52-year-old Douglas Brewer, fifth for the Queens Gaels, holding the broom for his teammates during warmups (Image Credit: Michael Norton)

Douglas Brewer has held a variety of positions since he started working full time in 1985.

The 52-year-old from Kingston, Ont. has worked in office furniture sales, charity fundraising for The Hospital for Sick Children and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, and he even once ran for a seat in the provincial legislature. But this year, Brewer — who’s also the father of three adult-age children — added another position to his extensive résumé:

University curler.

“I loved playing with the guys… I loved contributing in any way that I could,” Brewer, who ran as the Progressive Conservative candidate for the riding of Quinte and finished “a thorough second” in the 1987 Ontario provincial election, said. “It was a great thrill for me to wear the (school) colours.”

Brewer first attended Queen’s University in the fall of 1983 to pursue a degree in history and economics, but withdrew near the end of his fifth semester to accept a full-time job as a travelling office furniture sales representative. After 31 years away, Brewer resumed full-time studies at Queen’s in September 2016, hoping to fulfill a lifelong dream of completing his undergraduate degree.

Fulfilling a second dream, curling for the Queen’s Gaels, didn’t initially appear to be in the cards.

Brewer first got in touch with Gaels head coach Beth Calwell in the summer before he returned to school. He had curled since the age of 12, back when players still swept with corn brooms and the Free Guard Zone rule (a mid-1990s change that significantly increased the strategic component of the sport) had yet to be invented. Brewer was open to contributing to the program in a playing or coaching capacity if Calwell wanted him.

But both parties got busy, and the offer went unanswered until the middle of January.

A standard curling team (or “rink”) has four players: lead, second, vice, and skip. The Gaels’ men’s rink had started the year with five, but neither skip Wesley Forget nor then-alternate Connor Lawes were available for the first tournament of the year: the Brock Invitational. With only three players available and the tournament just four days away, Calwell had to work quickly to fill out her roster.

“Give an engineer [Calwell earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Waterloo in 1987] a problem and a deadline, and she’s gonna figure out a way.”

Brewer was the first solution that came to mind.

“I knew Doug was at the school and that he might be available to come,” Calwell, 54, said. “So I basically texted him [on the 17th] and said ‘Okay, I know this is short notice, but can you come on the weekend [of the 21st-22nd]?’”

Brewer had planned on spending the weekend at home with his wife Nancy in Brockville, about an hour east of campus. Ironically, he had passed on another curling opportunity that same weekend — a tournament in Tempe, Arizona with a rink he skips outside of school — so that he could focus on his studies.

He didn’t pass on Calwell’s offer.

“I was less concerned about what they had to do and more trying to figure out what… my wife and I were going to do to make sure I was prepared for that weekend,” Brewer said.

“I mean, the whole thing came up pretty quick.”

In the three days before the Brock Invitational began, the Queen’s athletic department was able to confirm Brewer’s eligibility as a university athlete. It was a process which, according to Calwell, involved finding his original 1983-1985 student record to ensure he was in good academic standing before withdrawing. Brewer did his part as well, spending several hours online to “take all the courses on drug use and all of the other things they ask you to do nowadays,” ahead of the tournament.

Queen’s Men’s curling at Nationals (Image Credit: Curling Canada)

“We jumped through all the hoops with the university in a rush. The university really had our back and made sure that he was able to come,” Calwell reflected.

Confirming Brewer’s eligibility as a 52-year-old university athlete was only the first step on his journey though. Introducing him to the team was next.

“It was 6 a.m. on a crisp January [21] or something, the morning… we were travelling to Brock,” Alex Cormier, the lead of the Gaels men’s team, said. “This guy was standing outside the bus, and then he got on… and then the introduction followed shortly after,” he said.

“I was a little nervous, sure,” Brewer said. “But they needed somebody and I was happy to be filling in and I was confident that we would figure it out.”

With usual skip Forget unavailable, the Gaels improvised for their four games in St. Catharines. Brewer played half of the skip’s role, calling shots for his teammates, but he shot lead rocks while his teammates each shot one position later. They lost their first game, but once Brewer figured out how each player delivered their rocks, the Gaels won each of their next three.

The 23-year-old Cormier, who represented Québec at the 2015 Canadian Junior Curling Championships, would end up being Brewer’s roommate for that weekend and the rest of the season. Despite the three-decade age gap between them, Cormier said that Brewer had no trouble integrating with his teammates.

“Doug fit in really well, like right away… it was not awkward at all,” Cormier said. “And I’d like to think that even without Doug we’d have one of the older teams… we already had some of that maturity.”

Forget, who turned 26 in June, joined the Gaels rink this season as a mature student. The rink’s youngest members, 21-year-old twins Decebal (who plays second) and Pascal Michaud (vice), will each be in their fourth year of engineering — civil for Decebal, electrical for Pascal — come September.

“He’s gone from ‘who’s that guy?’ to roommate Dougie,” Cormier, who will begin his third year of medical school this fall, said.  “We also call him Saint Doug, that’s been another thing — for all the good things he does for us.”

In the eyes of Courtney Auld, the skip of Queens’ women’s rink, Brewer is something very different than her saint.

He’s her uncle.

“I think it’s kind of cool and interesting,” Auld, a 19-year-old kinesiology major, said. “I don’t think there’d be any other chance for my uncle and I to play together in any sort of capacity because of the age gap.”

Auld made her own way to the Brock Invitational, where she discovered her uncle was the newest member of the men’s rink. For Auld, who skipped Ontario at the 2016 Canadian Junior Curling Championships, seeing her Uncle Doug be accepted as a university athlete was an uplifting experience.

“I’m proud that he can come back and pick up where he left off, and still get to curl and have the experience that most people get at my age,” Auld added.

“I don’t think it’s weird (playing with my uncle). Family is family.”

Brewer wasn’t welcomed so easily at every tournament though. Both Brewer and Calwell said there have been multiple occasions where Brewer has been mistaken for a second coach, which has caused concern among some opponents. Calwell says she takes the brunt of the scrutiny.

“Some people get hung up on stuff,” Calwell said. “What I’m doing is giving a fantastic gentleman an opportunity to fulfill a dream.”

“At the point where I called Doug, I really wanted (the men’s rink) just to be able to play… if I called a 52-year-old to come, and he said he would come, he was going to be there.”

Brewer and his teammates showed up in a big way this season. The Gaels men’s rink made it to the final of the OUA Championship, losing 5-3 to the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks but qualifying for the national championships in Thunder Bay, Ont. The Gaels beat the Golden Hawks 10-3 in the revenge match at the national championships, but both sides ended up missing the playoffs with matching 3-4 records.

Even after establishing themselves as an elite university team, the Gaels couldn’t shake the puzzled looks. During their first on-ice practice at the national championships, an official mistook Brewer for a second coach, “which was kind of comical,” Calwell said.

“The Alberta team [the eventual runner-ups], when we were taking our picture on the ice, they were all walking by and kind of looked at (Brewer) funny, like ‘Is he their player? Or is he their coach?’ Pascal Michaud said.

“They weren’t really sure. And it was pretty funny, we were all laughing out there on the ice,” he said.

Michaud said his parents had a similar reaction when they first saw a photo of their sons curling with Brewer

“(They were) like ‘Who’s the old guy in the picture?’ and we said ‘that’s our fifth, Doug,’ Pascal said. “They were a little confused, like, ‘He’s your fifth? He’s older than everyone there!’”

Cormier has fielded similar questions about Brewer, but says they have never been awkward to answer. He was particularly happy with the official team photographs from the national championships.

“We had one where it was just the four guys, and then there was the other one where we had Doug [and Calwell] in the background,” Cormier said.

“I had to pick one of those for my new Facebook cover photo, so of course I picked the one with Doug in it. He’s a fun guy,” he joked.

Brewer called his time back in school a “really interesting” experience thus far, one that his younger classmates and teammates have been hugely influential in shaping.

“I’ve been very lucky that the guys I’ve been associated with on the Queen’s team are all quality people. It’s been a great experience for me to share time with them,” he said.

Brewer is taking some courses over the summer, and could be finished his undergrad by the end of the Fall 2017 semester, but his university experience may get to be extended longer than initially expected. According to Calwell, Brewer has been given permission to start his master’s degree at Queens.

As for his time with the Gaels men’s rink, Brewer says he’s ready to hang up his broom and slider.

By: Michael Norton

Michael is a former competitive swimmer and recreational curler whose lack of athletic ability eventually caught up to him. His two hopes are to write features for Obscure Sports Quarterly magazine and to one day see Vic Rauter receive the Order of Canada. Michael graduated with honours from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2017.

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