By John DeCoste
The 1981 Acadia Axemen football team remains one of the most remarkable teams to have played the game at the university level, says one of the team’s coaches.
Tony Stewart - a retired educator, former Axemen player in the late-1960s and early-1970s and a coach for several years - helped prepare nominations for both the 1979 and 1981 College Bowl-winning Axemen teams for the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.
The 1981 team will be among this year’s inductees at a ceremony Nov. 2 in Halifax. Stewart said he believes the 1979 squad, Acadia’s first national championship team, will likely not be far behind.
“We had prepared nominations for both teams,” the Wolfville resident said. “The 1979 team may have been even a little bit stronger, but the reason the 1981 team was chosen was because of all the Nova Scotians.”
Of the team’s players and coaches, more than half were homegrown, Stewart said. “That was kind of an anomaly for that time, given that there wasn’t much football being played in Nova Scotia, not like there is today.”
The 1981 team went through the entire season without losing a game.
“It hadn’t happened very much before that, and even today, I think there have only been around 13 undefeated Vanier Cup champions,” Stewart said.
In the Atlantic Bowl, Larry Priestnall led Acadia with 220 yards and three touchdowns to swamp Queen’s 40-14 and advance to the College Bowl against Alberta.
In one of the most exciting Canadian Interuniversity Sport finals ever, the Axemen came from behind for an 18-12 win over the Golden Bears, scoring the winning points in the final minute.
Quentin Tynes, who scored the winning touchdown, shared offensive honours with quarterback and game MVP, Steve Repic, Don Clow and kicker Jim DiRenzo. All-Canadians Stuart MacLean, Tom Johnson and Chris Rhora keyed the defence.
Halifax native Tony Munden, who returned to Wolfville to live 10 years ago after several years in Ontario, was an offensive lineman on the 1981 Axemen.
On the field, the 1981 Axemen, according to Stewart, featured “a number of quite remarkable individual accomplishments,” over and above what they did as a team.
Quentin Tynes was named Atlantic University Football Conference Rookie of the Year, Stuart MacLean Defensive Player of the Year and quarterback Steve Repic MVP of the College Bowl game.
Tom Johnson, a defensive back on that team, “still holds the CIS record for interceptions in a game with four,” Stewart said.
More than 30 years later, kicker Jim DiRenzo still holds a number of AUS records.
Bob Trainor - who, like Munden, Stewart, Priestnall and assistant coaches Dave Hirsch and Dan McNally - still lives in or near Wolfville, was an offensive lineman on the 1981 team.
Trainor, who grew up in Halifax and attended St. Patrick’s High School, said there were 10 or 12 players who played on both the 1979 and 1981 champions. He also commented on the proportionately large number of Nova Scotians on the 1981 team.
“It was one of Coach Huard’s goals, and his recruiting focus, to concentrate on Maritime kids. His philosophy was discipline and accountability, and that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.”
It’s a philosophy the Axemen players embraced, both during their time playing for Huard as well as in their subsequent lives and careers. In Trainor’s case, he spent a couple of years working for Acadia in the area of advancement and fundraising.
As their record would suggest, the 1981 Axemen were a team with very few holes. According to Trainor, the team “focused on the running game,” with Tynes and Priestnall making up “an impressive combo.”
The Axemen also had strength at the other positions, including receiver. Clow, David Conrad, Steve Crane, Stuart MacLean and Chris Rhora were all subsequently chosen in the CFL draft.
Even more impressive than their accomplishments on the field, Munden said, “is their impact on Acadia University and on Acadia football” since graduation.
The 1981 Axemen are “a group of men that have become leaders across their fields of study and leaders in business across the nation,” he said.
“Most of us left Wolfville many years ago; however, we all still carry a piece of Acadia with us,” which has combined to create “an unprecedented legacy.”
Members of the 1981 and 1979 Axemen have been extremely generous in their giving to Acadia and in their advancement efforts on behalf of Axemen football.
Team members played an essential role in the fundraising for the new football field at Acadia, with their head coach, John Huard, leading the way by donating the Field Turf playing surface on behalf of his company.
Axemen players from that era also played a key role in the “The Tides are Turning” capital campaign, as well as ongoing fundraising efforts on behalf of Acadia football.
Football Axemen alumni, including Larry Priestnall and Keith Skiffington of the 1981 team, have also been instrumental in the development of football in Nova Scotia at the minor and high school levels.
“As proud as Coach Huard was of the championships he won,” Munden said, “he is just as proud of the Axemen he coached, their successes and accomplishments.”