By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Feature photo by: Matthew Hamilton
Griffin Shillingford’s football journey is the epitome of patience and perseverance.
The six-foot-one receiver played his community ball with the Crescentwood Grizzlies, before becoming an inaugural member of the Kelvin Clippers junior varsity team in 2011.
The following year, he helped lead the Clippers to a WHSFL AA division title – the school’s first championship since 2007. Individually, he finished his high school career with 43 catches for 638 yards and five majors.
“It was great to be in that program,” he says of his time with Kelvin. “We came up from nothing in junior varsity, to winning and establishing ourselves as a program in three short years, so it was really good to be in that setting.”
Despite a strong high school career, Shillingford didn’t receive any university scholarship offers. He had discussions with Carleton and Queen’s, but nothing came of them. He also attended the Manitoba Bisons spring camp in 2014, but yet again left without a scholarship offer.
“Even though I had a pretty good spring camp and [the Bisons] said they wanted me to come play, they weren’t offering me any scholarship,” he says.
“I kind of felt like without an offer I wasn’t going to get the same type of playing time as some of the other guys.”
Instead of getting down on himself, Shillingford sought out other options in order to keep his football dreams alive. He chose the junior football route, suiting up for the Winnipeg Rifles for the 2014 season.
Even though he didn’t attend spring camp with the team, he was still able to crack the roster. Unfortunately, he broke his ankle halfway through the year and was reduced to the role of cheerleader. Regardless, Shillingford was still grateful for the opportunity to suit up for the Rifles.
“I think it was beneficial for me, because I developed more as a man and grew up a little bit,” he says. “I don’t think I was ready for U SPORTS at the time, so I think playing a year for the Rifles was the right step.”
When the year finished, Shillingford knew he wanted to give U SPORTS another try, but was struggling to find an in. His prayers were answered by JC Hardy, a former U SPORTS player who knew a coach at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University.
After some back-and-forth discussions, Shillingford committed as the Mountie’s final recruit of the 2015 season. Yet again, he wasn’t granted any scholarship money. Instead, he was told to come out and prove himself.
That’s exactly what Shillingford did. He dressed in one game as a rookie and was also named the team’s developmental player of the year.
The following season, optimism was high. Shillingford entered training camp as a starting slotback, but tore his hamstring shortly afterward. He tried to come back a week later and tore it again. The same thing happened two more times during the season, leaving the receiver with immense frustration.
He’d never had any muscular injuries in the past, so he didn’t know how to recover properly. Additionally, Mount Allison only had one trainer that covered all varsity sports.
“I’d go in for treatment and the list would be full. So I never really got to have the right type of treatment,” he says. “And that’s not a knock on Mount Allison, it was just a smaller school and they didn’t have the resources.”
At the end of the 2016 season, Shillingford left the Mounties, as his injury wasn’t getting any better, and he knew the resources available wouldn’t cut it.
Despite a forgetful year, he still grew mentally.
“In a way, [the hamstring injury] helped me age mentally, because I had to mature and understand that though adversity, you’re still going to have to do your thing. You can’t just say, oh I tore a hamstring, or oh I broke a bone, what do I do? You have to get through it in any way that you can, and come back better than you were.
“I would say it definitely took my game back a little bit, because I missed pretty much a whole year of football, but it also gave me an appreciation for the rehab process, and really taking care of my body.”
With his football future up in the air once more, another opportunity from the Rifles came knocking, courtesy of Shillingford’s former Clippers teammate Nathan Dickson.
Dickson had spent a few years in U SPORTS himself, with Alberta. He’d returned home for the 2016 season and enjoyed success with the Rifles.
“I was talking to Nathan and he gave me [head] coach [Geordie] Wilson’s number. Through that I messaged coach Wilson and asked if it would be okay to come out and get some reps,” he says.
Things worked out for the best for Shillingford, as he earned a starting spot on the roster, posting 237 yards and two touchdowns overall.
“It was awesome because I kind of came full circle. I was on the Rifles my first year out of high school and got a taste of junior football before being injured,” he says passionately.
“It was nice to be back and to realize that I could reassert myself, and prove to myself and also to the team that that player that was hurt and couldn’t contribute before, could be something.”
Now entering his final year of junior eligibility, Shillingford is primed to help lead the Rifles offence in 2018. When he graduates, he’ll still have three more years of U SPORTS eligibility as well.
His message to any player coming out of high school that, like himself, wasn’t as highly recruited is quite simple.
“In Winnipeg especially, I think there’s a stigma around playing junior, and that if you don’t go to U SPORTS, you’re not good enough, and I think people are being misled in that way,” he says.
“So I would say get rid of the stigma of junior football in Manitoba or across the prairies, and play as much football as you can.”