One of Orillia’s football stars from yesteryear has transitioned into a new role - coaching local youth and giving an opportunity to overlooked players.
Nick Vennard grew up playing soccer, but his size and physical strength suggested that he might find a better fit as a football player.
When he was 10-years-old, the Orillia native made the trip down to Barrie to join the Huronia Stallions where he learned to play multiple positions. He found his groove at defensive tackle.
Vennard spent his first three years of high school at Orillia District Collegiate & Vocational Institute (ODCVI) where he joined the school football program and immediately took on a leadership role.
“It was very different. The Stallions were a rep program, so it was a bit of a transition from people who are there for the love of the sport to people who are trying football for the first time,” Vennard explained.
Being one of the few players with experience, Vennard was named defensive captain during the first team meeting in his Grade 9 year.
"I was in charge of calling plays for the defence, so I needed to make sure that the players knew where to be when I called a play. It was almost like an administrative role, keeping my teammates in line,” Vennard explained.
During Vennard’s time at ODCVI, the team had little success, only winning a handful of games.
During his Grade 11 year, the school did not run a football program, leaving Vennard with a tough decision to leave his friends and classmates behind to continue the pursuit of his football career. For Grade 12, Vennard moved over to Park Street Collegiate Institute, where he was named defensive line captain.
Park Street was coming off a successful campaign where they won the Georgian Bay Secondary School Association championship.
In Vennard’s first year with the Trojans, the team was playing a high level of competitive football and had a chance to repeat as the league champions.
“It was a rush. It was one of the most exciting things going for me during that time,” Vennard said.
Unfortunately, the Trojans fell short of repeating, losing in the championship game. However, Vennard began to draw interest from university scouts.
“I spoke to scouts from Guelph, Toronto, York, and others. I also went to a University of Toronto training camp,” Vennard recalls.
However, Vennard ended up landing at the University of Waterloo - at his parents’ insistence.
“They both had graduated from Waterloo, so they wanted me to give it a chance,” Vennard explained.
During a campus tour, Vennard was lured into the football office for a meeting with the coaching staff.
He was offered a scholarship on the spot - an offer he couldn’t refuse, especially because he was planning on taking management engineering and Waterloo was one of the top schools in Canada who offered the program at the time.
Once Vennard arrived at training camp, he quickly realized the intensity of the game from high school to university was going to be turned up a few notches.
“It was a huge transition. The level of play was completely different. In high school they didn’t have cuts, where in university they have cuts in the middle of training camp,” Vennard remembers.
The university football program had high expectations for the Park Street graduate, and benchmarks he had to reach if he wanted to continue receiving a scholarship.
“They wanted me to be able to bench press 275 pounds, squat 315, and be able to run about a 5.5-second 40-yard dash,” Vennard said.
“Coming out of high school, that seemed like a crazy amount to be able to do. There was a lot of work and preparation I had to do to hit those goals.”
During Vennard’s three years at Waterloo, the program was in a rebuilding phase, and wins were hard to come by.
Vennard’s body began to deteriorate after playing through a dislocated and partially broken knee cap since Grade 10. On top of that, he suffered at least one concussion that he knows of.
His football playing career was over.
“I was never going to make the National Football League or the Canadian Football League, so the next logical progression was to get into coaching,” Vennard said.
After arriving back home from school, the 26-year-old got involved with the Orillia Secondary School football program, not only coaching during the season, but also working with players during the offseason to get them prepared for the next season ahead.
“I feel like it’s my duty to give back. The number of great coaches I’ve had growing up is just amazing, so if I can give even a portion of that to the kids coming up in the program I would be happy to do so,” Vennard said.
Vennard knows the importance of having a coach who was once in the shoes of the current players.
“My favourite coaches were always the young men who grew up in the programs who came back to help. It’s a different energy you get from those types of coaches and there’s a different type of respect that the players often give to those coaches; the players relate better,” he explained.
Vennard also knows how important it is for former players and local volunteers to step up and help the coaching staff.
“The teachers are often overworked and underappreciated so any help I can give them, I think, goes a long way,” he said.
Having Vennard’s knowledge, experience, and mentorship over the past few years has made a big difference for the Nighthawks players, says senior boys football captain Jamie Lepage.
“He was my No. 1 role model growing up in high school football, pretty much every main thing I’ve learned is through him,” he said.
Lepage also says Vennard was good at working with some of the less skilled position players, and helped build their confidence.
“Coaches never paid much attention to me because I was always bigger and was never fast or agile, but Nick kind of likes the bigger hard-hitting kids, so I feel like he put more effort into coaching me.”