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May 26, 2019

15 YEARS AND COUNTING

In most any job these days, a 15-year stay is something to be applauded.

When that job is inside the highly transitory world of professional sports? Well, it’s practically reason for a confetti shower and accompanying brass band.

“The very first day?” Stampeders’ special teams co-ordinator Mark Kilam allows his mind to drift back to 2005, to his younger, inexperienced self. “Oh, yeah. Of course. I was really nervous. I was 25.

“The building” – he motions to the home north end/dressing-room section of McMahon Stadium – “was different back then. I didn’t have an office. So I set up my stuff in the gym that was in there at the time.

“And anybody that walked by, I tried to talk to them.

“New guy, right?

“Just wanted to introduce myself.”

Fifteen years later, introductions are hardly necessary.

Not after 252 regular-season games, the maximum 14 playoff trips and three Grey Cup rings.

“It’s been,’’ he adds, “an amazing ride. Like I said, I was 25 when I started. I’m 40 now. So I’ve literally grown up in this organization.

“I’ve made mistakes over the years, gained a ton of knowledge, learned from incredible people going back to those first three years and the Ted Hellard ownership group.

“Go through the names – Jim Barker, Tom Higgins, Denny Creehan, Rick Campbell, Chris Jones. Some big-time names.

“Everyone wants to be in a place where they have a say in what goes on. They want to have a voice in the room. Be trusted.

“Those are all positives about my job.”

Starting out as the strength and conditioning coach after operating in the same capacity with the U of C Dinos and junior Calgary Colts, Kilam worked with at-the-time Stampeder co-owner Ted Hellard’s son in Cochrane. That connection, and a little prodding, landed him the Stampeder gig.

“I remember going into the meeting room in Tom Higgins’ office with Steve Buratto and all the big dogs,” he reminisces. “I went through my training plan for the season.

“Tom hired me.”

This marks Kilam’s 10th year as special teams co-ordinator, and this season he’s added the title of assistant coach to the business card.

“I hate to say this, and I’m going to pay for this, but he’s almost been like my dad, in some sense,” laughs punter Rob Maver. “The 10 years I’ve been here, he’s been here.

“If he wasn’t here, for whatever reason, it’d be … weird. Real weird. He’s all I’ve known.

“He’s been a huge part of my development. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have gotten the chance in the first place. Then when it would’ve been really easy to get rid of me in 2011, he’s one of the many people that stuck by me.

“You look at us every single year. We’re at the top in kickoff net, at the top in punt, top field-goal, top punt return. We score more points than any other special teams unit in the league.

“That isn’t a fluke.”

So often during his tenure in the charge of special teams, Kilam’s guys have been difference makers. Take November’s Grey Cup, for instance: Terry Williams lugging a punt back 97 yards for a touchdown and Riley Jones forcing a fumble on an Ottawa Redblacks’ punt return.
Both keynote moments in the 26-17 victory.

So what exactly does Kilam mean to his battalion on emotional and tactical levels?

Special teams warrior Charlie Power can tell you.

“Kilam,” he says unhesitatingly, “is by far my all-time favourite coach.

“He has the ability to get players to play for him, to bring that intensity. He sets expectations early in camp and you feed off that. You feel he’s looking out for you, there’s that connection, which you don’t always get with coaches.

“Guys just flat-out want to play for him. You want to show up in the film room, come in day after a game, have him point you out and say: ‘Good job.’

“What he is, is fluid. You see a lot of coaches get stuck in schemes, they become comfortable coaching within a scheme, and then they want to fit players to that scheme.

“Special teams play changes. Rules change. You gotta be fluid. Kilam will see someone do something on the field that works, try and replicate it in practice and teach it to everyone.

“Maybe the next year, refs are calling things differently and he switches things up and we’re learning something else.”

That development, the inter-personal connections, are what keeps the task fresh.

“You see that look of joy in the eyes of a guy you’ve been trying to develop, who’s been working towards taking that next step, after he’s had that success,” Kilam says. “His teammates are all celebrating with him, rallying around him, and that’s when I feel the joy, too. For him.

“What’s cool about being in one job a long time is the relationships you build. You see such growth in guys. Rob Maver. Rene (Paredes), same thing. So many others. And personally, they grow up, get married, have kids. And you are there for it all. That’s cool.”

There have been opportunities to relocate over the passing of the seasons, and everyone naturally has ambitions, yearns for fresh challenges.

“You always want to progress,” says Kilam. “If I didn’t feel I was progressing here, if I didn’t have a voice … Look, I want to be here. I want to be a part of everything that’s going on in this building.

“I grew up two hours south of here. I went to school three hours north in Edmonton. So I’m basically coaching in my hometown. I could not be in a better spot.”

Talk to his guys and they hope he stays forever.

“His longevity here speaks volumes,” praises Power. “Fifteen years, in the same place? In football, that’s unheard of. But he’s consistently adding value. It’s a net positive value having Kilam in the locker-room, every day, every year.

“It’s pretty incredible.”

Amen, chimes in Maver.

“If you’re better than anybody else,” he reasons, “you don’t have to worry about being replaced.

“He’s a fixture in this place.

“When I think Stampeders, one of the things I think right away is Mark Kilam.”

The inner passion for the job hasn’t waned one degree.

“Do you see me on the sidelines?” he teases. “Do I look like I’m losing my edge?

“Naw. I’m still fired up every day.

“Not ready to get off the train just yet.

“Just the other night I was driving home, the sun was setting over there. People might think training camps are a grind but I was actually feeling elated.

“I was thinking about what a great situation I’m in, the group of guys I get to work with every day, players and coaches.

“That was 10 p.m., after a really long training camp day. And I’m still sitting in my car, smiling to myself, feeling like a lucky guy.

“Can’t get any better than that.”