If you didn’t know Rick Klassen’s history before meeting him, you could make a very reasoned guess based on the first five minutes.
First, the handshake, a crushing embrace of hands that you need to be ready for.
Then, the air of intensity that surrounds Klassen wherever he goes and whenever he speaks.
Sitting in a chair across the table, he gives the impression that everything he’s saying is hugely important and you’d better be listening.
If you didn’t know who he was, you’d guess the 55 year old was a former military man, probably special ops.
If not that, then a retired athlete of some sort.
And there you’d have it.
Klassen, if you didn’t know, was a former professional pigskin player in the Canadian Football League.
From 1981 to 1990 he terrorized offensive linemen and opposing quarterbacks with the BC Lions (mostly) and the Saskatchewan Roughriders (one year).
Before that he was a member of the university powerhouse Simon Fraser Clansmen.
Before that, he was a Sardis kid learning the game on local fields.
“I think I was 11 or 12 years old when I first started playing in a community league organized by people who were involved with the Chilliwack (secondary school) Frontiersmen,” Klassen recalled. “The first team I ever suited up for was the Sardis Smugglers, and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Klassen was the middle linebacker on defence and quarterback on offence his first year, and he had a blast.
“I loved it because it was in the rules of the sport to knock people down,” he grinned. “What I remember most was the purity of the game. It was all about fun.”
Klassen came from an athletic background. Dad George was a very good baseball player and a high school basketball star. Mom Anna played baseball and danced.
They were young parents when Rick was born (19 and 16 respectively), but wise enough to recognize the importance of sports in a young man’s life.
“They gave me an opportunity to play any sport I wanted, and back then you could play four or five different sports,” Klassen said. “Nowadays they want so much commitment from one sport. Back then I remember days in high school where I played four sports in one day.”
Klassen got his work ethic from George, who came to Canada from Germany and built a life through hard work. At 75 year sold, George still puts in hours at his family-owned shake and shingle mill in Maple Ridge.
“He’s up at six every morning and off to the office,” Klassen said.
George and Anna used sports to keep their son on the right academic path.
If he didn’t get grades he didn’t play.
“It was my passion for sports that enabled me to get an honourary degree in business administration from SFU,” he said. “And that’s been super useful in my life.”
Klassen moved away from Chilliwack after graduating from high school, leaving behind a small town that today’s younger Chilliwackians would be hard-pressed to imagine.
“You had the Chilliwack side and the Sardis side, which is all blended together now, but they were quite separate,” he said. “I remember I was 15 when Cottonwood Mall was built and it was a big thing when we got a McDonalds.”
Klassen’s high school head coach was John Tymoschuk.
“He was my coach from Grade 8-12, and he’s very much like a second father to me,” Klassen said. “Him and his wife, they were both teachers and they didn’t have any children of their own. So all of John’s players were like his surrogate sons, and we have a real neat relationship even to this day.”
On of Klassen’s best friends in high school was George Chayka, who’s now the vice-president of business for the CFL’s Lions. Chayka was the best man at Klassen’s wedding.
The Lions were Klassen’s dream as a teenager.
“Back then, the Lions were like Hollywood, and to go to one of their games was a huge deal,” he said. “It was a really long drive, and in high school a bunch of us would make a road trip of it.”
Klassen moved to Vancouver in 1977 when he started going to SFU.
When he joined the Lions to start the 1981 season, the dream came true.
“Not many athletes get the opportunity to play in their hometown,” he said. “
Klassen entered the league as an offensive linemen, but about halfway through his rookie season, Lions head coach Vic Rapp switched him to the defensive line.
Angry and disappointed at first, Klassen got his chance to shine during a game in Ottawa, and from that point on became one of the best defensive linemen in franchise history.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was doing it in such an intense way that I pretty much didn’t leave the field much after that,” he said. “I made some plays, created some havoc and caused a fumble and I was never going back to the offensive line.”
Klassen was named to the Lions 50th Anniversary Dream Team in 2004.
Klassen helped the Lions to the 1983 Grey Cup game.
They lost 18-17 at BC Place to the Toronto Argonauts, with Klassen earning Canadian MVP honours.
He got a brand new car, and the Grey Cup was handed to his good friend, Argonaut Dan Ferrone.
“I asked him to trade the car for the Cup later, and you know what he said, right?” Klassen laughed.
Two years later, Klassen and company won the Grey Cup, topping the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 37-24 at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The 1985 win snapped a 21 year championship drought for the Lions.
“It was a little surreal, a magical day that I’ll never forget,” Klassen said. “I was just a kid from Sardis who grew up watching the Lions. And I had a role in helping put the team back on the map. I’m very proud of that.”