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The Unlikeliest of Heros: Garry Sawatzky

By Debbie Elicksen

Garry Sawatzky was an angry young man growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After one last physical fight with his father, he left home at age 17 and joined a bike gang. He was sentenced to 18 months on a robbery charge, and his life took a turn for the worse in 1985, when he was convicted of second-degree manslaughter for stabbing an 18-year-old man to death -- a result of a group altercation at a Winnipeg campsite. Garry was 23 when he was incarcerated at Stony Mountain Institution. He got out nine years later at age 32.

His story is a remarkable one because while in prison, the thought of playing football turned his life completely around.

“It was very, very strange because it just came to me. It honestly just came to me. I still don’t understand how. I’m an atheist so I don’t believe in all that religion stuff. I’m a spiritual atheist. I was in a sweat lodge, and it’s kind of like, I made a promise. I was in prison. I only had a couple of years in. That’s why it was so crazy. Everyone was laughing at me. The bigger I got and the harder I worked towards it, the more it offended people. I wasn’t taken very seriously. They said, 'You’re going to be in your thirties when you get out. Nobody’s going to touch you. Think! What are you doing? You’re pissing me off!' And I think that’s what happens with kids a lot. They succumb to that crap.

“Right after that, the next thing you know, I’m taking university courses. I found a way to make my own little environment. It was like training camp for the mind and the body. Then I was on a goal. I was on a mission. I completed four training cycles in one year. I had everything planned out. The training cycle went by pretty quick. It made the time go by very fast. But it did make the time easier.”

Inside prison, former Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back, Tim Jesse, saw Garry’s physique while visiting the institution. He began to pass the word back to his team, and Garry was given an evaluation while on a day pass. The media caught wind of it, and the prison then transferred him west to dispel the spotlight. Out of prison, Garry did get the opportunity to tryout for the Canadian Football League.

“It was very strange because nothing came instantly. It’s like, show up tomorrow and we’ll learn how to get into a stance. Show up the next day and we’ll learn how to run block. I got out of jail and went to British Columbia Lions after everything blew up in Winnipeg (not getting the shot with the Bombers). I went to B. C. and they brought me back every day. I had three months before camp. I was working two jobs then. There were no promises at that point. It was pretty unrealistic and a little bit far off. I was just very strong and fast. They figured they could do something with me.

“In my first game, I only played two minutes. I went out for a couple of different series. It was short-lived. I think for the six plays I had, I did okay, but it was like they were just giving me a little taste. That was in 1994, and I was only out of jail for a few months. It freaked me out. I couldn’t even get into my football pants. I changed my pants three or four times because I didn’t know what size to wear. They felt so weird every time you put them on. They felt tight but they were baggy. I’d put a tighter one on. I was going out of my mind to find the right pair of pants. I never knew how to wear the stuff since high school.”

Prior to prison, he had no role models. “I was probably lacking in social conscious as well. Kids think they’re going to live forever anyway. It’s easy to burn candles at both ends. Combine that with early problems in your childhood, and it seems to snowball. When I joined the gang, it was more because there were others like me. We were a new family. I bought into it. Not everyone was into that…not everyone was into the family thing. Everyone was using the club for whatever their gain was -- whether it was image or money.

“My story just isn’t about not giving up. I pretty well buried myself and then I had to find a way out. The part about burying yourself, I think a lot of kids learn how to do that. They don’t know how to dig themselves back out. I think I found a way to dig myself back out."

Garry spent the next several seasons playing for more than one CFL team but at the same time, he took the time to reach out to, what society would label as, the unreachable population: kids in prison.

“I think I’ve been to every kiddie prison in the lower mainland in B. C. I’ve even talked to federal inmates. I’ve talked to law students and lots of group homes.

“The kids in prison, I can get right to them. We can cut right through the game. Who’s our entertainment today? That’s how the kids act. Everything’s provided for them. They get into trouble and they get confused. They’re still trying to act like those little tough guys and yet down deep, they’re still kids. We cut through all that crap. I’ve been where they are. I know what they’re feeling. I know the game. Just cut through the crap. When I visit the kids in group homes, they’re so unreachable. They’re so wound up -- so cocky. It’s like, when you get in trouble, call me up, and I’ll talk to you. There are so many times I’ve had to talk to them after they’ve been in jail. It’s always after the fact that I have the most success with kids because they’re so cocky until they get in trouble. Once everything is taken away, that’s the time to rebuild them.

“In talking to kids, I say, daydream about stuff -- about things that are mathematically possible. If you make a habit of doing that, if you daydream about things you can actually obtain, you might be far off but it’s possible. If it’s not mathematically possible, don’t dream about it because you’re just wasting your energy.

”Football was mathematically possible because I had a plan. Even though I didn’t know how I was going to go about it, everything fell into place. It seemed to be luck. You meet the right people. My life is still like that. I’m on the right track. I bump into the right people. They come out of nowhere.

“Join a good gang. Hanging out with the guys, like in football, there are a lot of similarities to the guys in the club. Traveling, having a good time together. Joking and getting together to play a game is much more accepted than the guys getting together to go party. You have all these fraternities. Male clubs, where you get together after work. I think it’s normal for men to come together as groups. Men feel comfortable in groups -- like the hunting and gathering thing. Sports just take the place of that.”

While in jail, Garry was enrolled in university courses majoring in philosophy but taking courses in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. He only needed his last five credits to earn his degree. While talking to kids in prison, he came up with another dream, one he is relentlessly pursuing.

“I figure, if you can fix a part of the system and save as many young ones as you can, that’s when it really goes around. You can slowly raise the age of a prisoner. The average age of a prisoner is in the early 20s across the board. It should make people freak right out because it’s basically, your kids are in jail. That means for the average age of 21 and 22, there are those that are way too young, which means the guys that are way too old are getting out to easily. Save the young, make room for the old.”

His dream is a farm where these types of kids can be isolated from their bad influences and learn to start over—get a new lease on life. “That would be the long term goal. I want to be careful how I approach this. The system is designed, if you approach anything too aggressively or too quickly to change something, it’s going to slap you on the head. You’ve got to make it so inviting that they want to be a part of what you’re making. You have to approach it like, your system is good, and we’re just trying to make it better. If you don’t approach the system with that attitude, you’re going to get slapped.

“One of the major flaws I see in the system -- all of these kids come from different fields. If I go out to any given family, whether it’s a nice area or a bad area, I’m finding out people are genuinely the same. They’re all on the same level. The same thing is going on in both parts of town. I think people in the nice part of town just hide it. They’re not all good homes or support systems. The very first thing they do with a kid coming to jail is to rejoin him with their old support system. Well, the support system he had is what put him there. One of the things you’ve got to do is wipe out his old support system completely. Take him to a different location than where he lived. If he grew up in B. C., put him in the east coast. Take him away from the people who made him the way he is. Then only let in the good after that. Have a month chilling out period, where no one can talk to him when he first comes to the facility. Everybody from the outside world has to be cut off until they’re deemed good. As soon as they’re deemed good, then you can’t get enough of them. Show your support.

“It’s more of a program. Kids inside can work towards something. It’s not just fitting the criteria -- you’re in, you’re not. You can’t do it like that. You say, here’s a pretty stiff criteria, (and they don’t allow this for the system right now because everything has to be for the masses). When you see talent, you’ve got to capture it. That kid is wasting his time playing with blocks, get him with the other kids that are going to university. The current system has no way of seeing talent or salvaging it.

“Mostly, environment dictates what you’re going to be like. You want to create a program to save the ones that are savable. They will present themselves. Here’s the step-up-to-the-plate program. Find the kids that are geared for it, just like you do for a business. Business is going to do the proper research to find out their marketing strategies. They go for it and then they win. You’ve got to do that with the kids. Find out the savable and then save them. I would take a sexually abused kid on my farm but I wouldn’t take an abuser. It’s not for everyone. There has to be a criteria, and this is going to be my biggest obstacle. The first thing I want to do when I first start getting close to this dream farm is get together an advisory committee. I’d like to sit down all these people I’ve met—people who would never have been assembled otherwise. They don’t all have to have degrees. Get all the good people I’ve come across, and put them in a room. They have something to give. Put them in a room for a weekend to think and then, take down all the information. Assemble a table of people that are good people, experienced in the field, very intelligent, and futuristic, or have had some success in the past with what I’m doing. I already know where I want to go, but what an ideal way to work out the future headaches.”

Does a message from a professional athlete carry more weight? “It makes a big difference. The kids will give you that instant respect. I’ve also worked with a lot of coaches. They work hard to get where they are. They worked years with these kids -- spent their whole life coaching these kids. And yet, an athlete will pop in for one day, and everything is put on him. The coach might think, I’m the guy that helped them get this far, and here’s this guy for one day. That’s the attitude the kids have. They want to be hands on by the real thing. They want real players. It takes a really good coach to be able to share that. I knew this one guy who was so successful as a coach because he didn’t have a big ego. Not, no, I don’t need any of those guys. There are coaches like that. It’s not like the guys don’t want to come out and help. I was helping one guy who said to me, any time. He always made me feel like I was appreciated. You don’t just want to show up for an appearance. You want them to show up because they’re appreciated. I don’t mind giving my time. Most of the time they require from athletes is just fluff. Signing stuff. Some players don’t do that stuff on their own. Not everyone is giving. Not everyone wants to go and help their fellow man. It’s not in everybody.”

Read other articles and learn more about Debbie Elicksen.

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