When Mark Pearce was recruited to play football for the University College of Cape Breton Capers in 1990, he didn’t even know where Cape Breton Island was located.
“I knew nothing,” explained Pearce. “I had no idea where Nova Scotia was, I had no idea where Cape Breton was or anything. All I knew, I was going there to play football.”
Pearce was 21 years old when he was recruited by the late George Brancato to play football for the Capers.
Despite not knowing much about the sport, Pearce decided to take the advice of the former Canadian Football League coach and left England to pursue a university career in Cape Breton, a decision he doesn’t regret.
As the UCCB Capers began preparing for the 1990 season under the leadership of then athletic director J.I. Albrecht, coach Brancato travelled to England to recruit players.
During his time in the U.K., Brancato discovered Pearce playing with an amateur rugby team.
“He saw me and four other Brits playing rugby and I guess he felt he could turn us into football players,” said Pearce, who at the time was six-foot-seven, 250 pounds.
“He offered us an under-the-table scholarship to go to Cape Breton and basically help start the football program.”
After thinking about the offer, Pearce and the Englishmen agreed to attend the Sydney-based university, but made it clear they didn’t know much about football.
“Obviously, both rugby and football are physical, but I didn’t know anything more than the other guys from England,” said Pearce. “The physicality, the athleticism and the toughness were common with the sports, but the ball handling and tackling was a lot different.”
LEARNING THE GAME
Pearce immediately began researching the game and the rules to have some knowledge before arriving in Sydney.
“We didn’t have the internet or anything like that, so I was looking things up in books,” said Pearce. “I couldn’t believe the three-down system and everything — for that matter I didn’t even know Canada had a professional league, it was all new to me.”
The KingsLynn, England, native quickly learned the rules during the Capers training camp in August 1990 at the Canadian Coast Guard College.
Brancato assigned Pearce to play tight-end and defensive-end. He was helped by guest coach Josh Arnold, who had played football in the United States.
“We were practising twice a day and working on our game,” said Pearce. “We learned pretty quick that we’d be playing both offence and defence, but we were able to learn on the fly.”
A NEW HOME
In an attempt to have the team bond and learn more about each other, the players were housed at the coast guard college and would run practices on the facility's soccer field which was later turned into a football field.
“We thought living in Cape Breton was amazing,” said Pearce. “Living in the coast guard dorms, the climate, the full-sized swimming pool, squash courts, a weight room and cafeteria, it was like a Division 1 college in the United States.”
Pearce recalls the team’s training camp was gruelling and an experience he won’t forget.
“Brancato brought his tough mentality into our training camp,” said Pearce. “When we trained in rugby during the week it wasn’t full contact, we would have waited until the Saturday afternoon game, but in Cape Breton we were tackling every practice.”
After spending the first half of the year living at the college in Westmount, Pearce and the other out-of-town players were moved to a hotel in Sydney.
Pearce, who was studying business at UCCB, remembers the first time he saw ice in Sydney harbour and recalls getting in trouble because of it.
“We had never seen ice like that before,” laughed Pearce. “I remember we went out onto the ice and we got halfway out and realized it wasn’t as thick as we thought and went back — J.I. wasn’t happy about it and let us hear it.”
Despite the efforts by Albrecht and Brancato, the season didn’t go as planned for the Capers.
The team would finish the year winless, but that didn’t stop Pearce from enjoying his time both on and off the field.
“It was the first time I had been part of a team where you lived together, ate together, and basically slept together,” said Pearce. “When you were on the field playing, we really were playing for each other and taking the bruises and knocks for the other guys — we did the best we could.”
"He saw me and four other Brits playing rugby and I guess he felt he could turn us into football players," — Mark Pearce
Looking back, Pearce admits playing both offence and defence in the same game eventually got the better of them because by the fourth quarter the team was always out of gas.
“It was tough,” said Pearce. “It wasn’t an easy feat for a lot of guys. It would never happen nowadays, but at that time it’s all we had.”
The highlight of the season for Pearce came in the team’s home opener against Saint Mary’s University when he sacked Huskies’ star quarterback Chris Flynn, bringing 3,000 people to their feet.
“It was the ultimate game of the season regardless of how we did the rest of the year,” said Pearce. “It was a beautiful hot sunny day and something I won’t forget.”
Pearce said he is still in contact with some of the Capers including Carlo Disipio.
Shortly after the 1990 season, the players and community learned the football program wouldn’t return for the 1991 season.
Costs, and perhaps unnecessary spending, along with the operations, equipment and salaries are to this day believed to be the reason the school’s board of governors cut the football program.
After the season, Pearce found a home with the Barcelona Dragons in the World League of American Football, featuring seven U.S.-based teams and four European teams.
“I went from playing university football to a training camp with the Dragons where there were ex-NFL players trying to get back into the league — it was a huge leap,” said Pearce.
“I will always remember the first day of training camp, I couldn’t believe how hard they hit and how quick and fast they were — my position coach at the time really took me under his wing and taught me a lot.”
Pearce went on to play two years with the Dragons before his agent Dean Albrecht, J.I. Albrecht's son, approached him with the idea of playing in the CFL. Because of his time in Cape Breton, he was eligible for the draft.
With professional experience under his belt, Pearce was selected in the first-round of the 1993 CFL draft, No. 6 overall, by the Calgary Stampeders, who had won the 80th Grey Cup in Toronto the previous year.
“Coach Wally Buono had told Dean they wanted to keep me under wrap, and didn’t let any other teams know about me,” said Pearce, noting the draft was in Calgary.
“Other top-six Canadian college players were there, but the funny thing was, nobody really knew who I was because I wasn’t on the radar aside from Cape Breton in my first year.
“When the Stampeders picked me and they played my highlight-reel on the video screen — all Dragons highlights — even the hometown crowd didn’t know who I was.”
Pearce would play three seasons in the CFL. In his first year with Calgary, he played 15 of the 18 games prior to becoming a free agent the following year.
As he waited for the Stampeders to make a decision on his status, Pearce had two tryouts with the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders and New Orleans Saints, but eventually returned to the CFL.
Pearce started the 1994 season with the CFL's Shreveport Pirates and was later traded to the B.C. Lions and eventually back to Calgary
“I had a great time with the Stampeders early on,” said Pearce. “It was fantastic playing with Doug Flutie. I will always remember playing against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in – 27 weather and there still being 30,000 people in the stands."
LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL
While playing with the Stampeders in 1995, Pearce opened his own business — Mystic Forge Ironworks in Cochrane, Alta.
Prior to moving to Cape Breton, he had been a blacksmith by trade since the age of 15.
After being traded several times and living out of a suitcase as well as not knowing what would happen next, Pearce decided to retire from football during the 1997 training camp after the Stampeders attempted to cut his pay.
“Wally wanted to cut my paycheque and it didn’t agree with me — I was one of only a few guys taking a cut,” said Pearce. “He knew I had my business and I wouldn’t be going anywhere, but I decided to retire instead.”
Today, Mystic Forge Ironworks is celebrating its 25th year in business and has been a great success.
“I was very fortunate to land in Calgary because we catered to the rich and the famous here,” said Pearce. “We do architecture line work — the oil and gas (industries) have been very good to us.”
Pearce met his wife Leah while demonstrating blacksmithing at the Calgary Stampede. The couple has two sons, 15-year-old Odin and 13-year-old Mason.
“My kids are in rugby,” said Pearce. “We’re not pushing them into football, but if they want to try it they can, but they do like rugby — my oldest one likes blacksmithing as well.”
The 53-year-old Pearce credits Cape Breton Island for his life today.
“If it wasn’t for Cape Breton, I wouldn’t be where I am now, living the dream in Canada,” said Pearce. “I ended up in the best country to live in and for sure my time in Cape Breton was the biggest stepping stone — it was the Cape Breton experience that moulded me to where I am now.”
Jeremy Fraser is the sports reporter for the Cape Breton Post. He's been with the publication for four years. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @CBPost_Jeremy.