Mike Fabiilli loved visiting his older brother in Ottawa. More precisely, Mike loved making the trip down from Sudbury with his parents, and then sneaking out to watch the Ottawa Rough Riders practice across the street at Frank Clair Stadium.
“I always wanted to play football,” he says simply, before explaining that his Italian heritage pushed him towards soccer. He has a theory about that though. “My family is from the mountains – the rams butt their heads together there and that’s a bit more like football.”
Still, Fabiilli’s story is much more about Sudbury than the mountains of Italy. He learned to play linebacker at St. Charles College and was soon a top recruit with the Sudbury Spartans club team where Gee-Gees head coach Joe Moss came calling. The standout wasn’t sold on Ottawa just yet though. “Later he called me back to tell me Ray Nettles was coaching linebackers. That was it.”
As the Ottawa Citizen reported on Tuesday, August 17, 1982, one week before training camp was set to open, “Nettles was one of the CFL’s premier linebackers who had the reputation of being able to pop an opponent half way down Bank Street,” and Fabiilli regarded him highly. In the same article, Joe Moss was quoted as saying, “[Nettles] will demand a tough commitment to the game.”
That attitude is what stays with Fabiilli when remembering his freshman campaign. The Gee-Gees posted an undefeated regular season in 1982, winning tight games all the way along with the exception of a 38-7 blowout at Carleton to close out the regular season.
“We were gutsy, but very disciplined,” says Fabiilii of the team as a whole before turning specifically to his defensive partners. “We worked together well as a team and were very aggressive. The coaches taught us to read plays.”
“What I saw throughout the football season from Mike was extra effort and big plays. His dedication and commitment to his team made other players better around him,” explains Moss in his endorsement of Fabiilli to the Gee-Gees Hall of Fame.
The 6-1 linebacker recalls each of his six interceptions that season, listing them off game by game. “There was one the first game of the year, against Queen’s. They threw it to the tight end and I picked it off.” Ottawa won 22-20.
“I had two against McGill. Concordia was a nice one. It was right at the end of the game, they were driving. I brought it back 35 or 40 yards and then I went out of bounds because I didn’t want to fumble. I probably could have taken it back.” Thanks to Mike’s skill and selflessness, the Gee-Gees won 19-15.
The team’s season was cut short with a heartbreaking 31-30 loss to Queen’s in the first round of the playoffs. “We still talk about that one-point loss,” says Fabiilli. “We could have gone far.”
The silver lining for Fabiilli and the team came at the CIAU Awards Banquet, where alongside Hec Crighton-winning quarterback Rick Zmich, the linebacker accepted the Peter Gorman Trophy as the national rookie of the year. “They treated us like royalty, bringing us down for that event,” Mike recalls. “I had an inkling I might win it, but I just watched my father’s reaction. He jumped out of his chair!”
Fabiilli was recognized as an OQIFC all-star again in 1983 and was team captain in 1984. Then, a visit to the Ottawa Civic Hospital meant his time on the field was over. “I’d had another concussion and they were ahead of their time there. They advised me to stop, and I thank God for good doctors.”
It was by no means an end to football. After graduating from uOttawa with a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of education in 1987, St. Charles College was ready to hire its alumnus and Fabiilli was in Sudbury once more. There, he teamed with his former coach, Chris Bartolucci, to begin a 29-year tenure on the sideline with the Cardinals. In November his squad brought home the 2015 city championship, the eleventh time Fabiilli helped the team hoist the trophy.
In 1994, the young teacher also helped to found the city’s Joe MacDonald Youth Football League. The endeavor, aimed at engaging young players at a development level, was named after a Sudbury police officer killed in the line of duty and honours the love of the game that the Carleton Ravens player had. The league recently marked its 20th anniversary, and Fabiilli says it is flourishing.
“When you get to teach kids on a football field you give them team work, dedication, and life skills,” says Fabiilli. "Not everyone is a talented player - all they want to do is have some fun. But the camaraderie is always there, and the chance to emphasize schooling with them is very important as well.”
“At St. Charles we carry on old traditions. The Gee-Gees is similar – once a Gee-Gee, always a Gee-Gee but you have to make the effort to carry that on. It’s great to come to the Touchdown Dinner and listen to the stories. You know, we’re still young!”
His achievements with the Gee-Gees are remembered, but his continued involvement with the game makes his induction into the Hall of Fame even more necessary. As Bartolocci put it, “The Peter Gorman Trophy acknowledges Peter Gorman’s emphasis on the youth of Canada. Mike has embraced the meaning of this award and embodies it in his coaching to this day.”