disappointing, he was pleased to see the Thunderbirds do so well.

Burt believes the team’s fortunes turned around with coaching changes two years ago.

And he, too, is undecided about next year.

“Right now I’m still on a long road to recovery. I don’t know if I’ll be ready to come back next year.”

AJ Miller is the newest Salmon Arm addition to the Thunderbirds’ roster. This was his second year with the team but his first getting playing time.

“It’s a little hard to prove yourself, with all these guys who’ve played against each other, they’ve been in the same league throughout… The minute you let up, they say you’re just kind of a small-town boy.”

Injuries interfered with Miller’s first year.

“I had a broken foot last year. I came in this year pretty much a rookie. I’m pretty happy with what I was able to accomplish this year with the lack of development last year.”

Miller had the perhaps unfortunate position of being back-up for Grieve, which meant a lot of pressure to perform.

“When you have somebody who works so hard, not only on the physical part of the game but the mental part. He (Grieve) has the best understanding of anyone on the team of what we’re trying to do. He’s someone I definitely look up to.”

Miller is working on a degree in arts, majoring in English, with a plan to teach.

He is unusual in that he started playing in Grade 11, when his then-basketball coach Rob Neid suggested he give football a try.

“I had never touched a football before then.”

For now, he’s continuing to learn as a member of the Thunderbirds.

“It’s great looking up to the people like Jordan Grieve… It’s my opportunity to learn and I’ll get my chance later on.”