By Howard Tsumura, PNG
Christian Covington started his football career during his elementary-school days, patrolling the sidelines at Vancouver College’s O’Hagan Field as the waterboy for the Fighting Irish senior varsity team.
On Saturday, in a leap many dare to dream but few ever achieve, the Houston Texans’ second-year defensive end will line up as a starter along the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defence in pursuit of quarterback Tom Brady and the rest of the host New England Patriots.
“It definitely adds an extra factor, considering he is one of the greatest to ever play the game,” Covington, 23, said Thursday after practice when asked about Brady and the high-stakes environment of the AFC semifinals.
“But really, it comes down to looking at the playoffs in the way that we all dreamed of as kids. These are the people and the situations I dreamt about being a part of.
“I remember watching (Brady) and Vince (Wilfork) on Sundays when they both played for the Patriots and now I am fortunate enough to have Vince as a teammate,” continued the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Covington. “This is the kind of game you want to be playing in.”
It’s enough to make you forget about the massive 15-1/2-point underdog-status given the Texans, because Covington has beaten back much bigger odds to earn his place in Houston, moving from the Irish to Rice University, then on to the NFL as a sixth-round pick (216th overall) of the Texans in the 2015 draft.
In May of 2015, Covington’s family home, in the Sullivan Heights area of Surrey, was the place for a big draft party.
“When we were informed of it, it was ‘OK, it’s a number,’ ” continued Covington of the kind of deficit the oddsmakers issue when one team isn’t being given a fighting chance. “We’re one team and they’re another. We have to put our cleats on and so do they. So we’ll follow our game plan to a T and give relentless effort because at the end of the day, football is football.”
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Head of the class
Ask those who had the misfortune of having to face Vancouver College during their Subway Bowl B.C. championship season of 2010, and it was clear that Covington had become a defensive tackle without peer.
“He was as dominant a defensive lineman as I have ever coach against,” remembered New Westminster Hyacks head coach Farhan Lalji, whose charges lost a league game 43-0 to the Irish that season. “When Christian was in Grade 12, he was unblockable.”
Honoured as a member of The Province’s Head of the Class upon graduation in the spring of 2011, Covington was not exactly flooded with offers from the NCAA’s elite FBS programs.
Still, Rice University in Houston liked what they saw, and wound up getting an absolute steal as Covington developed into one of the nation’s best defensive linemen.
Yet he suffered a dislocated kneecap near the end his junior season, and despite undergoing surgery, elected to enter the draft.
If NFL teams were wary of his future, Covington was not.
“I knew what I brought to the table,” he said. “When I was drafted and where I was drafted because of my predicament, I knew where I was at with that injury. They say it cost me a lot of draft stock, but at the end of the day, I knew how I was as a player and with my recovery. I was ready to go.”
Mentorship and inspiration
It wasn’t too soon after Covington arrived in Texans’ camp for the 2015 NFL season that he found himself immersed in the perfect learning environment, as fellow defensive end J.J. Watt, one of the greatest defensive players of this generation, took the former Irish waterboy under his wing.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better than a man of his calibre, who has done what he has done,” said Covington of the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who was lost to the team early this season following back surgery. “To have his leadership, his work ethic, his wisdom, his attitude? I was blessed.”
Yet ask longtime Vancouver College head coach Todd Bernett about mentorship, and he is sufficiently convinced that his former player has much to offer the veterans in the Texans’ locker room.
“I think for any player, it would be a unique experience to play with guys like Wilfork and Watt, but I don’t think that we should all just assume that Christian is doing nothing but sitting there learning from them. I think they can be inspired by his dedication, be reminded of what it was like when they all started,” said Bernett. “Christian didn’t get there by accident. He is so committed and he creates a stronger sense of purpose and commitment. He has always been devoted to the day’s work. He never looked past it and that is something that I always appreciated about him.”
And Covington, in turn, has never forgotten about his more humble high school beginnings.
“I had a great coaching staff and a great strength staff at Vancouver College,” he said. “The biggest takeaway for me was, when in doubt, stick to the fundamentals. The players may change, but the game doesn’t. Plus, I was blessed to have my father (CFL Hall of Fame defensive end Grover Covington) as my defensive line coach. That was an added bonus.”
What matters most
If there is one trait above all others that Covington shares with another Canadian great, retired NBA superstar Steve Nash, it is in the level of humility and high character he exhibits on a daily basis.
“I just appreciate how humble he has stayed all the way through,” said Lalji. “I was at his NFL draft party and the amount of family and well-wishers there was huge. It was heartwarming to see that he had time for all of them.”
It was much the same way this past summer, Bernett said, as Covington spoke to this season’s Irish at a team function.
Yet if you ask the budding NFL star about it all, he just considers it a blessing that he has been able to play the game, and in the process become, at every stage along the journey, part of a very special fraternity.
“The football family is something special, something so close-knit and it’s something not a lot of people in life get to experience,” he said. “Every sport has its cliques, but I still keep up with my football family at Vancouver College and my Rice family as well. I’ve made best friends for life.”
On Saturday, when the Texans’ defence takes to the field against Brady and the Pats, that football family will be glued to their TV screens. And who knows what highlights might be in store?
“Someone has to get to Brady and rattle him,” began Bernett, “and the funny thing is, I had some daydreams this week that Christian gets to Brady and knocks the ball loose.”
Whatever Saturday and the rest of his career has in store for him, however, you can trust Christian Covington when he talks about what truly matters most to him.
“At the end of the day, football is going to end whether we want it to or not,” he said. “We don’t know how many years or even what will come tomorrow. The sport has given me certain benefits that are amazing, but at the same time football doesn’t define me. It can’t define me. I want to be consistent in life just like I want to be consistent in football. I don’t want to be two-faced.
“The guy you see on TV? That’s the same guy you’ll meet at Starbucks or Tim Hortons.”