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May 19, 2017

O’Leary: Spooner’s road to the pros hard but rewarding

Santiago Bessi/McGill

Qadr Spooner sat in his classroom and ran his hands over the table in front of him. The buzz of the lights above him was never more noticeable, his breath the only thing breaking what felt like an endless silence.

It was late in the school year in 2008. Spooner was 15 years old and nine years away from being the 15th overall pick in the CFL draft. The only thing that would have seemed more unlikely to him as he sat at that desk in Brossard, Que. would be that he’d be making the leap to the pros on the verge of graduating from McGill University. And don’t even try to talk to him at this point about making the switch from the D-line to the O-line. He was still five years away from that conversation.

On this day, the one that his dozen or so classmates had huddled and agreed upon as National Skip Day, Spooner sat alone, the only name checked off on the morning’s attendance. He had already grown into most of the 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds he’s listed at today, already filled up the doorway as he entered a room. That size, he says, was a part of the problem — “When you’re bigger, they want to fight you. It’s like, ‘I want to try him’, you know?” — and some of it’s on him. Bad decisions made, bad company kept. The lights buzzed away. Spooner inhaled and exhaled.


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There were other factors, too. An overworked mom, a dad that blessed him with good genes and less so with a physical presence and support. There are two younger brothers, both who love football as much as he does. He’d take care of them when they were little and the three of them would bike to his practices with the Greenfield Park Packers for bantam football.

There wasn’t a scared-straight epiphany moment for Spooner. It wasn’t seeing friends in the back of police cars, or having an accusatory finger pointed at him when lockers in his high school were broken into, or when word of drugs being sold on campus got to the authorities. The staff at Centennial High School didn’t know exactly who it was, Spooner says, so they’d suspend a group of kids; him and his friends. He bristled in his chair as he thought about how, as the trouble had piled up, he left his school earlier in 2008.

“We want to try to see if we can get Qadr in a better direction,” Spooner says, reciting the proposal that came from his school. “We’re going to send him to an alternate program called ‘Transitions’ and in that program he’ll be focusing on academics. There’ll be a reduced number of students so they can focus on him.”

He landed in that classroom with other similar-aged kids deemed at risk of dropping out.

A voice broke the silence in the classroom that morning. A teacher, Mrs. Harrison, who, if not as lost in thought as Spooner, was at least as hungry. She asked her student if he wanted to go for lunch. She took him to an all-you-can-eat buffet (A wise move, all things considered).

Spooner still marvels at the mountain of shrimp that she put on her plate. He told her she could get up and get more if she wanted. Why get up, she asked him. An unexpected lesson in an unexpected situation. There were many of them for him.

Qadr Spooner was picked 15th overall by the Bombers in the 2017 CFL Draft (Joseph Safakis/McGill)

“Mrs. Harrison taught me that you have to pay extra attention to how you carry yourself and how you walk around and how you dress because it really plays a big role in how you’re going to be perceived,” Spooner says.

“She saw that I was very polite, I had manners, I’d say thank you. I’d do all the things that the other kids in those programs weren’t doing. I didn’t smoke, I played sports, I worked at a young age. Not very many kids were trying to work at 14, 15, 16, working all the time. She really saw those things and I think I kind of connected with her because she was a black teacher, too. She really directed me. She saw my math scores going up and any time that she could, she was saying that this kid shouldn’t be here.”

She was right. Spooner worked hard and what was supposed to be an eight-week program lasted half of that. He went back to Centennial, graduated on time and was able to make it into Vanier College for CEGEP. He tried to track Mrs. Harrison down recently, but didn’t have much luck finding her. He also never got her first name.

“I was too obedient,” he jokes over text. “Never asked.”

It’s a small sampling, but this is his story in a nutshell. He grew up at-risk, but Qadr Spooner had a fire burning inside of him. He just didn’t know how to channel it. Fortunately, there were just enough people around him that saw it and opened up the necessary doors to stoke it.

Jim Gingera laughs now when he hears about Spooner’s success in football, especially as an offensive lineman. He was Spooner’s line coach when he was 13, from midget through bantam. He’d look first at Spooner’s size, then his technique as he played the defensive line.

“He had good feet, he was a giant, but he never wanted to play offensive line and that was the joke, that he’s an offensive lineman,” Gingera says.

Jim Gingera (right) coached Spooner before he made the switch from D-line to O-line (CFL.ca)

Year after year, he’d watch as Spooner would grab O-linemen by the shoulder pads and push them out of the way.

“That’s an offensive lineman to the tee,” Gingera says. “He was always a good football player. He was an o-lineman from the get go.”

Spooner was the last one to know.

“Sometimes kids that age don’t understand the importance of playing on the offensive line. They want to make the tackles and they want their names on the mic,” says Francois LeBlanc, Spooner’s head coach in bantam, who’s now a vice principal at Centennial. When LeBlanc was a high school quarterback, his best O-lineman was Dominic Picard.

A shortage of bodies forced Spooner to the O-line for the Packers’ first game of the season in his second year of midget ball. They faced a powerhouse opponent, in Beauceville. The odds against him, LeBlanc hoped for a respectable loss, under 20 points. Their only hope, he said, was to lean on their newest o-lineman.

“He didn’t like it but he did it and he was a beast,” LeBlanc says. “He has these long arms, so he could bench press guys. He could be having a coffee with one hand and still taking care of his guy.

“So I’m decided. We’re going to run behind Qadr the whole game. Forget the pass. I think we passed the ball three times the whole game. We ended up winning.

“We had the ball I would say for at least 37, 38 minutes of the game. At some point they were lining up two guys in front of Qadr. Even a third linebacker and we were still able to get three, four yards. Every time we came back to the bench, he was still playing D-line…but on the O-line he was coming back with a big smile on his face.

“That game was probably the most impressive performance by an offensive lineman that I’ve seen at any level.”

Spooner would dabble with the O-line a little but he still preferred the defensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, his coaches noticed that Spooner was getting to practices late.

 

Spooner meets with his former coach Francois LeBlanc (left) back at Centennial High School (CFL.ca)

“He had a job at (a restaurant), like a Red Lobster kind of place,” LeBlanc says. “(Qadr says) ‘My manager doesn’t want me to miss those shifts, but we have practice on Thursday night and I have to work, otherwise I’m fired.’ So I went to see his manager to get Qadr an education. We changed his shifts so he was able to come into practice.”

What very few people knew was that the one thing that Spooner liked less than the idea of playing on the O-line as a kid was the threat of poverty. He’d sought out this job on his own. He walked into the place one morning, found the manager and told him he needed work. He’d do anything, he said.

“I was never late, I was always on time. I would beg for more shifts,” Spooner says. “When the guy was making the schedule I was standing behind him trying to get more hours.”

He didn’t know what kind of a future he’d have at that point, but he knew that he’d work just as hard at whatever he did.

“I told myself even if I’m going to make minimum wage, I’m going to have to work twice as many hours as someone else,” he says.

Once the hurdles of grades and graduation were cleared, Peter Chryssomalis jumped at the chance to get Spooner onto his football team at Vanier College. He came to the school in 2010, with some strong advice from LeBlanc.

“If you want Qadr to be successful, make sure he’s in school from 8:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night. Do not let that kid get off campus. Find him a tutor if you can,” LeBlanc says.

Chryssomalis almost immediately introduced Spooner to Helena Bastos, Vanier’s assistant athletic coordinator.

“With Qadr, Coach Pete handed him over to me and said, ‘You’ve got to take care of him,’” she says. “I think Qadr did it all. It was one of those crazy success stories. There are kids doing four classes here who can’t even pass four. No one worked harder. You never saw him hanging around, wasting time. I think he used all his free time to earn extra money or do his homework.”

Helena Bastos (left) and Pete Chryssomalis (right) played a key role in Spooner’s development a Vanier (CFL.ca)

He studied special care counselling, where the course load was eight to nine classes a semester. While playing football. And with a new job. While talking with Chryssomalis, he told him he was in need of money. So Chryssomalis got him a job in maintenance on the Vanier campus.

“I’d be changing the light bulbs, stuff like that.” Spooner says. “A job that paid over minimum wage, I could do it around my football hours. It was really big for me.”

On the field, he was finally sold on the idea of being a full-time O-lineman. By the end of his third year at Vanier he was headed to McGill, where the course load decreased, but his schedule only got busier. He majored in social work and took a full course load again, adjusted to the highest level of football he’d played yet and continued to work through school. He worked security at some clubs, and more specific to his school training and his major, he worked with at-risk youth and with autistic children.

It became a tough and risky juggling act.

“I worked every single night before every single football game, doing security for the last four years,” he says. “I would finish my shift at maybe 3:30, 4, then I’d head to the field for 9 or 11, whenever we had to get to the field and I would play.

“If I was lucky enough that we had an away game I slept on the bus going there. I think that’s one thing that teams may not know about me. When you work all night and you’re on your feet all night you’re a little more sluggish than you should be too.”

Asked why he’d put himself through that, or even how he was able to put himself through that, the answer is simple to Spooner.

“I just hated not having that financial security growing up,” he says. “Now that’s something I always aim for. While I’ve been at McGill, I did security, I do everything, try to get into investing, put my money in the right spots. I’m saving up for the future. TFSAs, RRSPs, I’m very conservative. I do all those things.

“The beginning was rough but when I look back it, when I look at all my commitments, I’m pretty relaxed right now. I paid off my debt, I paid off 27K that I owed to Quebec student loans and bursaries.”

“I’m going to be out there in Winnipeg and I’m only going to have one job. Play football, stretch, take care of my body . . . That’s one of the biggest reliefs, everything is off my chest. I don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

Qadr Spooner on being drafted by the Bombers

Qadr Spooner (right) blocks during the CFL Combine presented by adidas back in March (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

He jokes — maybe half jokes — while walking past stores on Sainte Catherine street that he’s never paid for a t-shirt in his life. Non-football questions about Winnipeg: What he might do there for fun; good places to eat; will his brothers come see him this season? Seem like they’re things he’s just thinking about for the first time. Montreal is a city of 4 million people, and Spooner somehow randomly ran into at least one person in every stop we made, whether we were at Metro stations, actually on a train, at Vanier or looking for somewhere to eat downtown.

They all congratulated him and wished him well. They all asked him when he’s leaving for Winnipeg. They all asked if he was nervous and he told every single person the same thing. He’s excited, he’s psyched. He’s ready to go. He’s looking forward to having one thing to do, finally.

“That’s why I’m feeling so hyped about my season,” he says. “I’m going to be out there in Winnipeg and I’m only going to have one job. Play football, stretch, take care of my body, I won’t have this club stuff anymore. That’s one of the biggest reliefs, everything is off my chest. I don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

He’s spent his entire life as a leader and a protector, growing into the offensive lineman that everyone around him always knew that he was. He’ll do the same as a social worker, protecting and helping kids like him, having an idea of what they’re going through. He’s already talking about the possibilities in Winnipeg in that way, too.

“Everyone kept saying it but I didn’t want to believe it. I am that person. (Playing O-line) does match my personality, those things,” Spooner says. “I like taking care of people. I see what it does. Everyone loves being taken care of.”