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Playing through: University-bound lineman ready to finally get back on the gridiron

North Vancouver's Joe McNulty making tough jump to next level after COVID wipes out entire Grade 12 season

What will it feel like for North Vancouver’s Joe McNulty to step onto a football field for his first game action in nearly two years?

The Carson Graham Grade 12 student will be making the jump to the U Sports level in the fall, suiting up as an offensive lineman for the University of Toronto. But he hasn’t played a real game since his Grade 11 season in 2019, with contact football being one of the hardest hit sports by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not a single down of high school football was played in B.C. this year.

The Canadian university season looks like it will be ready to roll this fall though. So – what will it be like to finally jump back into action?

“I think it’s going to hit me like a bus,” said McNulty with a laugh, “because I haven’t played in so long, but especially because I’m at the university level where the guys are bigger, there are more fans, they take it more seriously. It’s going to be an unreal experience.”

McNulty is facing the same daunting future as many other football players in his cohort who had to go through the unlucky past year, missing out on what should have been the culmination of their high school careers. McNulty is certain that Grade 12 would have been his time to shine, and his body will back him up on that claim. When he played as a lineman in Grade 11 he weighed in at about 6-1 and 220 pounds. Now he checks in at 6-3 and 265 pounds.

“I’m just a lot stronger, a lot faster, overall a better athlete,” he said. “I’m just kind of bummed that I didn’t get to show that on the field this season.”

And it wasn’t just the joy of playing his favourite game that McNulty missed out on. He always had designs on playing university level football, but he wasn’t able to show off his size, strength and skill during his Grade 12 year. It affected his recruitment process.

McNulty said he got one offer in Grade 11, from U of T, but was counting on a big senior season to increase his exposure.

“I'm assuming that if I had a Grade 12 year, I would have had a lot more offers,” he said. “I just think it was unfortunate to miss out on your senior year, because that's sort of the biggest season of your high school career.”

U of T, however, kept up communication with McNulty, offered a scholarship and earned his commitment to join the team this fall. It’s not exactly what McNulty imagined would happen when he started to get serious about football.

“I’ve got to be honest, I did not know about U of T and their football program,” he said with a laugh, adding that he has formed good relationships with members of the program already and is both nervous and excited about joining the team in August. “It’s quite nerve-wracking because I haven’t played football in more than a year. But I’m confident, I just want to go and do my best, just help the team win.”

Regardless of where he plays, McNulty is excited to have real football back soon. Not being able to play left a hole in his life.

“I miss the connection you have with your team,” he said. “You’re with them every day. Everyone is working hard toward the goal to win. Every week you have a different opponent that you’re trying to beat. You have to watch film, practice hard, prepare for them. … I miss all parts of [football]. The team part of it, where you have your best friends next to you five days a week, going on trips, the bus rides. Everything about it, I just miss. Football is really fun.”

Soon, finally, it’ll be back. The bus is approaching, and McNulty will be ready for it.

The "Playing Through" series looks at high-level North Shore athletes navigating the jump from high school to the post-secondary level during the COVID-19 era. Check out the links below for more athlete profiles.