CALGARY — Playing football and following his parents into medicine were Andrew Buckley’s childhood passions.
Two years into his pro football career with the Calgary Stampeders, the 24-year-old quarterback’s acceptance into medical school brought him to a fork in the road.
Buckley announced his retirement from the CFL on Monday. He was Calgary’s backup last season behind starter Bo Levi Mitchell.
A homegrown football product who starred with the University of Calgary Dinos before joining his hometown CFL team, the decision to retire was hard for Buckley.
He said he broke down in tears informing Stampeder head coach Dave Dickenson of his decision.
“I could hardly get a word out,” Buckley said Monday at McMahon Stadium. “It is tough. I’ve been given an incredible opportunity with the hometown team, a team that I’ve been cheering on since I was a kid.
“I’ve wanted to do med school since I was a little kid. Both my parents are doctors, so there’s a little bit of influence there.
“I was kind of one of those weird kids that probably grew up dreaming to be a doctor instead of a pro football player. The way things worked out, the door opened to play pro football and I ran through it and loved every minute of it.”
Buckley’s father Richard, also a former Dino, is an orthopedic surgeon. His mother Lois is a general physician. Buckley was accepted into his alma mater’s medical school starting in July.
“The opportunity was too good not to take it,” Buckley said. “You can decline the offer and try and re-apply, but I’ve heard horror stories of people that do that and never get back in.”
A two-time winner of the Hec Crighton Trophy as the top player in Canadian university football, Buckley also won the 2016 BLG award as U Sports male athlete of the year. The Stampeders drafted him in the seventh round in 2015.
In a league where Canadian quarterbacks are few and far between, Buckley was an impact player for the Stampeders.
Used for carries in short-yardage situations, he scored eight rushing touchdowns in 2016 and tied a CFL single-season record for rushing majors by a Canadian quarterback.
He scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Grey Cup that year.
Buckley had a career 57 carries for 157 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also completed 33 of 44 passes for 326 yards and a touchdown.
When Mitchell was rested Calgary’s regular-season finale in 2017, Buckley completed 13 of 18 passes for 120 yards in his first start.
It’s not unheard-of for football players to pursue medical degrees while they’re playing.
Montreal offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif of the Kansas City Chiefs went to med school in the off-seasons at McGill and is scheduled to graduate this year with his medical degree.
Montreal-born long snapper J.P. Darche began med school studies at McGill before he was drafted by the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and later played in the NFL for Seattle and Kansas City. He resumed med school after retiring.
Buckley didn’t want to be in a position where he couldn’t devote his time and energy to his football team.
“Just given the course load and all the demands on my time that are going to be in school, I think it would be very, very difficult and I don’t think it would be fair to my teammates and to the team here not give 100 per cent of myself to the team,” he explained.
With training camp starting May 20, Buckley’s departure alters Dickenson’s depth chart at quarterback. Ricky Stanzi, the third-stringer in 2017, is now the favourite to be Mitchell’s backup.
Given the shortness of a professional football player’s career, Dickenson says he understands Buckley’s career change.
“We’ve groomed Andrew and I feel he could have been a starter and done well,” he coach said. “For him to just walk away, not too many people do that.
“But Andrew Buckley is not your everyday guy. It doesn’t surprise me that he has options.”