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High school football powers built, coaches Kelly, Kudaba return to set of That ’70s Show at SFU

By Howard Tsunamura, The Province – April 8, 2015

BURNABY — As the Simon Fraser Clan football team went through its practices in advance of the 1972 season, a freshman prospect was given reps at a number of spots along the offensive line, including centre.

It was on those occasions that the big-boned rookie, a kid named Tom Kudaba, would snap the ball to the team’s starting quarterback, a cerebral senior named Denis Kelly.

While their paths would diverge following that campaign, their careers remained in so many ways parallel, often times converging on the same field as rival coaches of powerhouse high school programs.

But now, 43 years after their single season together, they have been reunited at the very place they first met.

Kudaba and Kelly. Two men in their 60s, each set to retire in June from their professions as public school teachers. Two men set to trade in their passion for coaching at the high school level for the opportunity to close out their careers as position coaches in the same university program that served as the launching point for their lives.

“I was just up there for a few weeks of spring football,” said Kudaba, 61, the former B.C. Lions’ offensive lineman who since 1999 has co-coached the senior varsity at Port Coquitlam’s Terry Fox Secondary, including B.C. titles in 2006 and 2008, the latter against Kelly’s Abbotsford-based W.J. Mouat Hawks. “What impressed me was the staff that (new head coach) Kelly Bates has put together. It’s people whose life it is to coach, and it’s a lot of eager young coaches who want it to be their career. There’s all of that, and there’s Denis and me, who can offer a lot of grey matter.”

Yes, pun intended.

B.C. high school football’s loss is clearly the Clan’s gain. And one veteran high school coach who has learned at the knees of both can’t underestimate the impact the pair have had at all levels of the game.

“I think they are two of the best coaches this province has ever had,” remarked New Westminster Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji, who played junior football with the Vancouver Meralomas under Kudaba in the late 1980s, and has long admired the offensive flair Kelly has brought to the gridiron. “I have picked their brains on how they run their programs. They are legends of the game.”

Legends, yes. And caretakers, too.

Kelly, 64, whose back-up at the pivot spot in 1972 was none other than the legendary Lui Passaglia, launched the football program at W.J. Mouat in 1987 and led the Hawks to three provincial titles (1992, 2002, 2005) over 28 consecutive seasons. His teams played in nine Triple A Subway Bowl finals.

“I think the timing is right,” said Kelly, who came to SFU in 1968 and was on the roster for one game under the program’s first-ever coach, the late and legendary Lorne Davies. “I thought about it long and hard and eventually you have to make a change. You can’t go on forever.”

Yet as change comes for both men, their lifelong involvement in the sport in B.C. has made the transition smooth and illustrated just how small the world can be.

Five of Kudaba’s years spent with the B.C. Lions saw him manning the offensive line in front of the Clan’s new offensive co-ordinator, ex-Leos’ quarterback Joe Paopao.

And Kelly, a Vancouver College grad, will be Paopao’s offensive assistant, working mainly with the quarterbacks, but also the running backs and receivers.

“It’s been a good, long journey,” Kelly said.

Added Kudaba, who seemed to be speaking for both men “Coaching and teaching, I have always put them in the same sentence. To me, they are synonyms for one another.”

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