Mike Labinjo was a homegrown star since day one
Weeks after his sudden death, people still speak about Mike Labinjo, but the focus has been on his tenure with professional football.
Whether it was seeing action for three National Football League teams in one season – Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Miami in 2005 – or three years later, winning a Grey Cup with Calgary, Labinjo and football was inseparable and a winning combination.
But there was far more about Labinjo, who died at the age of 38, that made him a success and a star, with friends, educators, those who happened to meet him for the first time and others who quickly learned about his potential and personality.
He played the violin as a kid, but some claim it was back to the era when Labinjo was a member of a Knights of Columbus house league hockey team and the talk of his Elementary school, all for positive reasons, at Blessed Sacrament in Toronto that sports took over.
Others point to empowerment and those delicate, and convincing, teenage years when he was a student at St. Michael’s College School.
And then, there was his ability to strike a bond when meeting people – those who were able to steer him in the right direction, and ensure he would maximize his potential academically, socially and professionally. His affiliation with Big Brothers, an agency that provides life-changing mentoring experiences, was a huge step forward, and where he met someone special.
“His mother wanted a male leadership figure in his life, and I remember meeting (Labinjo), when he was matched with us at Big Brothers,” recalled Frank Giffen, who took over when his brother, Matt, had a career change to England. “(Labinjo) was about seven years old, and I saw him grow as a person, gain so much confidence through sport – he was like a son.”
GALLERY: Mike Labinjo throughout the years
Owning a unique sense of humor, quiet and reserved in many ways, Labinjo also had a radiant and beaming smile to go along with his creativity, dedication and energy.
“As kids, we were on an all-star minor hockey team and I thought that was his primary sport – and turns out I was wrong,” said Paul Armstrong, who said Labinjo loved basketball.
“We were 11-year olds, he had a passion for so many sports and never wanted to burden others. He had so much talent, was better than others and would never brag about it. (Labinjo) was a special kind of friend and just enjoyed life.”
Labinjo was the kind of guy, with an unassuming charm, who surprised some of his friends by arranging hotel accommodations, transportation passes and free tickets to the 2005 Super Bowl in Jacksonville – a game that saw New England beat Labinjo and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Humble and displaying a positive attitude, Labinjo was a jovial giant – but kind, articulate and compassionate. At St. Michael’s, where he excelled in football helping the team win the 1998 Metro Bowl, he was chosen Athlete of the Year at the school, one dominated by outstanding athletes in many sports. Labinjo (centre), Vernon and friends
“No doubt about it, he was a gifted athlete, his demeanor was special and nothing could rattle him in sports,” said Paul Forbes, former Athletic Director and long-time football coach at St. Mike’s. “Mike was a superb player, but what really stood out for me was that he never criticized anyone or made them feel less important. He was one of the best that I ever coached.”
Joe Vernon, now an attorney in Detroit, met Labinjo at St. Mike’s and became one of his closest friends. Labinjo’s ability to excel impressed Vernon, but that was secondary to his thoughtfulness and caring of others.
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“His first year, grade 9, he was on the Junior squad that won a league title – and people could see him emerging as a superstar and dominant player,” said Vernon.
“He was a running back with us, but his breakout year was in Grade 12 and when we went to Ohio for an exhibition game and got clobbered, (Labinjo) was our only standout and caught the attention of scouts with two 80-yard touchdown runs that looked effortless.”
In the classroom, Labinjo listened, persevered and knew what he wanted – a chance to get to the next step.
With admiration for College Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz, whom he would one day meet, Labinjo chose going to the NCAA over attending, and playing, at a Canadian university.
That would come when Michigan State offered him a chance to study and play football, Labinjo would exchange his offensive shoes and became a brilliant linebacker.
High school teacher Frank Trentadue had no doubt about Labinjo’s superiority on the gridiron, as well as his commitment to a good education.
Labinjo never settled for being average, and showed he was selfless, energetic and loyal.
“He listened, focused and was a good student,” said Trentadue. “He not only knew where he stood, but at a young age, he also knew what he wanted, was selfless, energetic, loyal and determined to be a role model for others.”