Beyond the field

Football star Curtis Carmichael recognized with national award for impact on the field and in the community

A wide receiver on the football team, Curtis Carmichael has established himself as a presence in the Kingston community through his play and volunteer efforts.
A wide receiver on the football team, Curtis Carmichael has established himself as a presence in the Kingston community through his play and volunteer efforts.
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A few weeks before he received the Russ Jackson Award, Queen’s receiver Curtis Carmichael received a cryptic phone call from his head coach Pat Sheahan.

“He’s like, ‘What do you do outside of school? I know you do some stuff,’” Carmichael recounted. “He knew I was involved in the Kingston community, but he didn’t really know in what capacity.”

Carmichael told him about the places he volunteers, his GPA and all of the things he does off of the field. 

“Then he’s like, ‘Okay, good luck.’ And he hung up the phone. I was so confused.”

Two weeks later, Carmichael was named one of four finalists for the Russ Jackson Award, a prestigious award presented annually to “the player who best exemplifies the attributes of academic achievement, football skill, and citizenship.” It is named after the three-time Grey Cup Champion and member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.

After a committee of coaches from across the province selected his name, Carmichael received the national award at the CIS Football awards banquet this past November.

 And even though in his fourth year with the team he led the aerial attack with 34 catches, Carmichael’s impact at the school will be remembered largely for his off-field actions and his outgoing personality.

To go along with an academic All-Canadian performance, Carmichael’s work includes volunteering with organizations such as Nightlight, a centre for marginalized adults, Queen’s Adapted Games, an event for youth with intellectual disabilities, helping at local area middle school gym classes, and a trip to Romania to visit orphanages.

“I find my mentality is making time instead of finding time,” he said of his ability to manage his many commitments while still maintaining a high academic average. “Football is my main focus, but they’re all stuff I’m passionate about.”

And while it’s easy to notice Carmichael’s marks, his on-field performance, or his charitable actions while in university — his full story begins much earlier than that.

Carmichael’s parents both emigrated from Guyana in the 1980s with relatives in Canada, but arrived with very little. 

“They had to get whatever jobs they could at the time,” he said. “That hardworking mentality has been able to shape my mindset going forward.”

He’s the first member of his family to attend and graduate university.

The Toronto neighbourhoods of Regent Park and Scarborough, where he later moved, were Carmichael’s homes before coming to Kingston.

In an area traditionally known for its high rates of poverty, Carmichael blossomed, becoming a standout athlete and student, while also heavily involved in many community initiatives.

“I didn’t have a lot growing up, but because of that, I have nothing to lose. It’s tough looking in,” he said of the area of his upbringing in the Regent Park area. “It’s not the typical neigbourhood coming into Queen’s.”

Carmichael’s learned, though, that he’s got quite a lot to be thankful for — which recently included a trip to Quebec City for the Vanier Cup and the award ceremony where he received the Russ Jackson Award. 

“It was an amazing experience to share with my mom,” he said. “She’s never been to Quebec City … she’s actually never been in a hotel before.”

Carmichael poses with the Russ Jackson Award                                            Photo supplied by Mathieu Belanger

Awards and scholarships are nothing new to him though. Carmichael was the recipient for both the prestigious Harry Jerome and Herb Carnegie awards — named after two of Canada’s most well-known African-Canadian athletes — and was named valedictorian at Toronto’s Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute.

 While he was among the OUA’s best receivers this season, Carmichael’s football career began modestly as a student at Birchmount Park under the guidance of coach Rob Pacas.

“I couldn’t catch anything in grade 10,” he said with a laugh, noting he was forced to the defensive side of the ball until his senior football years. 

“But he never let me settle,” Carmichael said of Pacas. “He always pushed me. He didn’t only focus on the best players. I wasn’t the best player, I was just a decent player. But he always focused on pushing me.”

Carmichael said once he earned a spot as a starting wide receiver in grade 12, he realized that if he wanted to keep playing football at a competitive level, he’d have to attend university — which he admitted wasn’t always on his radar. 

“I think that pushed me to think further,” he said. “That pushed me to look at more schools.”

Upon arriving at Queen’s, former quarterback Billy McPhee said Carmichael’s training regimen always matched that of a starter, even in his first few years on the team when he was ranked lower on the depth chart.

McPhee recalls a day in an August training camp a few years back when the hot summer weather had clearly gotten the better of Carmichael.

When asked whether he could continue in the practice, and exhausted and dehydrated Carmichael said a barely audible, high pitched “I’m good”, to the immediate laughter of his teammates. 

Though Carmichael was excused from the practice to protect his own well-being, this moment sticks with McPhee. 

“That’s just Curtis — he’d always want to be ready, no matter what,” he said.

Having played three of his five years alongside Carmichael, McPhee noted the leadership abilities and maturity of his teammate. 

“Even though he’s a year younger than me, he’s almost like an older brother to me,” McPhee said. “He’s become one of my best friends.”

Today, Carmichael continues to train in Kingston for a regional CFL combine in March where he hopes to impress a professional scout. However, as he’s out of classes, he’s not on campus as often as before — which has provided Carmichael with a bit of a culture shock.

“You miss the guys, the girls,” he said. “You miss the teachers, you miss everyone, even the workers in the caf. You miss the whole environment of being social.” 

Sheahan said Carmichael’s “insatiable” smile and positive attitude are two lasting memories he’ll have of his top receiver this season.

“He embodies everything you’d want in a player. He’s a tremendous ambassador ... he’s a popular guy,” Sheahan said. “You’ll always see him hanging out in the ARC lounge area and interacting with his peers.”   

A brief walk around campus with Carmichael affirms this view. In a short walk from The Journal’s offices and through the ARC, he’s approached by no less than five colleagues and friends, each eager to chat, some congratulating him on the award.

Sheahan, who Carmichael said one of his biggest supporters in his time at Queen’s, believes in his player’s ability to make an impact wherever he ends up.

Carmichael’s influences are many, including his teammates, his family and his coaching staff, but he insists it was his own religious connections with Christianity that proved the biggest influence in his life.

“I was never like that growing up,” he said of his many volunteering ventures, but noted he became more aware of community issues as he learned more about his own religion. “Anyone who’s ‘outcasted’, I loved hanging out with them. I learned way more about myself, and I thought that in some way I could help them.” 

While Carmichael remains adamant that his primary focus is getting noticed on the field, it’s no surprise, knowing his willingness to help others, that his career ambitions involve teaching.

  He has applied to multiple education programs for the fall, including the possibility of returning to Queen’s. This would be to the delight of his current teammates, as he could play another year of football. 

“He’s always lighting up the mood and making it fun to be there,” starting quarterback Nate Hobbs said. “Whenever I see him, I always try to bug him about [returning], I always bug him to come back.”

Hobbs shared a tribute Carmichael made towards teammate Emilio Frometa, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first week of the season.

“Every time he’d make a big catch or score a touchdown, he’d make an E with his hands since he knew Emilio was watching at home,” Hobbs said.

McPhee pointed to a need for male leadership in the classroom, and said he thinks Carmichael’s on-field leadership and off-field experience would translate extremely well to an academic setting.

“There’s a lot of kids out there who don’t have a father figure,” McPhee said. “You can never really replace a father, but for 6 to 8 hours a day, a guy like Curtis can have a really positive impact.”

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