Running back and kick returner Rhys Rusby dominated the football field when he starred for two local high schools a few years ago.
No official stats are tracked in the Simcoe County Athletic Association, but Rusby estmates he rushed for 8,070 yards and scored about 85 touchdowns in three years of playing at OD/Park and Orillia Secondary School.
He also had an impressive final high-school season with Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School, where he scored 11 majors and rushed for about 1,500 yards.
Before Rusby even got to high school, there was a lot of hype surrounding the young prospect, remembers long-time OSS football coach Nathan Box.
“Before he even played, we used to do a little camp before the season started and I had kids telling me 'You have to get this guy on the team. He is so fast,'” Box recalls.
“I had everybody keep telling me he was the fastest 12-year-old in Ontario.”
When Rusby arrived at OD/Park, Box had to strategize on how he was going to use the rare talent.
“How do we harness this, how do we get this going on the field? We basically tailored our entire offence around him getting the ball,” Box said.
It didn’t take long for Box to realize that the hype that surrounded Rusby was real.
“In Grade 9, he was probably the fastest player on any team in this whole county. Basically, every time he touched the ball, he was a threat to score,” Box said.
“He was absolutely dominant. Almost every punt return was a guaranteed touchdown.”
Box has been coaching since 2003 and says he has never coached a player as fast as Rusby. But there were some things holding Rusby back from completely blowing past the competition.
“If Rhys was 6’2" there would have been American schools looking at him,” Box said.
Despite Rusby’s lack of size for football - he is 5'9" in height and weighs about 180 pounds - he made up for it in different areas, says Box.
“Rhys isn’t a big kid, but he played a lot bigger than his size. He was a tough kid.”
Before Rusby began playing high school football in Orillia, he got started in the Ontario Football Conference with the Huronia Stallions.
“That was actually my first year ever of organized football. My dad thought it would be a good sport for me to try with how fast I was, and toughness runs in my family, so it seemed like a good fit,” Rusby said.
Rusby’s dominance in the game didn’t take long to kick into gear.
“In my first game, I walked out with five touchdowns and had about 400 rushing yards,” Rusby remembers.
Rusby says he finished that season with 3,000 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns in eight games, which is unheard of for a 14-year old playing at that level.
Off the field, Rusby had some troubles in his home life and at school, which affected his play. That led to Rusby pursuing a life in football outside of a post-secondary school program.
The now 20-year-old Rusby says he has taken his last two years off from school to focus mainly on football and is playing in his second year in the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) for the Niagara Raiders who are an affiliate team of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League (CFL).
“I was going through a training camp in the Durham region and they introduced me to the CJFL, mainly because I struggled with school,” Rusby explains.
“I really didn’t have an easy time with school, so I was looking for a league where I could just play football and go pro and not have to worry about school while working a normal life.”
When Rusby arrived in the CJFL, he was not the starter at running back or the star player that he was in Orillia. The Raiders started him out returning kicks and punts; he received very limited snaps at running back.
“It was frustrating at first because I’ve always been a starter since day one,” he said. “Sitting behind someone was hard, but it definitely was worth the wait.”
In Rusby’s first CJFL season, he fielded 22 kick returns for 558 yards, and worked his way up to his desired role as starting running back for the 2019 campaign.
“This is an opportunity for me to show what I;ve got,” Rusby said.
Rusby says he has around 300 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 75 carries this season, and has returned 24 kickoffs for around 550 yards.
Rusby’s goal is to build off his success in the CJFL and earn himself a chance to play at the pro level.
“There are a lot of ways I could go from here. I’m hoping for a successful CFL career. I’m looking for an opportunity to get drafted or get invited to the combine,” Rusby said.
Although Rusby’s goals are the bright lights and big stage of the CFL, he still looks back from time to time on his high school days and his life in Orillia.
“I miss a lot of things about Orillia and playing high school football. I miss the home games, I miss my teammates and playing with the boys I grew up with,” said Rusby.
“The touchdowns, the yards, all of that was awesome but what I’ve loved most in my football career is the memories that were created with my friends,” Rusby said.
Rusby says he needs one more season of CJFL eligibility to be invited to the CFL combine.
Box admits he is surprised to hear that Rusby is still running towards his dreams.
“I’m shocked that he is still in football and pursuing it. If you haven’t played after high school in college or university, it's hard to keep playing,” said Box, who had a strong collegiate football career as a linebacker at Queen’s University.
While surprised, Box said he is happy to hear that Rusby is still playing, and has seen players overcome obstacles before, and turn into stars.
“The talent was definitely there. If his goal is to get to the CFL returning punts, there have been small guys who have made it before like Pinball Clemons and Gizmo Williams,” Box said.