In the summer of 2002, Paul Gleason, at the time the recruiting coordinator for the Western Mustangs, returned from a visit to Windsor with news of a lanky receiver out of John McGregor High School in Chatham, Ont.
“His immediate take in sitting down and chatting with me was the first order of priority was this receiver named Fantuz who in Paul's word were: ‘He's the best receiver he'd ever seen,’” says Larry Haylor, the former Mustangs head coach.
“That got our attention obviously.”
Gleason wasn’t the only one hoping to woo Fantuz. He was aggressively being recruited by schools across the country before choosing to play for the two-time U SPORTS coach of the year Larry Haylor — then in his 18th season at the helm of the purple and white. At Western, Fantuz flourished under the leadership of Haylor, who was known for his unequivocal honesty and infamous game-day speeches which he would quote from bold figures like Theodore Roosevelt.
The two created football magic on the field. In his first season with the Mustangs in 2002, Haylor guided Fantuz to a single-season record for most receiving yards (1300) – a record that still stands today and earned him the Peter Gorman Trophy as U SPORTS Rookie of the Year. His talents were quickly noted by other coaches and players across the league who made it their mission to neutralize the quick-footed 6-foot-4, 218-pound wide receiver with hands the size of dinner plates.
“Every team that we played had incredible emphasis on the need to defend Andy Fantuz and no one could, no one did,” Haylor remembers. “Double him, smash-mouth him, try to physically intimidate him, foul him, grab him, harass him — I don't care, go through the list of legal and illegal things you can do and he saw them all.”
Fantuz’s offensive prowess on the field, due in part to his flat-out speed, made him a deep threat and a nightmare for anyone trying to cover him. Johnny Chehade first played against Fantuz for the University of Waterloo before transferring to Western and becoming his teammate.
“When I played against him for the first time, I was a starting middle linebacker for Waterloo,” he says. “We were preparing for Western and our coach went out of his way to really try to stop the deep threat with Andy, and to no avail.”
Fantuz went on to have unprecedented success that has arguably gone unmatched in the 13 years since his departure from U SPORTS to the pros. Among the U SPORTS records he continues to hold besides the mark for single-season receiving yards, are career regular season receiving yards (4123) and most career receiving touchdowns in a regular season (41).
“U SPORTS is blessed with a lot of great players,” Haylor says. “I think Andy is one who’s had a career of exceptional achievement at the university level and he carried on that high level of achievement at the professional level.”
He is also one of only a handful of receivers to be awarded the Hec Crighton Trophy for the Most Outstanding Player in U SPORTS football. Not to mention, he was the first player at Western to have a bobblehead made in his honour.
After graduating from Western, the Saskatchewan Roughriders took Fantuz third overall in the 2006 CFL Draft. The flat land of the prairies was unfamiliar territory for a guy from an industrial manufacturing town that hugged the shores of Lake Erie.
“I told Andy, ‘You know Andy this is a great place for you to go because you are hard-working; you're talented; you're loyal, and the qualities that you have are the qualities people in Saskatchewan absolutely admire — they value those things,”” recalls Haylor, a native of Saskatchewan.
By his second season in the CFL, Fantuz was a Grey Cup champion, helping the Roughriders to their third championship in franchise history. In three playoff appearances, he made 16 catches and two touchdowns including one in the 2007 Grey Cup. For his performance, he was presented with the Dick Suderman Trophy for the Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Canadian. Roughrider fans were obsessed and so was the franchise, who parlayed Fantuz’s popularity into a cereal called Fantuz Flakes.
Despite the Fantuz fever that seemed to follow him wherever he went, he stayed grounded - finding time to chair a campaign to raise money for diagnostic imaging equipment for his hometown of Chatham and partaking in the Special Olympics Festival. It wasn’t just his talents on the field or the tremendous success he experienced as an athlete that explained why people were drawn to the guy with the megawatt smile that stretched ear to ear.
“The one thing that really drew me to Andy was how intelligent he is both on and off the field, and how modest and laid back he is,”Chehade says. “He is the most down to earth guy you'll ever meet.”
Even after signing his first professional contract, Chehade recalls Fantuz driving the same red pickup truck that he had in university.
Though he endured a range of different injuries during his career he fought through, logging 12 seasons in the CFL with the Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats and had a brief stint with the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 2011. On July 19, after discussions with his wife Amanda about their future, he announced his retirement from professional football.
“Thank you ALL! It has been an honour to represent the Tiger-Cats and Roughriders organizations, both on and off the field, for the past 12 years,” Fantuz said in his retirement statement. “'The support from these two communities, and incredible reception I felt from all CFL cities, is what makes this game so special. I will keep you all in my heart forever.
“I want to thank my family and friends for their unconditional support. I want to thank my coaches, trainers, equipment staff, front office, support staff, media and volunteers for all the memories of this game I’ll never forget. To my teammates, I’m grateful to have gone to battle with talented athletes, strategized with incredible football minds, and developed lasting friendships with great people. To all the children out there with a dream – I was once a boy with a dream myself – believe me; everything that you can imagine is possible!”
Holding his three-week-old daughter Abigail in his arms, he closed out his professional career watching his current team, the TiCats, play the Roughriders at Tim Hortons field in Hamilton. Undoubtedly, the transition from professional athlete to retirement is a difficult one, something Haylor knows all too well.
“It's always difficult to step away and go cold turkey. I think anyone in high-level sport loves competition. I used to say to our players ‘When the butterflies go away and the adrenaline stops flowing, it's time to nail the shoes to the wall, it's over,’” he says.
“I've told (Fantuz), you know, that the qualities that served you so well as a professional player are going to serve you equally as well in your life after professional football. He's going to be great at whatever he undertakes.”