The Ottawa Redblacks Nigel Romick lays the boom on a Montreal Alouette. Photo courtesy the CFL

Humble gridiron star an inspiration to alma mater

  • September 24, 2023

Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 241 pounds, veteran Ottawa Redblacks defensive lineman Nigel Romick is well-established as one of the most formidable big men and special teams tacklers in the Canadian Football League (CFL).

Away from the professional gridiron, the nine-year pro also looms as a towering, aspirational figure for his alma mater, St. Patrick High School in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A graduate of the Catholic institution in 2009, the 32-year-old has maintained ties with his former school and hometown in the 14 years since earning his diploma.

“When he was in (Saint Mary’s University), he would come back home and we would make up little videos to try and get the kids to play football,” said David Battistel, who coached and taught Romick at St. Patrick’s. “I helped him with a football camp he offered in Thunder Bay for kids who needed financial assistance to play sports. They got to come out and play with a guy in the CFL. It was a great experience for them.”

Romick has also donated a game-worn jersey to his school and has paid visits to mingle with the next generation of St. Patrick Fighting Saints players. One year, around Christmastime, the Grey Cup champion phoned Battistel to arrange a drop-off of old cleats for kids who cannot afford to purchase equipment.

Upon Romick completing his 100th career game on Oct. 10, 2022 — a 24-18 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the Thanksgiving Day Classic — the school released a video of Battistel and the 2022 Fighting Saints congratulating their famous alumna on this feat. They announced the No. 88 Romick wore as a Saint would be retired at an upcoming game, an idea passionately endorsed by the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board (TBCDSB).

“I contacted the board, and they were very enthusiastic,” said Battistel. “It is a great thing for them to have a (former) student who has played professionally all these years and is a great role model and ambassador for our school and board in what we want to see from our graduates.”

The special day arrived on Sept. 15 during the Catholic Classic showdown between the Fighting Saints and their local rival, the St. Ignatius High School Falcons. Romick could not attend the celebration because of his CFL schedule, but his family was on hand to witness the first ever jersey retirement in the history of St. Patrick High School.

“Once a Saint, always a Saint, and we are very proud to call Nigel Romick one of our own,” said Battistel during his speech.

One day before, Romick articulated what this honour meant to him during a call with The Catholic Register.

“I am really humbled to have my number from my high school days retired,” said Romick. “It means a lot to me as this is where I started my football career in Grade 10. It has been a great adventure and dream so far.”

Romick contemplated playing football in Grade 9, but ultimately shied away. He admitted that his friend Ryan Zawacki, who also advanced to a collegiate career with the Saint Mary’s University Huskies, kept saying “you’ve got to play, you’ve got to play” until he relented the following year.

“I fell in love with every aspect of the game. The group of guys on the team were really close with each other. As the year went on, we kept taking it more seriously. We made it to the championship, but we ended up losing.”

Battistel was instantly impressed with Romick’s raw athleticism and his deftness with playing both tight end and defensive end. The coach said the teenaged Romick exhibited a winning personality.

“He was the type of guy you want to see,” said Battistel. “As a coach, I know that confidence is fine, but I don’t like brashness or arrogance. He was always a very humble guy. He took everything in stride and was willing to help everyone else. He never really talked about how good he was or how much he meant to the team.”

Romick credits St. Patrick’s “for instilling the values of what it means to be a student athlete,” and the TBCDSB for throwing support behind the football program with pep rallies and other initiatives since the beginning of his high school career in 2006.

Fast forward to the current day: Romick is inarguably the most successful football player to hail from Thunder Bay based on longevity and championships. He was the first to blaze a trail from the Canadian Lakehead to the football big leagues. He hopes not to be the last.

“I try to be an inspiration for the football players in Thunder Bay, which is known mostly for developing hockey players. I can see more that more players from Thunder Bay are moving on to university. Hopefully, down the road, we see more play professional football.”

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