Former Hec Crighton winner, Ben Chapdelaine on CFL officials prospect list

He was still very much a football player and thoroughly engaged in what he was doing on the field for McMaster the first time a referee told him he should consider becoming an official.

Ouch.

Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. The comment wasn’t some pithy insult or a veiled shot at his ability. Heck, Ben Chapdelaine was on his way to winning the Hec Crighton Trophy as the best player in Canada when the suggestion was made. It was a legitimate suggestion that a guy who sees the field as well as he did and had such a feel for the flow of the action should consider getting into stripes when his career ended. Whenever that was.

Still, no thanks. He was a player, not a ref.

“I liked to win,” he says.

The way he saw it, officials never get to win. They just work the game and go home. That lack of a satisfying payoff made the gig seem less than perfect for a guy as competitive as him. But then the milestones and opportunities began to fly by.

His final game was the 2001 Churchill Bowl in Winnipeg against the University of Manitoba. The national semifinal.

“We lost,” Chapdelaine says. “Everything we tried didn’t work. That’s what I remember.”

He didn’t want to finish his career that way. Which is how he ended up trying out for an Arena League team in Toronto a year later. When that didn’t work, he ended up getting a look from an Arena League II team in Kansas a year after that.

That didn’t pan out either.

“They basically said, ‘We’re going to go out and get a real quarterback,'” he says.

While that comment stung, he was OK. He’d tried. He’d given pro football a shot and it hadn’t worked. But he had no regrets so he could get on with his life. The game could be left behind. Which exactly what he expected would happen.

Yes, he got dragged back into it a bit a few years later when Mac coach Greg Marshall got the Ticats’ gig and Chapdelaine was asked to hold the Marauders’ fort until things settled down. He answered the team’s phones and coached the QBs and did some recruiting. Then he stepped away again, finding a career in McMaster’s alumni department, working his way up to associate director of annual giving.

This time he was done with the game for good.

Funny thing, though. Football started to tug at him. This led to some deep thinking. Maybe his inclination toward the game mixed with his relationship with coaches combined with his credibility as a former player could make him a decent official.

Eventually, he called the ref who’d first asked him to consider it so many years before and said he was now interested in giving it a shot.

And that is how one of the most-decorated players in McMaster history ended up on the field at his alma mater as head linesman for a high school junior team scrimmage.

As far away from the bright lights or anything resembling fame or recognition. He’s pretty sure it went well. Strangely, he doesn’t remember much of it. Even more unusual, he says he remembers basically nothing about his first real game.

“That’s weird, isn’t it?” he says.

It is a bit. But it wasn’t about making memories, it was about getting better. The 40-year-old as blown away by how much he had to learn. This game was supposed to be second nature to him yet he was starting from scratch. Or somewhere close to it.

Doing a game a week on average — mostly high school — he started to feel good about it. Last year, he started to hear chatter he might be ready to do university games. And on opening weekend, he was deep side official at York. Then the next weekend at Queen’s. Then at Waterloo.

It sounds like this is just the start. Former CFL official Dave Hutton, who’s now the league’s co-ordinator of recruiting officials and the OUA’s referee-in-chief, says Chapdelaine is on the big league’s prospect list.

“He has the potential to go there,” Hutton says. “You’ve got a guy with a football pedigree that’s incredible. But he’s also taken the time and the effort … to ready himself for this level of play.”

His feel for the game is excellent. His anticipation is enormously helpful. And his humility has allowed him to be respectful of the game and the process.

Chapdelaine thinks it would be fun to work the CFL some day. But you don’t get that just by being a former award-winning quarterback. You have to work at it and get better and better. Even Tom Brady wouldn’t get a free pass if he took up officiating when his career was done.

He laughs at the thought.

“OK, maybe if you’re Tom Brady.”

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