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Canadian gridders adjust to college life at U

November 6, 2000

Ziehl Kavanaght’s teammates call him “Frenchie.”

Mike Labinjo misses his favorite ketchup chips.

And Luc Mullinder doesn’t get to eat West Indian food anymore.

These are just some of the transitions three Canadian natives on MSU’s football team deal with in a foreign country.

Kavanaght, a Brossard, Quebec native, has had the toughest transition because of the language barrier.

Growing up speaking French, the 23-year-old freshman wide receiver didn’t learn English until his latter years of high school.

“The ladies here like the French accent,” Kavanaght said laughing.

Because of language difficulties, Kavanaght was forced to wait before he enrolled in college. He wasn’t cognizant of the SATs and the NCAA Clearinghouse, and his grades had to be translated into English.

“I had to just sit down and not play any football,” Kavanaght said. “There were a lot of schools that wanted me but I couldn’t go because I wasn’t ready. After all the teams backed off, it was only MSU.”

Canadian high school football has many contrasts to American prep football. The field is 110 yards long, 70 yards across and the end zones are 20 yards deep. There are 12 players per side instead of 11.

Being from the Toronto area, language isn’t an impediment for freshmen Labinjo and Mullinder. But the two friends who live about 20 minutes from each other in Canada have other issues to confront.

“I’m still trying to catch up to the other guys who are from America,” Labinjo said of his football upbringing. “Football wasn’t even offered at my school until the ninth grade.”

In Canada, hockey is first, second and third on the sports agenda. The fullback played hockey for eight years, and said he still misses the sport.

Labinjo’s high school, St. Michael’s College, only had three football coaches: a head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators.

“We didn’t really work on basic skills of all the positions,” said Labinjo, who has played fullback and special teams in seven games this year. “When I got here it was a shock how fast everybody was.”

Labinjo, who recently switched positions from running back to fullback, originally committed to Washington, but its coaches were fired shortly after so he pulled out of his commitment.

Current Dallas Cowboys tight end O.J. Santiago also attended St. Michael’s College, but the two never played on the same team.

“He was there two years before I got there, but people were always comparing me to him,” Labinjo said.

Mullinder followed Kavanaght and Labinjo to East Lansing, and he’s enjoyed his experiences as a Spartan so far.

“I love it here,” Mullinder said. “Ziehl and Mike have made it easier for me and I appreciate their help.”

Mullinder, who attended Applewood Heights High School in Mississauga, Ontario, graduated a semester early so he could get a jump on his competition. He said it was a very wise decision.

“I would have been ages behind if I came here at the regular time,” said Mullinder, who has made two catches in four games this year.

Kavanaght said although football isn’t popular in Quebec, when former Michigan and current Carolina Panthers running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka became famous, it brought some popularity to the sport in Quebec. Biakabutuka attended high school in the same conference as Kavanaght.

“I would hear about his games all the time,” Kavanaght said. “He was one of the biggest things in Montreal.”

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