March 6, 2018

Perseverance is more than a word for UNB’s Mitch McCoy

University of New Brunswick

What do you define as perseverance?

To most athletes perseverance is fighting through an injury or being cut from a junior high school team. To Mitch McCoy, a UNB Fredericton Red Bomber receiver and invitee to Wednesday’s CFL Eastern Regional Combine, the word perseverance doesn’t do justice.

Understanding Mitch and what Wednesday’s runs, jump and routes in front of CFL scouts mean to him requires nothing more than an open ear as he warned me before providing background to his story late last week, “You talk to anybody who knows me, they’ll tell you I can talk to a brick wall for an hour.”

Mitch has been playing in the Atlantic Football League and training for seven years in hopes of getting a CFL job opportunity. To many of us that seems difficult and unnecessarily painful.

Learn about Mitch and you’ll realize the daily football preparation grind is both a welcome challenge and a small impediment on his already emotionally well-travelled life.

Mitch grew up in Goose Bay, Labrador to dad Scott and mom Karen. Both parents were in the military as members of the Canadian Air Force.

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Mitch McCoy makes a block during a game in 2017 (UNB)

Mitch’s father Scott was in a four-man Griffon helicopter flying from Goose Bay to Frobisher Bay that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 1996. Flight engineer Sgt. Scott McCoy – a former semi-pro soccer player and multi-sport athlete himself – badly injured his back in the crash but was able to assist the three men on board to the surface as the chopper took on water and swim to shore in the freezing November Atlantic Ocean waves before the group hiked four kilometres to a fuel cache where they sheltered themselves in a tarp covered shack. They used fuel to start a fire to survive the -30 degree Celsius weather for 36 hours until being rescued when search teams spotted flares near Killiniq, Labrador situated in Ungava Bay at the extreme northern tip of Labrador just south of Baffin Island.

An early wake up call to lift weights for a chance to play CFL football doesn’t seem so bad now does it? Perspective.

Mitch’s dad was forced to retire due to the back injury a few years later but the challenges facing the McCoy family were just beginning.

In 2003 Mitch’s mother Karen was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – in her right leg. The cancer had matured to a point where amputation was the only option. Making maters worse the devastating reality still only gave a 30 per cent chance to live, even with aggressive chemotherapy.

Mitch was in fifth grade at the time.

For two years mom was bed ridden. “We all did as much as we could to make her comfortable at home since she didn’t want to be in the hospital,” Mitch told me with a matter of fact tone born from the daily threat as a child of knowing his mother might not be around long enough to enjoy his future accomplishments.

“I was forced to grow up fast at a young age knowing my mother was probably going to die.”

Suddenly playing an Atlantic Football League game in front of a few hundred friends and family instead of in the Vanier Cup for a national television audience doesn’t seem like that much of a let down. Perspective.

In 2006 Karen pulled through and stopped treatment. “She became a very positive and uplifting figure in my life and pushed forward working with hurt and wounded soldiers through.” Soldier On.

Karen McCoy didn’t just survive the cancer and work with others though. She drove herself athletically in ways that no doubt have impacted McCoy’s approach to the dream of playing CFL football. “She wanted to practice as she preached so she trained her tail off to make, eventually start and be captain on the women’s national team until she was 54 years old.”

By this time Mitch and family had already moved from Goose Bay to Oromocto, New Brunswick where Mitch played any sport he could get involved in growing up serving as the captain of his 1,500 student high school’s volleyball, basketball and soccer teams.

Growing up soccer was McCoy’s best option to succeed athletically not because of his dad’s pedigree, but the fact soccer offered him the only outlet for high level competition available in the area.

“Soccer was the best option because it was the highest quality sport available in New Brunswick at the time. I played for team New Brunswick soccer in nationals. Our AAA club team made nationals five years in a row, but I’ve always loved football.”

How does a kid from Oromocto get hooked on football while growing up way too fast in a town void of a college or pro team to devote fandom towards?

“It just felt right.”

McCoy laughed as he expanded on his youngest football memories, “seeing a little guy like Flutie – McCoy is a relatable 6’0 tall and 190 pounds – run around slinging the ball sideline to sideline having fun or watching Cameron Wake in BC outwork everyone made me realize guys don’t always have to take the same path in life to make it to where they want to go. If you work hard, everybody deserves a chance.”

So why couldn’t McCoy chase his dream if he had the work ethic?

“I never lived in an area where I could go watch a game, college or pro. Growing up without a team around it was tough to get excited about the game or learn how to get better. Even in high school there was no team New Brunswick so there was no outlet to be seen by anybody unless I messaged people outside of Atlantic Canada. Getting exposure was impossible.”

McCoy will be hoping to make his football dreams come true at the Eastern Regional Combine on Wednesday (UNB)

In the later years of high school Mitch had to make a choice between his two loves of soccer and football as their seasons both fell in the fall semester. Stick to soccer as the best available option or chase the football dream.

“There was no doubt in my mind the answer was football,” says the young Maritimer who admits staying up past curfew consistently to watch his favourite tandem of Anthony Calvillo and Ben Cahoon play pitch and catch for the Alouettes. An organization that has drafted ten of the nineteen UNB players ever selected.

“It was sad because I loved soccer, but I knew at that moment when I chose football I could pour everything I had into learning and training for football.”

Mitch’s parents approved the move as he says, “they wanted me to chase whatever dream I could think of, no matter how crazy it was.”

In the summer of Grade 12, McCoy attended the University of Maine Black Bears football camp to test his skills. It was his first taste of real football competition.

“There were people from everywhere, New Jersey, Hawaii, Florida, Texas. Nobody knew who I was and nobody cared to learn my name, they just called me Canada.”

Well, ‘Canada’ didn’t just win a participation ribbon, he won camp MVP. “When they said my name ‘Mitch McCoy’ nobody had any idea who I was, then I stood up and everyone yelled ‘CANADA!'”

Maine had interest in the camp’s best player but they understandably needed to see McCoy play some real football with pads on without taking the conversation further. Mitch hired a friend in his senior year to tape his high school games but dislocated his ankle after two games. Maine moved on.

McCoy reached out to various schools including then University of Ottawa Head Coach JP Asselin who took a chance on McCoy.

“I’m so thankful he did. I learned so much about studying the game in that one year in Ottawa I wouldn’t replace that for anything.”

So McCoy went on to catch game winning touchdowns for the Gee-Gee’s and live happily ever after right?


Bit by the American football bug at Maine high school camp, McCoy left Ottawa for Champlain College in Quebec’s CEGEP system in hopes of producing game tape worthy of an NCAA scholarship.

“I can admit now I made the wrong decision to leave Ottawa.”

“My football skills may not be as good as some other people but my athletic ability, my will, and my heart cant be matched. I love learning and I want to go to this combine with an open mind in hopes of earning a training camp invite. There is nothing else that I’ve wanted more in my life. This is it for me.”

Mitch McCoy

While McCoy admits fault in his move hindsight is always 20/20 and he believed then in Ottawa, as he does now, that he has more to offer than was available at the time.

“I had a great camp at Champlain, shook the coaches hands at the end of the week and got a message two weeks later saying that since I only had one year of eligibility left compared to kid who had three or four years left coming out of high school in Quebec they took the chance on those guys and didn’t take me.”

Suddenly McCoy’s football journey appeared to have reached its conclusion. His story was destined to be one of missed opportunities, be they through injury, greed or coaching decision.

Mitch McCoy had no team, game tape or school’s offering financial assistance.

Instead of moping around in a puddle of self defeat, McCoy fought through the adversity to keep his CFL dream alive. Just like dad Scott in that crashed Griffon helicopter off the coast of Labrador or mom Karen laying in a hospital bed, Scott decided to make his own destiny.

He returned to New Brunswick enrolling at UNB Fredericton where he has been training and playing for the Variety reds for five years. At various times schools such as Mount Allison and Acadia came calling but without the offer of financial assistance university wasn’t a viable financial option for Mitch.

Mitch admits the quality of the AFL isn’t that of the AUS or U SPORTS at large but believes the competitive nature of the players enrolled at member schools whether for personal satisfaction or professional aspirations has improved him as a player.

Much like the rest of Atlantic Canada lately with the momentum of a franchise in Halifax, McCoy sees the bigger picture when discussing Maritime football believing that with more organization and exposure comes better quality of prospect and the possibility of AFL teams developing to the point of competing for a Vanier Cup in the AUS.

At 24, McCoy represents the unique challenge facing Atlantic Canadian football players in search of a precedent. McCoy has an appreciation for those who have come before him while realizing the timeline gap of players drafted from UNB after the program was dropped in 1980 before the Red Bombers returned to Atlantic football in 2009.

“Tony Proudfoot is a huge piece to the puzzle at UNB for people like me holding out hope of getting a chance because he did and made the most of it but being from a small area anytime you talk to someone with a professional resume it’s big because we don’t have many of those. The players I look up to now are all recent because of that huge gap between the Proudfoot era and now.”

Regardless of the history lesson McCoy continues to push forwards currently training with Acadia alumni defensive tackle Jake Thomas and ex-Bishop’s QB, 2013 Her Creighton award winner Jordan Heather.

“I’m hungry!” McCoy laughs in that classic Atlantic honesty interjected with a natural light hearted nature.

“I want to show people you don’t have to take the cookie cutter route to make it. I know I’m an underdog going into this thing but if I can hit my testing targets I hope someone will take notice.”

What are those testing targets? “I think somewhere around a 4.6 (second) forty, 35 inches on the vertical jump and 15 reps on bench.” Those numbers would force many an evaluator this Wednesday to turn a head considering McCoy’s 6’0-tall, 190-pound frame.

As for the actual football of the day McCoy admits he needs work, but all he wants is the chance to learn. “I know I can do it. I want to compete and I believe I can be one of the better guys out there. I’m right there, I’m close. I’m going to be a sponge with anything to accepts me.”

McCoy believes he is in the best shape of his life and ready to make the most of his opportunity. “I just wanted one shot to show people what I have and finally I’ve got it. I know I’m untraditional but I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve learned along that journey.

“My football skills may not be as good as some other people but my athletic ability, my will, and my heart cant be matched. I love learning and I want to go to this combine with an open mind in hopes of earning a training camp invite. There is nothing else that I’ve wanted more in my life. This is it for me.”

Perseverance. It’s more than a word for Mitch McCoy this Wednesday.