Rehab over, McGarva is back in the Lions’ Den

A new season brings new hope and for BC Lions safety Matt McGarva, it also means a fresh start.

The Lord Tweedsmuir grad is now in his second season with the CFL club, but in some ways he is still a rookie. His first professional season in 2013 was cut short after just four games when he tore the ACL and meniscus in his knee while covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter against the Edmonton Eskimos at B.C. Place Stadium.

In an instant his rookie season was over and a nine-month rehab process was underway.

Now he’s back in the Lions’ den where he has a veteran’s approach that belies his scant playing résumé.

“Although I only played four games, I do notice a difference between this year and last year,” McGarva said. “The game has really slowed down for me and I feel more comfortable out there. Obviously I didn’t get to play the full 18 games, but things do make more sense now I have a more veteran feel for the game and what’s going on out there.”

McGarva’s rehabilitation time was not wasted. He was on the sidelines during Lions games, watched film with teammates and was around the team every day. He trained hard throughout the off-season, working out with teammates while attacking the rehab program to recover from the knee surgery.

He also dedicated large portions of his time helping coach his old high school team at Lord Tweedsmuir. Panthers coach Kurt Thornton recalls how McGarva would complete his rehab, practise and film duties with the Lions and then head directly to the high school where he would be waiting on the field for the Panthers to get out of school to begin practise.

“Matt is them,” Thornton said of the way McGarva interacted with the players. “When he was in school he was a regular Cloverdale kid who had a passion for sports. He gave everything he had when he played for us. He was only 165 pounds when he played for us and he never, ever quit even though he suffered some traumatic injuries. He had a major hip injury in Grade 11 and missed most of the season but came back and made 19 tackles in a playoff game.

“He was that kind of kid as a player and he brings that to coaching too. A lot of times guys will come and say they want to help, but they’re just kind of there. Matt would come in with ideas and plans and he coached the way he played. It was great for the kids because they could see the effort he was putting into it.”

McGarva grew up in Cloverdale and was introduced to the game with flag football at Cloverdale Community Football before moving on to high school with the Panthers. He said rejoining the Panthers as a coach was a great experience and it proved helpful to his own playing abilities.

“It was a blast,” he said. “I had so much fun coaching those kids because I know how much I cared about high school football when I played and how much heart and effort I put into it. It was pretty cool to see the next generation of kids doing the same thing as I did. It was really refreshing.

“I think the coaching even helped me as a player because even though they play American rules, the defensive coordinator is Lou DesLaurier and I got to sit down with him and go over defensive schemes, both Canadian and American. That helped me a lot and I owe Lou for that and I’m going to continue to do that whenever I can.”

All of McGarva’s hard work paid off when he finally returned to the football field last month for the B.C. Lions’ training camp in Kamloops. Even though he had missed most of his rookie season, McGarva said he noticed a real difference from the first time he stepped onto the field in a BC Lions uniform.

“Comparing my feeling from the first pre-season game this season with the first pre-season game last season, it was like night and day,” he said. “Things are coming at me a little slower now. I felt more comfortable making the checks and making the calls. I watched a lot of film and now I’ve learned more about the difference CFL offences. Now I know a little bit more about what to expect so when I see it, I know how I have to react to it.”

McGarva is not the lone Panther in the CFL this season. Former Lord Tweedsmuir teammates Adam Berger (Calgary) and Kyle Miller (Hamilton) both survived the final cuts and will be making visits to B.C. Place Stadium this season. McGarva said it was good to talk with Berger after the Lions and Stampeders met in the preseason and he is happy for his former teammates success.

As for his own plans for success, having the Grey Cup game in Vancouver this season creates an obvious tangible goal for everyone in the Lions’ den.

McGarva has other goals in mind as well.

“I just really want to get through a full season,” he said with a wry laugh. “That would be awesome. That’s a small-scale goal though. I want to keep getting better and get more playing time. I want to be a solid contributor on special teams and hopefully graduate to become special teams captain.”

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