By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Image Caption: Chris Larsen during his time with the Westshore Rebels. Photo by Erich Eichhorn
Defensive end/linebacker Chris Larsen will be the first to tell you that his football journey hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest. But he’s battled through the trials and tribulations thrown at him, and come out a better man because of it.
Larsen – a native of Toronto – was a late bloomer to the game, not strapping on the pads until grade nine. He was always interested in playing, but was caught up with other sports.
“I always played football in the schoolyard with my friends and stuff like that, and I guess that’s where I started to get my base skills,” he says.
“After grade eight, when I went off to high school, I went to a school that was well known for their football team, and that’s one of the things that I wanted to do, was join.”
From grades 9-12, Larsen was a versatile weapon for East York Collegiate Institute, as well as his summer team, the Scarborough Thunder of the Ontario Varsity Football League (OVFL).
The six-foot-five, 230-pound product saw action at free safety, linebacker and defensive end, and also suited up on the opposite side of the line as a receiver and quarterback.
In his second year at East York, he helped his squad to a regional championship by hauling in 11 touchdowns, and he was also an OVFL all-star in 2012.
“[Playing on offence] just kind of opened my eyes to how offensive players think,” he says of his well-rounded high school career. “I like to play sort of a mental game, so being able to see how that side of the ball sees your position, I think just helps out a lot.”
Commitment to Guelph
Larsen’s performance on the field caught the eye of most of the top tier teams in the OUA. But it was the Guelph Gryphons who stood out. Their staff had originally started chatting with Larsen after the OVFL all-star game in his grade 10 year, and continued to keep in touch. Larsen appreciated their diligence, as he was going through some personal struggles during high school.
“Ever since grade 10 [Guelph] would always be checking in on me,” Larsen says.
I had a pretty rough time in high school. My dad passed away and just going through that stuff was hard and I was struggling in school. Not a lot of coaches would keep in contact after you tell them your marks are not scholarship-eligible, but every once in a while, the Guelph coaches would check in to see how school was going, and would tell me that they’re still interested.”
Persistence paid off for the Gryphons, as Larsen ultimately chose to commit to Guelph for the 2015 season. But there was still the question of academics, something that the hybrid defensive end/linebacker had struggled with ever since his fathers passing.
“When coaches start to hit you with the questions about your schooling, you go school? I thought you guys wanted me for football. All the reality of that stuff kind of kicked in.”
Larsen was a late admission to Guelph, due to having to shore up some academic issues. But he made it for training camp, impressing the coaches enough at the defensive end position to make the dressing roster as a rookie.
As a team, the Gryphons were able to capture the OUA conference championship, their first since 1996.
“That whole year was pretty surreal, from dressing in games, to learning from the older guys on the team,” Larsen says. “Being able to win the Yates Cup in my first year was an amazing experience as well. All in all in was a good time.”
Unfortunately, off the field, things weren’t going as smoothly. Larsen fell behind in some of his classes and was academically ineligible following his first year.
“Just trying to be able to balance football with class, it’s a big difference from high school, with the course load, and a lot of responsibility for class work on you and not really on the teachers,” he says.
“That was a big change.”
Larsen took some summer classes in order to try and gain his eligibility back for the 2016 season, but missed the standard by 2-3 percent. Instead of getting down on himself, he continued to stay positive on the gridiron.
“In my mindset, I just wanted to make as many practices as possible, play scout team and just make the guys in front of me even better every day.”
Academically, Larsen was doing much better in his second year, but was still a bit short of the eligibility requirements. He took another summer course in order to try and boost his GPA, but fell 0.04 percent shy of the standard required to play. It was at this time that Larsen decided leaving Guelph was likely his best bet.
“In my eyes, I didn’t want to not play another year of football,” he says.
“Dressing in my first year and playing was fun, but knowing I wasn’t playing a lot of time, and second year not playing at all, looking back on it, if I really want to have a set goal of going professional, there’s no footage of me playing enough time, so ultimately that’s why I left.”
After departing university, Larsen set out to find a junior team to play for, in order to get more game footage that he could send to professional scouts.
He saw on social media that a few of his former teammates from Scarborough were heading out west to play for the Westshore Rebels of the British Columbia Football Conference (BCFC). That, coupled with the fact that he’d always wanted to travel to BC, made his decision to commit to the Rebels a natural choice.
Westshore had a number of former U SPORTS players on their roster, and were fresh off a national championship appearance from the year before. They rolled to a 9-1 regular season, before being upset in the conference championship.
Despite the result, Larsen accomplished what he set out to do, which was increase his visibility on the field. Individually, he registered 4.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, an interception and a touchdown.
“I felt like I got snubbed of an all-star vote, but it’s also pretty hard to get a vote with the other guys on the d-line I was playing with,” he says with a chuckle.
As the year started to come to a close, Larsen had a choice to make in terms of where he would play the following year. He knew he wanted to get back to the U SPORTS level in order to finish what he started, and settled on the Canada West conference.
“Me personally, I felt that playing in the OUA again would feel too weird, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out east, so CanWest was my option. As a league, the competition was always strong.”
Before the end of the year, Rebels defensive coordinator Shane Beatty introduced Larsen to Manitoba Bisons head coach Brian Dobie, who was on a trip recruiting multiple members of the Westshore roster. Larsen’s teammates also put in a good word for him, and after watching his film, the Bisons went all in on the Ontario product.
With his commitment, Larsen has a second chance to prove to himself that he has what it takes to thrive both on the field and in the classroom.
“The first thing I want to deal with is school. I want to have over a 70 average and be able to earn my scholarship and my degree,” he says.
“Athletically, I think with the team there already is, there’s a lot of talent, and with the guys who I know, I think there’s something special that could happen for sure.”