At 9, Nick Vanin arrived with his family in London, Canada, from Cali, Colombia, with his own ideas about what football was.
“Oh, I knew what was football was – but it was the soccer sort of football,” he said. “Around Grade 5 or 6, some of the guys in my school said they were going to football practice. I said, ‘Oh, soccer?’ They were like, ‘No, with a helmet and stuff.’ ‘What do you need a helmet for? I don’t get it.’”
He has come a long way since that first introduction to the game.
In 2017, his final season as a Mustang, Vanin earned first-team Ontario University Athletics (OUA) all-star honours for the second straight year, thanks in large part to his 34 tackles in eight league games, good for second on the team. He won the U Sports Russ Jackson Award in 2017 for best exemplifying the attributes of academic achievement, football skill, and citizenship. He was the first Western student-athlete to win the prestigious trophy, as well as the school’s first-ever nominee for, first presented in 1986. He wrapped up his time in the Purple and Silver by helping lead his team to its Vanier Cup win over Laval.
Tonight, the 24-year-old Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student caps that career by being honoured as a Top 8 Academic All-Canadian by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette in Ottawa.
U Sports student-athletes achieve Academic All-Canadian status by maintaining an average of 80 per cent or better over the academic year while competing for one or more of their university’s varsity teams. One female and one male student-athlete from each of the four U Sports conferences are selected annually to make up the Top 8.
“I learned early on you don’t do things for recognition. It’s been a product of how my parents raised me and the people I chose to surround myself with; they keep things in focus for me. I am aware of the magnitude of these awards; I’m so happy and proud of them.”
Other than the occasional schoolyard game of flag football, it wasn’t until the summer following Grade 9 at Catholic Central Secondary School that he tossed on pads and helmet for the first time.
Vanin excelled almost immediately. His last year of high school brought with it university scouts and offers from multiple schools. He paid a visit to a number of campuses, but wanted his success on and off the football field.
“The first hurdle for me was the academics. I was interested in science. So I would ask, ‘Does the school have a good science program?’” said Vanin, who eventually chose Western over McGill.
Despite studying close to home, the transition was still difficult.
“First year was hard. That jump from end of high school to university is massive. Sports is one thing and school is another,” he explained. “First semester, I was all over the place. It got a bit more manageable and I got more comfortable with balancing it. Once second semester rolled around I had a better idea of how to handle things.”
Vanin earned his Medical Sciences degree in 2017 and was accepted to medical school that summer, his last as a Mustang. A dean’s honor roll student every year of his undergrad, he has continued that path of academic excellence receiving the Patient-Centered Clinical Methods (PCCM) Award for exemplary performance. He is also a researcher at the Victoria Research Laboratories (Lawson Health Research Institute), Centre for Critical Illness Research.
In the community, Vanin is involved with the Junior Mustangs football club, the Women’s Community House and Sexual Assault Centre, Ronald McDonald House and the Andrew Legacy Fundraiser.
“A big part of that goes back to when we moved here and we had a lot of support from the London community, especially on the sports field,” he said, adding he had a lot of opportunities to volunteer through the help of Mustangs Head Coach Greg Marshall. “I’ve always felt the need to give back to what was given to me, in a sense. It was born out of that.”
Vanin also created the Western Football Mentorship Program, pairing up first and fourth-year Mustang football players to work out together, do community work or even just hang out to play a few video games.
“It’s a big team, like 110 guys, and usually a big divide between the fourth and the first years, with guys in different programs. So, I thought how can we make it better,” said Vanin. “To get them used to the culture, we’d talk about football, school or just about life. It created an environment to bond outside of just hanging out after games. It helped in creating a more cohesive environment with the team.”
Now in his second year of medical school – and his first not having to don the Mustangs uniform – he still finds himself being “part of the team.”
“I went to most home games and I still get very emotionally invested. It’s me in the stands yelling and screaming, and I’m sure I was obnoxious,” he laughed, adding he’s now bringing that same passion and focus for football to becoming a doctor.
“There are a lot of similarities in the skills you learn. One is how to effectively communicate with all sorts of people, different personalities and professions,” he said in comparing his football team and his new medical team. “You learn how to be a leader. It’s about knowing when you have to step up and knowing when you have to be a follower and let someone else take the reins.”
At the end of the day, he added, it’s about accountability. You are part of a team and have a role to play.
“Whatever that is, and as small as it may seem, it’s extremely important it happens correctly for the sake of the team’s continuity and for the sake of the patient,” he said. “Whether you have the pads on, or the stethoscope and a lab coat, there are a lot of similarities that are shared.”