Friendly foes: David Skillen, left, and Justin Conn, longtime friends and former Fredericton High School Black Kats football teammates, will be going head to head in university football Oct. 17. Thatís when Connís Bishopís Gaiters travel to Antigonish, N.S., to take on Skillenís St. Francis Xavier X-Men in interlocking action.
 

Football rivals for a day

By Robert Touchie

Don't tell Justin Conn and David Skillen that it's just another regular season university football game.

Although the interlocking scheduled game between the Quebec University Football League Bishop's Gaiters and the Atlantic University Sport St. Francis Xavier X-Men is actually being played with the winner taking home a Bowl victory (the Bigg Bowl, initiated by alumni from the two schools specifically for the event this year), it means much more than that to former Fredericton Black Kats teammates and lifelong friends Conn and Skillen.

It's possible the two might very well conclude their football careers this season - they leave for their respective training camps next week - and both of them view the October 17 clash at X as a highlight to their respective seasons.

Both have the date highlighted on their calendars and numerous friends, family, former coaches and teammates plan to make the trek the trek to Antigonish, N.S., to watch.

"All bets are off when he (Conn) comes to town," said the 21-year- old and fifth-year X-men linebacker Skillen. "We've been friends since Beaver Scouts and New Maryland Elementary School, but it won't matter. I didn't take it easy on (Andrew) Hickey, (Ben) Thompson or (Dylan) Sullivan when we played them and I certainly won't let up on Conn. If anything I'll go harder."

Conn takes a more gentle approach.

"Dave and I won't see a lot of each other, because we're both playing defence," said the fourth-year Gaiters' defensive end. "With special teams you never know, but if we do happen to cross paths, he'll be just another player to me out there."

The two former Fredericton High athletes of the year (Conn in 2006 and Skillen in 2005) share a lot of common ground in their lives beyond the love of football. Both played in the 2005 Canada Games, Conn in basketball and Skillen in volleyball, both have excellent academics off the field (identical 3.3 GPAs); both are leaders among their peers and both have interests far removed from the football field that make them unique.

Skillen, this past summer a final cut from the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, and Conn, a likely CFL draft pick in this spring's 2010 CFL college draft, remain very humble, regardless of their respective successes on the gridiron.

Both speak at length of the importance of their families and former coaches in their lives, particularly their defensive coordinator on the Black Kats, Murray Appleby.

"Coach Appleby has been a huge influence on me," said Conn. "He instilled discipline and a desire to succeed and work hard. He made me believe in myself that I could succeed at Bishop's."

"I like to say that Coach Appleby formed me "¶ he created me as a football player," said Skillen, last year an AUS defensive all-star. "Other than my family, there has been no bigger influence on my life."

For Appleby, the feeling is mutual.

"Dave and Justin are like family to me, they're great kids and they deserve every success they get. I really can't say enough good things about those two young men and I'm not at all surprised by their success at the university level," said Appleby, himself a former St. FX linebacker. "I am just so proud of them; they both come from such great families and represent everything good that the sport represents."

The spirit and positive attitude that the two bring on and off the field has not been limited to their high school play. It is something they have carried into their university lives and attributes their university coaches feel will ultimate serve them well in life after football and academia.

"Dave Skillen is a coach's dream," said X-men head football coach Gary Waterman, who takes over this year from the deposed John Bloomfield after leading Skillen and the defence the last three seasons. "He's a great athlete, a great person and a guy all our coaches and players respect and look to lead us. You could say he is the straw that stirs the drink for our defence and I could not ask for anything more in a player."

Gaiters head coach Leroy Blugh, a Grey Cup champion, 15-year CFL veteran and all-star - a guy who knows a thing or two about the CFL game - sees something special in Conn, on and off the field.

"Justin Conn, like (Fredericton and Gaiter product and current B.C. Lion) Dan McCullogh before him, is absolutely a great looking pro prospect and I see him having a tremendous year this season," said Blugh of the six-foot-three, 230-pound Conn. "Great sense of humor, good grades, always on time and everyone likes him

"He's the kind of kid you want as a son"¶a quality person, one of those kids who is a poster boy for whatever program he's at."

This year is a big one for Conn on the football field as it's his CFL draft year and being drafted could determine where he is living for the next few years and the beginning of the next stage of his life.

With that in mind, he and Skillen have been working hard with fellow CIS footballers Andrew Hickey and A.J.Durling getting in shape and sharpening their skills, trying to build the perfect football beast.

"Justin's an amazing athlete," said Skillen of Conn, who, for a man his size, runs a 40-yard dash in an unheard of 4.6 seconds. "He's like a gazelle and from what I have seen this summer I really think that he's about to have a breakout year in the CIS."

The six-foot-three, 240-pound Skillen is expected to again star this season for the X-Men, who also have his older brother John, 23, in their starting lineup, as the younger Skillen hopes to land a free agent deal with a CFL club for next year.

"John's been a real positive influence on me all my life and it's been a thrill to play football on the same team, as we never got to play together in high school because he was two years ahead of me," said Skillen, the middle child to Bob and Gisele. "We've gotten a lot closer these last four years. We push each other and work out together and it's really been great to have him out there on the field beside me."

"We'll see what happens this year," said Skillen of his CFL aspirations. "I just want to enjoy this season and my last year as a student at X and see what my options are when it's all over. I have no idea what the future holds but I'm open to anything - in football and life."

The two young men and their teams have high expectations for the season and the matchup. When they meet in October something obviously is going to have to give.

While the older and more vocal Skillen made it clear that he will be pulling out all the stops for a victory when they meet, the soft-spoken Conn conceded that Skillen is an imposing opponent and one who has always had one up on him - up to now, anyway.

"Dave's always been a year ahead of me in school and although I've always been right there just behind him, he's always been the best at volleyball, basketball, football or whatever we've been doing," said Conn, the youngest child of three boys to parents Stephen and Cathy.

"But this year when I come down to play Dave and the X-Men," Conn said, "I plan on being the hammer, not the nail."