Thorold’s ‘Runway of Recognition’ is once again inducting Thorold athletes into its Hall of Fame on June 6.
One of those athletes is Dan Giancola, who is being honoured for his ten-year career as a professional football player in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Giancola’s career is one of impressive highs. He was one of the highest scoring rookie players in his first year in the CFL, and he won the Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts in 2004—but the story of how he got onto the professional football field is the more fascinating one. It’s a tale of beating insurmountable odds and never giving up on yourself.
“I never played university football so I was a million-to-one shot on a good day,” Giancola says, recounting his story in an interview with ThoroldToday.
Giancola’s first love wasn't football but soccer. Growing up in an Italian family, soccer was a way of life.
“I grew up with a ball on my foot,” says Giancola. “My dad told me I was a late walker and I ended up walking one day because I saw a red ball roll across the house and I got up and went after it.”
It wasn’t until Giancola’s first year at Denis Morris high school that football entered the picture.
“One of my buddies came up to me and said: ‘Would you like to come out for the junior team football?’” Giancola remembers. “I said: ‘Number one: I’ve never watched football before, and number two: for what?’ He said: ‘We need a kicker’. I said: ‘What the hell, but don’t tell my dad because he’ll kill me.’”
When Giancola arrived on the football field, he had no idea what he was supposed to do.
“I had no clue, I never even watched a game before,” he says. “We put the ball down on the T. I stepped back six or seven steps, no idea how to kick a football, but I remember just crushing the kick. It must have carried another 25 yards through the end zone.”
The football coach, Red Ferracuti, was impressed and asked Giancola to keep going. After kicking the ball further and further along the end zone—even hitting a school bus in the process—the decision was a no-brainer: Dan Giancola was the new kicker for the Denis Morris football team.
“I said: ‘Coach, I really appreciate this but my dad didn’t even know I was coming out,’” Giancola recalls. “He said: ‘What if I talked to your father?’ So he called my dad and the rest was history. Grade 9 through 13, I played senior football. I won five championships in high school.”
When he graduated in 1988, the next logical step for Giancola was to continue his football career at a university or college, but that dream quickly came to a screeching halt.
“To play professional football you have to go to what they call ‘Football Factory,’” says Giancola. “You got to go to university to play. I didn’t have the marks. I wasn’t a dumb kid, I was just so into sports. Unfortunately, the realization that I didn’t have the marks was the hardest part.”
Giancola started studying at Niagara College, where he aimlessly switched courses every year because he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
“Hockey I stopped playing, soccer I stopped playing, but what I loved to do was grab my rubber football and I would go to C.E. Grose Park,” Giancola remembers. “I would go there, and I would kick it, pretending I was at the Super Bowl kicking the game-winning kick. That’s where my mind was set. I was always envisioning myself making this big kick, which was crazy because I had nowhere to go.”
In 1993, Giancola was told of a free agents' camp hosted by the Toronto Argonauts, where there would be scouts hoping to find the next big football star.
“It was the most intimidating experience I’ve ever been through in my life,” he says. “When I got there I felt so out of place because the guys came from all over. I just remember I made all my field goals. Then I saw the kicker for the Edmonton Eskimos and he was trying to break back into the league and for me to go 21 for 21 blew my mind. At the end of the workout, Nick Volpe [former Argonauts player and scout for the team] says: ‘I want to ask you guys, who do you feel was the best kicker today?’ And everybody pointed at me. I just remember deep inside I was ready to cry.”
Volpe told Giancola he was impressed with his kicks and that he would be in touch in the coming days.
“I went to the store and bought myself a Toronto Argonauts hat,” Giancola says. “I started telling everybody. A week went by and I didn’t get a call. I thought I’ll pick up the phone. Somehow, some way I got through. He said: ‘Danny, I hate to say it but son, you got to go to college/university to play.’”
Even though it was a crushing blow to face the same roadblock once again, Giancola felt encouraged by the response at the training camp and he set out to become a professional football player on his own terms.
“My uncle was so instrumental along with my girlfriend, now my wife,” he says. “She would be doing all the resume stuff, writing down all my stats, and my uncle would videotape all my games. We would put together a highlight package, and send it to all the teams, go to all the free agents camps. Then, nothing would come of it, and I’d repeat that cycle for nine years.”
During this time Giancola attended 131 training camps and at each one he was told that without university or college it was simply not possible to become a professional football player. Luckily, he could fall back on minor league football, which kept his dream alive.
“I started off in Toronto and spent the rest of my time in Buffalo, between the Lancers and Gladiators,” Giancola says. “Guys pay-to-play, you pay for your jerseys, you paid for your own gas money. Those guys played for the love of the game.”
Then, one day, he finally got the call. In 1998, after eight years of trying, Giancola signed a contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“It was the most amazing feeling in the world, ” says Giancola. “Finally, after all these years I get this opportunity. I’m on the plane, getting ready to go, and all of a sudden I hear: ‘Passenger Dan Giancola, can you please report to the front of the plane?’ I don’t know what is happening. They told me: ‘Mister Giancola, they just want to see you at the front gate.’ I go back out to boarding and they said to me: ‘The Roughriders have called, in hopes to catch you before you boarded the plane. They no longer need your services. Their kicker is coming back from the World League.’”
Devastated, Giancola cried all the way home from the airport. Feeling like he let everybody down in his life, he wondered if maybe it was time to hang up his jersey.
The next day, while working out in the school gym, he saw the athletic director put up a poster on the wall.
“I went to go look,” Giancola remembers. “And it’s a picture of a young athlete doing a lay-up for basketball and it says on it: ‘One in 100,000 student athletes will ever play a professional sport so stay in school.’ For me it was somebody giving me the odds. I took that poster off the wall, I went home with it, and put it on the wall of my bedroom. I read that same poster over and over again and then it hit me: ‘Why does it always have to be somebody else? Why not me?’ I put a big X through the 100,000 on that poster and wrote: ‘Be that one.’ Those were the most powerful words I’ve ever spoken. I told myself that I was going to keep going until I had my break. In 1999 is when I got it, one year later.”
It was then that Giancola signed with the Toronto Argonauts, where he enjoyed a breakout rookie year. He kicked 48 field goals while going 28 for 28 on extra point conversions. The 181 points that accumulated that season were five points shy of the most points ever scored by a first-year player in the CFL.
“My first year I lit it up,” Giancola says. “It was just automatic. You’re living in this dream that you worked so hard for. It’s hard to put any of that into words, it really is. You’re doing something that everybody said was impossible.”
Throughout his professional career, Giancola played for the Argonauts, the BC Lions, and the Ottawa Renegades. When he won the Grey Cup in 2004 with the Argonauts, he proudly ran around the field with a Thorold flag draped around his back.
"It was one of my objectives to stand proud and say: ‘I’m a Thorold boy, this is the small town I came from,’” he says. “I just wanted everyone to know.”
After ten years, his career came to a disappointing close due to a groin injury, but Giancola mostly remembers the good times.
“[There were] a lot of honours along the way,” he says. “When I got traded from Toronto to BC, I was traded for two players. That was crazy, as a kicker to be traded for two players. I played with Lui Passaglia in his last year. They were little things that a lot of people didn’t notice, but I did. Looking back on it now, how blessed was I?”
These days, Giancola has devoted himself to helping others at his training studio in Thorold, which he has aptly named BTO Performance, short for Be That One Performance.
“I took the blueprint of what I went through and how I changed my dream and how I pursued it and I applied it to the business,” Giancola says. “You’re still making an impact on people’s lives, you’re just doing it in a different way. Now people are coming up to me and saying: ‘If it wasn’t for you I probably wouldn’t be here anymore.’”
Giancola sees his own story as a reminder of the potential you can find in Thorold.
“There’s been a lot of great athletes to come out of Thorold,” he says. “It’s the story of the underdog. It’s such a small city, there’s a lot of pride there. I can’t even begin to say the pride I have for my hometown.”
Giancola is being honoured at the ‘Runway of Recognition’ gala on June 6th at Club Capri. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.