By David Song, May 4, 2021—
Nov. 2, 2019 is a day that Nick Statz will never forget.
He stood alongside his fellow Calgary Dinos inside McMahon Stadium that evening, watching Manitoba Bisons quarterback Des Catellier set up in pistol formation. Moments earlier, Catellier had let fly a desperate Hail Mary pass, one that somehow caromed off defenders into the hands of Bisons receiver Trysten Dyce. The unlikely touchdown made the score 47–46, and with zeros on the clock, Manitoba was poised to force overtime by kicking an extra point.
Instead, Bisons head coach Brian Dobie opted for the gutsier play, signalling a two-point convert attempt to win the game outright. Statz and his defensive teammates took the field once more, staring at one final chance to preserve Calgary’s playoff hopes.
Catellier dropped back and looked right, targeting Dyce on the quick slant. But Dinos linebacker Grant McDonald was parked in the throwing lane, forcing Catellier to aim slightly behind his intended receiver. Dyce could not adjust to the ball as it escaped his clutches and in that moment, Statz’s hands were true. The fifth-year defensive back caught the interception and sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
“Grant was in a good position to make it a tough throw,” Statz remembered. “The receiver running one way, the ball coming the opposite way, it’s a way harder catch than you might think watching the film. Obviously, I was just in a lucky spot to pick up the scraps of the tip.”
Statz isn’t ready to call himself Malcolm Butler just yet, but he made arguably the single most important play of the Dinos’ 2019 postseason run. Three weeks after his dramatic interception, Calgary vanquished the Montreal Carabins 27–13 in Quebec City to win the fifth Vanier Cup in program history.
Following the triumphant end of his college career, Statz signed with the Calgary Stampeders — the team that chose him in the sixth round of the 2019 Canadian Football League Draft. Although COVID-19 has delayed his professional journey, the Dinos alum is rolling with the punches.
“At the end of the day, everyone’s in the same boat,” said Statz, who turns 25 on the 9th of May. “COVID kind of threw people for a loop, but we’ve got to just move forward from where we are”.
Having said that, Statz is also grateful for where he came from and he fondly looks back on the experiences which led to the realization of a childhood dream.
A homegrown product, Statz was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. He has a twin brother, Aaron, and an older brother, A.J., who is roughly one year his senior. Growing up, football was something that the trio always had in common.
“We were the classic kids who would, like, go to the field and call our buddies to come over,” Statz recalled. “Even just the three of us would go in the yard and beat up on each other just for fun, but it’s because we enjoyed it.”
Statz began participating in organized football at nine years of age — he and his brothers cut their teeth with the Calgary Northwest Mavericks Football Program until the end of grade 11. They branched out in junior high, with varying levels of involvement in wrestling, basketball and soccer, but the gridiron remained their true passion.
All three Statz brothers attended Notre Dame, a northeast Calgary high school reminiscent of Indiana’s Fighting Irish when it comes to football prowess. Statz went undefeated throughout the entirety of his high school career, winning three city championships and two provincial titles along the way. He and his brothers were also heavily involved with Notre Dame’s track and field program, twice winning provincials in the 4×100 metre relay.
As teenagers, Nick and Aaron Statz established themselves as undersized but hardworking defensive backs, while A.J. played on the other side of the ball as a wide receiver. One might assume that Nick and Aaron had a tendency to gang up on their brother, but in truth, there was plenty of sibling rivalry to go around.
“Honestly, we were always playing a version of football, so the rivalry was between all of us,” Statz said.
By his 18th birthday, Statz had done just about everything he could to invest in his football future. He juggled high school football in the fall with Mavericks competition in the spring and Notre Dame’s program — which he describes as a “miniature university” — provided many valuable experiences. Nonetheless, the Statz brothers were not heavily recruited coming out of high school, and A.J. concluded his own career playing junior football with the Calgary Colts.
Nick and Aaron, however, knew they wanted to go to university — regardless of their chances at making a varsity team. After some brief talks with the University of Saskatchewan fell through, their high school coach helped them arrange an interview with former Dinos head coach Blake Nill.
“It was such a different process than it is now,” Statz said about he and his brother’s experience with recruiting. “We had one meeting with Coach Nill, and then a few months later, he just messaged us [asking when we would sign]. It was kind of like, ‘oh, I guess I’ll sign.’”
In the fall of 2014, Nick and Aaron walked onto the Dinos roster with no scholarships and very little fanfare. Nick redshirted his first year and Aaron chose not to, a decision that would ultimately impact their football lives together. The Statz brothers went in with realistic expectations — they would work hard, keep up in school, hold each other accountable and try to become starters by year three or four.
They did not expect to undergo a coaching change after their freshman season.
On Dec. 8, 2014, the University of Calgary announced Nill’s resignation. Nill had helmed the Dinos for nine years at that point, compiling a 53–19 regular season record. From 2008 to 2013, his team had captured six straight Canada West titles, reaching the Vanier Cup national championship game in three of those years.
Nill’s departure came as a surprise to many, including a number of upper-year players who felt frustrated and blindsided by the news. Statz, however, admits that he hadn’t been a Dino long enough to have any strong feelings on the subject.
“I didn’t really have a huge personal relationship with Coach Nill at the time,” Statz said. “He’s obviously a great coach, and I do appreciate him taking a chance on me and my brother when we were just these little DBs, these 5’10”, 160-lb kids.”
The following February, Wayne Harris assumed the head coaching position. Harris, who once played linebacker for both the Dinos and Stampeders, had served as defensive coordinator during the last four years of Nill’s tenure. He was beloved and respected by his athletes, and Calgary put together an undefeated regular season in his first year at the helm.
Yet, that same season ended in disappointment once the Dinos ran into a familiar face. Nill, who has coached at the University of British Columbia since leaving Calgary, led his Thunderbirds to upset the Dinos 34–26 in the 2015 Hardy Cup game. Calgary took 17 penalties for 145 yards that day and could only watch as the underdog Thunderbirds ended up winning the Vanier Cup over Montreal.
“When you’re part of a team that’s really strong and you think you’re going to win it all, when you lose, it kind of just reminds you that anything can happen in sports,” said Statz. “You can have the best team on paper, but playoffs are playoffs. If you don’t show up to play your best game, teams are going to take advantage of mistakes.”
The Dinos have been formidable throughout Statz’s varsity career, holding an overall record of 53–12 over the last six seasons. Each year, they’ve boasted All-Star talent in multiple positions and an experienced coaching staff led by Harris. But had Statz expected the road to be as smooth as it was for him at Notre Dame, he would have been disappointed.
In 2016, Calgary made it all the way to the national championship game against Laval, but heartbreak struck again when starting quarterback Jimmy Underdahl was injured in the first quarter. Despite a very good effort from backup Adam Sinagra and seven team sacks — two from Statz — Calgary was unable to score what would have been a winning touchdown in the final two minutes of the game. The perennially powerful Rouge et Or escaped with a 31–26 victory and their ninth Vanier Cup.
Throughout the mid-2010s, unlikely plays and wild momentum changes have come to define the Dinos playoff experience. Sometimes, things went their way, as was the case with Niko DiFonte’s 2017 Hardy Cup field goal. Down by two points with zeros on the clock, again facing British Columbia, DiFonte split the uprights from 59 yards out to send the Thunderbirds home.
But the very next week, an equally improbable play led to a crushing Mitchell Bowl setback. Calgary’s Deane Leonard muffed a fourth-quarter punt and the ball bounced directly towards Laval’s Gabriel Ouellet, who returned the fumble for a quick touchdown. Laval ended Calgary’s dreams for the second year in a row as they prevailed 35–23.
2018 was Aaron Statz’s final year of eligibility. Aaron’s decision not to redshirt his freshman campaign proved significant as the Dinos again sputtered facing an underdog after a perfect regular season. This time, it was the University of Saskatchewan Huskies who played spoiler, handing Calgary a bitter 43–18 Hardy Cup loss on home turf. Aaron was not eligible to return to the Dinos the year afterward — the year they finally broke through.
“Not a lot of people can play with their siblings, let alone a twin brother,” said Statz. In 2018, he and Aaron were joined by Tyson and Jalen Philpot, another pair of twins on Calgary’s roster.
“It’s someone who thinks exactly like you. They approach sports the exact same way that you do. Maybe things didn’t turn out exactly the way [Aaron] would have liked, but we got to play so many years together, which is obviously a blessing in itself. He’s happy that I managed to get a Vanier Cup, but obviously it’s a bittersweet feeling.”
Ultimately, the Dinos would not be denied. A week after Statz’s heroics against Manitoba, they exacted revenge on Saskatchewan by disposing of the Huskies 29–4 in the Hardy Cup contest. Next, Calgary defeated the McMaster Marauders 30–17 in the Mitchell Bowl, earning one more shot at U Sports football’s greatest prize.
Most every Dino would have relished a rematch with their old nemesis, the Laval Rouge et Or. However, Laval had fallen to Montreal in the RSEQ title game that year, setting Calgary up with a new dance partner. Despite playing for the national championship on Laval’s home soil, the Dinos felt the love as many of the 8,376 fans in attendance supported them over the Carabins.
“It’s kind of like we were the home team because Laval really doesn’t like Montreal,” Statz said. “They were cheering for us, and I’m so blessed to end my university career with a win. To see Coach Harris and all the other coaches, guys who have been part of the team for so long, they got a chance to become Vanier Cup champions as well. It was just a really great experience.”
Having become a starter during his second year of eligibility, Statz began to make himself known to CFL scouts. In 2018, the Calgarian was also invited to play in the U Sports Valero East West Bowl — not to be confused with the Key & Peele comedy skit of the same name — alongside Dinos teammates Jeshrun Antwi and Hunter Karl.
The chance to showcase his skills in Canadian football’s annual top prospects game helped Statz realize that playing professional football was more than just a pipe dream for him. Although a hamstring injury hindered his performance at the 2019 Western Regional Combine, he had shown enough potential to attract a few suitors.
A few days before the draft, the Calgary Stampeders called Statz and expressed their intent to choose him in one of the later rounds. They delivered on their promise by making Statz the 55th overall selection of the 2019 CFL Draft. It was a good day for Dinos all around. The Montreal Alouettes called Antwi’s name seven picks before Statz came off the board, while the Edmonton Football Team made Karl their seventh-round choice — 59th overall.
“I would have played for any team, but at the end of the day, I was super lucky that Calgary took me,” Statz said. “Being a hometown kid, I obviously wanted to stay here as long as I could.”
By wiping out last year’s season, COVID-19 has forced players around the CFL to make business decisions about their futures. A number of them, including Tyrell Sutton, Adrian Tracy, C.J. Gable, James Franklin and Riley Jones, have chosen for various reasons to hang up their cleats. Fortunately for Statz, he is young and doesn’t have a family to support, which enables him to adjust to the situation. In fact, the pandemic provided him with a stroke of serendipity.
Having completed a kinesiology major before his fifth year as a Dino, Statz committed to a two-year after-degree in education. By delaying his professional debut, COVID-19 allowed him to finish said after-degree on time, eliminating the need for him to take a leave of absence. Statz enjoyed his eight-week practicum, teaching high school Physical Education at Central Memorial High School earlier this year and finds teaching to be a rewarding profession.
Even so, Statz knows that he will regret it if he doesn’t give pro football an honest effort. It will take time along with blood, sweat and tears, but the 5’10”, 175-lb defender wants to prove to himself and others that he can play at the CFL level. At the end of the day, his brother Aaron is always there for some extra motivation.
“Sometimes, you’re down on yourself a little bit, and Aaron’s like: ‘dude, I would trade positions with you. Someone out there would kill for your spot,’” Statz said. “Obviously seeing my twin brother who doesn’t have the same opportunity that I have, it’s more of a motivating factor to work hard and be the best I can so that at least one of us can say we made it.”