A CFC SPECIAL: Canada’s Invictus Games flag bearer a veteran of both football and our armed forces

Canada (specifically Toronto) recently played host to the Invictus Games – a week-long Olympic-like competition featuring athletes who were wounded and scarred (both mentally and physically) in peacekeeping missions for their countries. The athletes compete in events such as golf, indoor rowing, and sitting volleyball, among others.

The games were created in 2014 by Prince Harry, who, when speaking at the opening launch, said the games would “demonstrate the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and demonstrate life beyond disability.” 14 nations were invited to the inaugural games; that number increased to 15 in 2016 following a one year hiatus, and then increased again – this time to 17 – for this year’s event.

So you may be asking, “Why is CFC writing a piece about the Invictus Games? While a great concept, what is its relevance to football?”

Good question. Here’s the answer: Canada’s 2017 Invictus Games flag bearer, Ryan Carey, is a five-year veteran of the CFL. He played his University football at Acadia, and he’s also a veteran of our Canadian Armed Forces.

Carey served overseas in Afghanistan from August 2006-March 2007, and played in the CFL from 1994-1998, first with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for two years, then with the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the final three. A defensive back, he registered 57 tackles – including 18 on special teams – four fumble recoveries, and four interceptions over his time in the league according to justsportsstats.com.

He recently spoke with us about his time in the CFL, his experiences in overseas combat, and the honour of being the Invictus Games flag bearer on home soil.

Ryan Carey (credit: Scott Grant, CFL)

As bizarre as it may seem when you first ponder it, Carey says there are a tonne of similarities between the gridiron and the battlefield.

“In both [football and combat] you go in with a game plan but the other team also has a say because they have a game plan as well. Adjustments are made as the game/battle unfolds and individuals step up to make plays in order to win the game,” he said. “I’ve seen individuals dominate games (I watched Matt Dunnigan throw for over 700 yards) and I’ve seen soldiers do things on the battlefield that won us the day.

“And a lot of this comes down to how hard you are willing to work in practice. Will you sacrifice your glory for the good of the team? Are you more interested in being on the football team or being a football player? And I can tell you that great soldiers and great football players work deeply without distractions to master their trade. We watched film on the Taliban and the best football players that I had the privilege of playing with watched tonnes of film on their opponent.”

He was called upon to be the flag bearer for Canada at this year’s Invictus Games, and he jumped at the opportunity, saying, “It was a great opportunity to support the games and the athletes that are taking part in.”

‘Invictus’ is the Latin term for ‘undefeated’ or unconquered. The 5-year CFL veteran says the name ‘Invictus’ carries a lot of weight for the athletes participating in the Games.

“No matter what happens to us, we are the defenders of our country and of democracy. No matter what happens to us we will not allow ourselves to be defeated,” Carey said. “This is not as easy at it sounds; all soldiers have a difficult time leaving the camaraderie of their military family. I think, and I’m only speaking for myself here, that in order to recover one must surrender in some way and let others help you. And let me tell you – this is not easy for a bunch of stubborn, hard charging, self motivated people. 

That recovery process Carey speaks of is a huge part of many soldiers’ lives post-combat. Upon their return they are often lost, without any clear direction of how to go on, perhaps unable to escape the physical and mental wounds their time overseas has subjected them to. The Invictus Games, Carey believes, really helps in allowing these veterans and athletes to begin feeling whole again.

“It gives them a sense of purpose and belonging,” he said. “[T]he feeling that you are not alone and that there are others that are in the same situation and they are bashing on, moving forward, despite the past.”

He believes the Invictus Games have done a terrific job of showcasing the outpouring of support our troops have from not only the citizens of our great country, but from people – including other soldiers – all across the globe.

“There is so much support for this across the country. Our young athletes need to understand that in this life you will face hardship – some of which you will not be prepared for – and during these times, when you feel like giving up or quitting (which, by the way, are very normal emotions during stressful events),” he said. During these times it is your responsibility as a player or soldier to change your mindset. I am not saying that this is easy, it takes practice and perseverance and it also take compassion and kindness from others.

The 46-year-old has also spent a great deal of time coaching the up-and-coming stars in our game. In 1995, he was the Defensive Backs Coach and Special Teams Coordinator for his alma mater Axemen, and then returned to Acadia in 1999 to head up the DB’s and special teams, as well as take on the role of Defensive Coordinator. In 2001, he moved onto minor football in Ottawa, where he was the DB’s Coach and Defensive Coordinator of the Kanata Knights bantam team. He then was out of coaching for 12 years while in the military before joining the St. Bruno Barons minor program in 2013 as their VP of Football Operations, Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator & Special Teams Coordinator.

It is a different era among young players now than it was when he was their age, and even when he played. He admits it took him a little bit of time to adjust.

“When I returned to coaching I was baffled. The passive aggressiveness was embarrassing. Kids would be in full out arguments on our FB page and when they came to practice, if they came to practice, they would act like nothing happened,” he said. “In games we were out worked, out hustled and if the going got tough they quit.”

Something he said that was interesting was that most of his players didn’t struggle with the tactics of the game, but how to put all those together through the course of an entire game.

“As a coach you sometimes have to look beyond the technical aspects of the game. I realized that they did not know how to work hard so I changed my approach. They had no problem with the X’s and O’s. What they did not understand was how hard they had to work through all four quarters to win.

“We did strongman training for the first 15 minutes in circuit fashion then pushed the seven man sled for another 15 minutes. Then we started winning football games.”

Carey also says it’s important to have players practice with the same intensity as game speed; therefore, you’re constantly getting the most out of your players.

“I believe football players need to be subject to team activities where the only thing keeping them going is them. You must subject the individual to game like pressure without all the contact of yesteryear. Then you will also see who your leaders are,” he said. “I am also a big believer in having them practice in this fatigued state as a team, again to mimic game time pressure and fatigue.

“And within this framework you must work them harder and harder.”

Carey sees another comparison between the team side of football and the military – you’re all in this together.

“What happens off the field is as important as what happens on it. In the [Canadian Armed Forces] we represent something bigger than ourselves: our country. Many football programs also represent more than just the team – they represent their community, their school or even their city,” he said.

“We are trying to build better communities through lessons learned through the hardship of playing football and trying to win against others who are trying to win. The teamwork and camaraderie learned on the football field are transferable to any walk of life be it in the classroom, in the community, at work or at home.”

Invictus Games flagbearer Ryan Carey | CTV Montreal News

Photos courtesy of: cflphotoarchive.ca; Ryan Carey

(Thumbnail photo credit: Scott Grant, CFL)



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