Mike Labinjo gave two of the greatest playoff performances by a defensive lineman in Canadian Football League history, the first coming in the 2008 West Division Final, the second a week later in the 96th Grey Cup in Montreal.
On both occasions, Mr. Labinjo was the Great Wall of Calgary. Opposing players couldn’t go through him and couldn’t go around him. He stopped runners cold in their tracks, stymied quarterbacks by either deflecting their passes or dropping them where they stood. They were dominant efforts rife with ferocity and crucial timing.
In that West Final against the B.C. Lions, the 6-foot, 285-pound Mr. Labinjo staged a one-man, goal-line stand. Twice, B.C. gave the ball to running back Ian Smart and twice Mr. Labinjo tackled him for a loss, forcing the Lions to kick a field goal instead of going for a touchdown. When the game ended 22-18 in Calgary’s favour, Mr. Labinjo’s heroics included three quarterback sacks, six tackles and a forced fumble.
The stonewalling continued in the Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes. The Toronto-born Mr. Labinjo frustrated veteran passer Anthony Calvillo, sacked him once and knocked down three of his throwing attempts. It was enough to help Calgary win the game, 22-14, for its sixth Grey Cup championship in franchise history.
It was also the last great highlight of Mr. Labinjo’s football career.
When news broke that Mr. Labinjo had died in his sleep in Calgary on Sept. 21, it set off an outpouring of shock and sadness. Just 38 years old, he was well-liked by friends and rivals and admired for his engaging personality. To many, his smile was as memorable as his ability to shake down a ball carrier. He was the kind of teammate others appreciated and wanted to chum around with.
“He was just a sincere, charismatic, endearing guy,” former Stampeders punter and friend Burke Dales said. “He had that Denzel Washington-esque smile that would light the room up. We just hit it off right out of the gate.”
Mr. Labinjo was born July 8, 1980. His parents separated when he was 8 and his mother, Margaret, felt her son needed a male figure in his life. She connected with the Big Brothers organization, which ultimately led young Michael to be paired with Frank Giffen. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.
“At the beginning, he was a really shy kid,” Mr. Giffen told TSN's Brian Williams prior to the 2008 Grey Cup. “But it was that big smile that made you want to find out more about him.”
When contacted by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Giffen replied he was “just not ready” to talk about the loss of the boy who grew up to become a close friend. That said, the story of the football player and the Big Brother was well-documented, a tale of compassion that demonstrates the importance of a positive influence.
It was Mr. Giffen who confronted the lagging high schooler whose marks had fallen from As down to Cs. Mr. Labinjo was playing hockey and football and was told he had to give one up.
"That was the only time [Mr. Giffen] got mad at me," Mr. Labinjo recalled in 2008. “He decided to take away something I wanted."
He chose to pass on football to try and emulate his idol, the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks. (Mr. Labjino once joked that he wanted to become “the Canadian Rocket.”) When his grades went up, Mr. Labinjo returned to the football field and helped St. Michael’s College School win the 1998 GTA Metro Bowl championship.
Mr. Labinjo eventually quit hockey to concentrate on football. With his Big Brother’s help, Mr. Labinjo sent out highlight tapes of his best games to some 50 universities. Michigan State offered him a full scholarship and he ended up graduating with an economics degree.
As for his football experience, Mr. Labinjo was an honourable All-Big 10 Conference selection as well as his team’s defensive MVP in 2003.
Unclaimed in the NFL Draft, Mr. Labinjo was once again rescued by his Big Brother, who hired a strength and speed coach and set up a training base in Arizona. Primed to near perfection, Mr. Labinjo worked out for several teams before signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. They advanced to Super Bowl XXXIX against the New England Patriots and it was Mr. Labinjo who raced downfield on the opening kickoff and made the game’s first tackle. The Patriots went on to win by three points.
After being released by Philadelphia in 2005, Mr. Labinjo spent time with the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins before signing with the Stampeders, who had chosen him years earlier in the third round of the 2003 CFL Draft. An elbow injury cost him much of his 2007 season. Once recovered and rested, he made the following year his coming-out party, capped by his back-to-back playoff prominence.
But what should have been a launching point for Mr. Labinjo’s stardom turned out to be nothing of the sort. In 2009, he came to training camp underprepared. He was moved from defensive end to tackle to outside linebacker in search of an ideal position. He then suffered a season-crippling knee injury. The next year, he was traded to Montreal only to learn the deal had been voided when his previously repaired elbow couldn’t pass the Alouettes’ medical exam.
He ended his 44-game CFL career with 61 tackles, six sacks, seven pass knockdowns and two fumble recoveries.
“I don’t believe he was appreciated to the level he should have been,” said former Calgary defensive back and another good friend Wes Lysack. “It’s a business, and that’s fine. … But he was traded while he was hurt. It just wasn’t handled the right way, especially for somebody who was coming off what he had done for us.”
After retiring from the game, Mr. Labinjo used his economics degree to stay in Calgary and work for Solengo Capital and FirstService Residential, where he was appointed a regional manager. He leaves his daughter, Hailey; his mother, Margaret; and his brother, Randy.