It may not be the type that he studied in university but Dave Van Den Heuvel will be practicing engineering, of sorts, in his new job.
Rather than designing, building and maintaining mechanical systems, the Antigonish County native will be creating and implementing schemes as offensive co-ordinator for the St. F.X. X-Men football team.
“It is really exciting. This is where I wanted to be and I am excited to be here,” he said of his new full-time role with the program, which he started officially Feb. 1.
“I have been pretty involved with the program and excited for the opportunity to continue working with the players and the coaches.”
Van Den Heuvel, who has been part of the X-Men for more than five seasons, made the move from assistant offensive co-ordinator and offensive line coach.
“I had always followed football, but playing was different – eye-opening – for sure,” he said of his beginnings on the gridiron in high school with the Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Royals.
“I enjoyed it, right away, especially the strategy – all the moving parts working together – and the physicality of it.
“I think I picked some of those things up, pretty quickly, and fell in love with it,” he added.
Mike Stewart, then head coach of the Royals, convinced him to play.
“He was on me for a couple years and I finally decided to come out,” Van Den Heuvel said.
“He was a great coach, helping me along and showing me what it was all about. I learned a lot from him.”
He looks up to Stewart and admires everything he has done for football in the community.
“You can’t really talk about football in Antigonish without talking about Mike,” Van Den Heuvel said.
After graduating from the Regional, because of his late start, he thought that would mark the end of his playing days.
A visit to Antigonish by an area scout from Queen’s University in Kingston turned into an offer to join the Gaels, where he played three seasons on the offensive line and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I don’t know if I ever had that moment,” Van Den Heuvel said, when asked about playing at the next level.
For him, football – like the other sports he participated in – was “just another way to get involved in athletics in high school.”
“It became much more [for me] and I am happy that I did it,” Van Den Heuvel said.
While a sophomore at Queen’s, he starting coaching, helping out a couple times per week with a local high school team.
“I got a little more involved, at another high school, and really enjoyed it,” Van Den Heuvel said.
He noted he “really enjoyed” learning everything involved with coaching football, including the “schematic side.”
“I have always enjoyed the people aspect and the teamwork involved,” Van Den Heuvel added.
While winding down his studies in Kingston, he decided he wanted to become a teacher, which brought him home to Antigonish and St. F.X.
Even before he was accepted into the school’s education program, Van Den Heuvel recalled – with a laugh – Stewart, his first coach, was engineering his return to Royals football.
“It was a natural fit [with teaching] to continue to get involved,” he said.
Van Den Heuvel spent five seasons with the Regional, including a stint as head coach.
“I also felt like I owed something – I had so many good coaches – I wanted to give back, especially to the high school team at the Regional, which was important to me,” he said.
Noting he is “always interested in learning more,” Van Den Heuvel has helped satisfy that appetite with a variety of coaching experiences, including his time with the Royals and X-Men.
Over the past four summers, he has been part of the Football Nova Scotia U-18 program, while last year he headed to the International Bowl in Dallas as the offensive line coach for the Canadian U-18 team.
Van Den Heuvel has also participated in the U SPORTS East-West Bowl, on two occasions, coaching the running backs in 2018 and the offensive line in 2017.
“I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of really good coaches, a lot of really good coordinators,” he said.
“I have always tried to learn whatever I can from every coach that I talk to, even ones from other sports.”
Van Den Heuvel noted “everyone has their own style.”
“Again, I have been lucky enough to work with some people who are different, and neither one are necessarily better than the other; they are just different,” he said.
Van Den Heuvel also stressed the importance of his time with Football Nova Scotia and Football Canada.
“I have always gotten great opportunities and I have always gained something from each experience,” he said.
Speaking of opportunities, coming on the heels of becoming OC for the X-Men, Van Den Heuvel was named head coach for Football Nova Scotia’s U-18 squad that will play in the 2019 Football Canada Cup.
‘Paid his dues’
With that coaching resume in mind, X-Men head coach Gary Waterman agreed Van Den Heuvel has “paid his dues.”
“Dave has done great work with our guys – he is familiar with them, along with our program, the community and the school – so it is really exciting for us,” he said.
Waterman added Van Den Heuvel has “really grown as a coach,” noting his “creative and innovative mind.”
“We are really lucky to have him,” he said.
Noting he worked a full-time job while dedicating countless hours to the X-Men program, Waterman agreed no one deserves such an opportunity more than Van Den Heuvel.
“You saw a guy that really wanted to get into coaching. You knew he was doing it for the love of the sport and the passion,” he said.
“Again, Dave has paid his dues and he has done a great job of developing himself and he is going to do a great job with us.”
Let’s get physical
As for what the offense will look like, under his direction, Van Den Heuvel said – first and foremost – the X-Men will be physical and fundamentally sound.
Noting “a lot of things that can dictate [the direction],” including personnel, he added running a balanced offense will be a focus.
And, as he has always done, he will tap into what he has learned from other coaches, including Warren Goldie and Steve Snyder – the previous two offensive co-ordinators for the X-Men.
“We have to lock it up, up front, and get the ball to our playmakers; get the football to the right people, at the right time, and give them a chance to go make plays,” Van Den Heuvel said.
No matter what system the X-Men employ, the key to success – for him – will not be the Xs and Os, or the wins and losses, but the relationships, which Van Den Heuvel described as “a big thing.”
“I have gained lot of perspective from one of our younger coaches. Anytime that maybe something doesn’t go our way, or whatever the situation may be, he just has a quick line that brings it all back,” he said.
“It reminds you that it is about the student-athletes and their experience, which is what it is all about.”
Van Den Heuvel noted he has been “lucky to get involved and get to know a lot of these players through the recruiting process.”
“You get pretty invested, because you learn who they are and, a lot of times, you are the first person who speaks to them, from the university, and sometimes that is a big reason why they end up coming here,” he said.