Jefferson Hagen and Vicki Hall
Calgary Herald

The Fennell brothers tried almost every sport in the book growing up.

“They played everything that you could kick or throw or jump over,” reports mom Lynne Fennell.

“David is a snowboarder and he was a basketball player at school. And John tried absolutely everything. He didn’t want to be in a team sport, he wanted something that was an individual sport, so it took a while for us to find something for him.”

When he was 10, they met Walter Corey, who is now the high performance director at the Canadian Luge Association. That led to John Fennell attending a camp at Canada Olympic Park. The youngster, who saw luge as an extension of his tobogganing hobby, was instantly hooked.

Eight years later, he competed in an Olympic Games, finishing 27th in last Saturday’ men’s singles run in Sochi.

“The reason I love it so much is the adrenalin rush. Every time I take a run, I get that same adrenalin rush. It’s almost addictive,” says John, who has only three World Cups under his belt, but was top 25 in two of them.

His older brother David is a sporting star in his own right; the football defensive tackle is currently attending Michigan State on a full-ride scholarship. He turned 20 on the day the No. 4-ranked Spartans played and beat the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. While he didn’t see action, the former product of the Calgary-based Rundle College Cobras is still one of the rare locals playing NCAA Div. 1.

“(The Rose Bowl) was just an amazing experience overall,” explains David over the phone from East Lansing, Mich. “I don’t think there’s too much like it. It was an incredible experience.”

That was just part 1 of 2 in an incredible year of athletic accomplishment for the Fennell boys.

“I can say my parents were proud, that’s for sure,” says John, who, like his brother, is the son of former CFL star Dave ‘Dr. Death’ Fennell, the league’s outstanding defensive player winner in 1978 when he was busy helping the Edmonton Eskimos to five straight Grey Cup titles (from 1978 to 1982).

“It’s been a pretty big year for us Fennells. I get goose bumps thinking about how well my brother is doing in football, and I hope he feels the same way about me in luge.”

That he does. While David couldn’t make it to Sochi because of commitments at school, he watched Saturday’s action on a video feed.

“I’m really proud of him,” says David. “He’s really taken his sport and just done a great job with it. It’s inspiring.”

The pride that Dave Fennell Sr. has is evident as well.

“To me the most important thing is their commitment to learning their sports and what it takes to be successful because there’s some life lessons to be learned in those things,” says Dave Sr., who, in 2006, was voted No. 24 on TSN’s list of the top 50 CFL players of the modern era.


John Fennell practices during a men’s Luge training session at the Sanki Sliding Centre in Rosa Khutor on February 6, 2014, on the eve of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games’ opening ceremony.

“And it’s something (where) they’ve each chosen different paths, but I think they’re learning very much the same things. It’s about setting goals and achieving goals and focusing on what it takes in order to achieve things. For all those things, I’m extremely proud of their efforts and their results.”

John is embracing everything the Olympics have to offer from the competition to the party atmosphere to the melting pot of cultures.

“It’s really exciting for me,” he says. “I’ve had a little bit of a taste of the Olympic experience before. I went to the 2012 Youth Olympic Games in Austria, and that was just a fraction of what this is. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I get a little overwhelmed sometimes with just how new everything is. But I can’t say that I’m not excited, because it’s something I’ve waited a long time for.”

Both biological parents — who split several years ago but played their own roles in their sons’ sporting development — were trackside for John’s race.

“Luge is not a sport a parent is enthusiastic about,” muses Dave Fennell Sr., who, after a successful CFL career wrapped up, has been involved in several successful resource mining ventures, including his current position as executive chairman of the Canadian-based junior exploration company Odyssey Resources Ltd.

“But he (chose) a sport and he’s committed to it. Then you want to make sure that he has every opportunity to be successful. We’ve seen him progress through the whole luging system to get to the point where he is now.”

John credits his parents with playing a big part in his success and was pleased they could make it to Sochi.

“(My mom’s) been so unconditionally supportive of whatever I wanted to do,” he says. “It means so much to me that she’s going to be here watching me race.”

After the luge competition ended, Lynne stayed on to volunteer at Canada Olympic House. All of it has been worth the hard work for the family to get to this point.


John Fennell practices during a men’s Luge training session at the Sanki Sliding Centre in Rosa Khutor on February 6, 2014, on the eve of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games’ opening ceremony.

“We’ve made a few sacrifices as a family,” Lynne explains. “(The boys have) been gone a lot and Dave (Jr. is) a long way away and I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like to. But he’s doing what he really wants to do — just play football. He’s been playing football since he was eight years old and that’s a big thing in his life.”

David Fennell Jr., who finished high school in Beaverton, Oregon, in order to attract U.S. scouts, reminds many of his dad.

After watching him play in 2012, former CFL great Don Matthews told the Calgary Herald: “One game; he did a quick swim move over an offensive lineman and went in and just engulfed the quarterback. It reminded me so much of Big Dave that I had to laugh. It was the spitting image.”

Dave Sr. credits Matthews with helping further his son’s career by helping land David Jr. a spot in Oregon.

“For a kid who was going to Rundle high school three years ago, saying ‘I’m going to go play football at the highest level at an American college’, you’ve got to have an awful lot of determination to get there,” notes Dave Sr. “But I’m equally as proud of the fact he’s in engineering school. He knows what he wants when he graduates.”

While his sporting goal is to one day get to the NFL or CFL, David Fennell Jr. is just focused on earning some playing time at Michigan State in 2014. It’s been hard to come by so far in two seasons, where he’s been redshirting.

“Either of those would be certainly great, but right now I’m just focused on this particular season coming up,” explains the 6-foot-2, 267-pounder. “It’s important for me to work hard this off-season and we’ll see where it takes me from there.”

The hard work to get to this point has been on full display for the Fennell family. The payoff is palpable.

“A father’s pride in seeing the success of a child’s endeavours . . . it’s one step in a journey. And it’s a realization of his commitment to his sport,” says Dave Sr. “Something that, obviously, a parent can be very proud of.”

“We’ve had a good year,” Lynne notes. “It started out at the Rose Bowl and it’s going to end up at the Olympics, so I’m happy.”