Biggest catch of all

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

An exclamation mark punctuated one of the finest careers in Canadian university football last night.

Western Mustangs wide receiver Andy Fantuz, the most prolific pass catcher the college game has seen, walked away from the national awards gala with the Hec Crighton Trophy.

The trophy recognizes the Canadian Interuniversity Sport player of the year. It's named after Hec Crighton, a teacher, coach, referee and author of the CIS rule book.

Fitting, since Fantuz authored the best numbers ever by a wide receiver during his run with the Mustangs.

"This is the best honour you can get," he said last night. "I'm really proud to represent myself, my team, my school and my hometown (Chatham)."

In Fantuz's case, there really was no doubt about him winning. The only doubt is whether he'll return for a fifth year at Western, or opt to play in the CFL. And there's really no doubt about that. "I think he's gone," said Larry Haylor, Fantuz's coach the past four years. "And we'll probably appreciate him a whole much more when he's not there next year.

"From the get-go he was great. He wasn't a guy we had to wait to be great. And he never backed away from being consistently great."

Haylor won't even attempt to do a selling job on Fantuz to convince him to come back for a fifth year. Playing professional football is all this young man has ever dreamed of doing since he was old enough to pick up a ball in his backyard back home.

With the numbers he put up and the national records he smashed, Fantuz will likely be the first player selected when the CFL holds its draft of Canadian university players in April.

"It's going to be tough," Fantuz said when asked about leaving Western. "The guys on the team are all like brothers. I had a great time playing with them and we'll be friends for life. . . . They'll be fine next year, with or without me."

Fantuz caught himself -- he's still saying he "hasn't really thought about it too much" -- but the look in those eyes says pro football. He carries himself like a pro. He plays like a pro.

"He was one of those guys with high expectations, who exceeded them," Haylor said. "He's a guy when the ball is in the air, he believes the ball is absolutely his."

But the one thing that will elude Fantuz is a trip to the national final.

"I'm jealous of Laurier and Saskatchewan. They're in the show," he said of the two schools that will play tomorrow for the Vanier Cup.

Fantuz is the fifth Mustang to win the Hec Crighton since its inception in 1967, and the first since fullback Tim Tindale, who won in 1993 and 1991. The others were quarterback Jamie Bone (1978) and backs Greg Marshall (1980) and his brother Blake (1986).

Fantuz is just the fifth receiver to get the honour and the first since Calgary's Don Blair 10 years ago. And he did it after suffering a serious leg injury last May in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

"It's in constant rehab," he revealed of his left quadriceps, bleeding after a knee-on-leg collision. "I never got back to perfect. I always have to take care of it."

He certainly fooled the opposition this season, leading the nation in the regular season with 12 touchdown receptions, tying for the CIS lead with Ottawa's Adam Nicolson with 44 catches, and finishing second in receiving yards (825) behind Guelph's Jeff Keegan of London (936).

Fantuz burst on the university scene in 2002, and was named rookie of the year after a single-season record with 1,300 receiving yards, 188 more than Blair's 1,112 in his Hec Crighton season in 1995.

Fantuz can walk away owning all CIS career receiving marks with 189 catches, 4,123 yards and 41 touchdowns.

His yards are 936 more than McMaster's Ryan Janzen, who had 3,187 in five seasons (1996-2000). His TD receptions are 13 more than Calgary's Dave Brown (1985-89) and Laurier's Stefan Ptaszek (1990-94), who both played five years. His catches are three more than Ptaszek.

He'll leave Western as the most decorated football player in school history. He was an all-Canadian each year, three times on the first team.

But he almost didn't make it to Western. He was heavily recruited by Greg Marshall, while he was coaching the Marauders before joining the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Fantuz had made a $500 deposit on a dorm room.

At the last minute, he chose Western.

"I felt like Western was the right place for me," he said. "I was drawn by my (future) teammates, I liked the campus and the city. I've had tons of fun."

He had to drop the idea of getting back the deposit, but his hands sure were a great catch by Western.


Photos