Ben Hladik of the VSS Panthers will play for the UBC Thunderbirds next CIS season.

Ben Hladik of the VSS Panthers will play for the UBC Thunderbirds next CIS season.

Thunderbirds high on Hladik

Ben Hladik's love of football began when he tagged along to older brother Andy’s city and high school games.

His love of football began when he tagged along to older brother Andy’s city and high school games.

When he reached Grade 8 at Vernon Secondary School, Ben Hladik finally put on the pads himself.

Five years later, Hladik has established himself as one of the premier high school football players in B.C.

His career will continue at the university level in his home province after he graduates in 2017, signing a scholarship with Vancouver’s UBC Thunderbirds.

“I played hockey and baseball when I was younger but I fell in love with football,” said Hladik, 17, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound threat on both sides of the ball with Sean Smith’s Panthers.

At UBC, Hladik will focus on defence, playing linebacker or possibly defensive end. He was also being courted by the CIS Calgary Dinos and Manitoba Bisons.

“When I got to the (UBC) campus, it was incredible,” said Hladik, a furniture maker at The Brick when he’s not dismantling running backs and receivers or would-be tacklers for the Panthers, or watching game film and completing school assignments.

“I got along great with the coaches. They’ll push me to be my best and I hope to play pro, either in the CFL or maybe the NFL, after my schooling is done.”

The Thunderbirds are thrilled to be getting not only a great football player, but a quality young man.

“I’ve always been a recruiter of athletes, and genetically and athletically, Ben is a great young man,” said UBC head coach Blake Nill. “You look at his potential as a student-athlete and you see a lot of upside.

“He comes from a great family, he’s been raised well and I think he’ll have a wonderful experience as a student-athlete at UBC.”

Nill said Hladik will have an opportunity to challenge for a significant role with the T-Birds.

“We look at Ben as one of the top kids in B.C.,” said Nill. “Every team in the CIS would take him.”

A big fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers – though his favourite player is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski – Hladik feels his biggest improvement in his five years at VSS is getting bigger, faster and studying the game.

“I’d say learning in the film room, picking up things like reading formations and guessing what the play is going to be,” said Hladik, who has played for only Smith and assistants Dave Tetrault and Tim Thorpe in his time with the Panthers.

Smith said Hladik has dedicated as much time to getting better as any Panther he has coached.

Hladik has been a starter since Grade 9, and was a finalist last year, as a Grade 11 student, for B.C. AA High School Defensive Player of the Year.

“Ben has always been a standout defensive end,” said Smith. “His instincts are second to none and his combination of size, strength and speed make him a unique player. However, last year he really took to film study, and because of that, he took his game to a new level.

“This year, we are able to get him the ball more on offence which is making him a two-way threat as a tight end.”

Hladik is one of the leaders on the Panthers, vocally and by example.

“I’m not the most vocal but I can be,” said Hladik.

Smith said there haven’t been many players through his program that could start at almost every position on offence and defence. Hladik is one of them.

“This year he’s already played receiver, tight end, tailback, fullback, and could be our best offensive lineman if called to duty. As well, he’s our back-up quarterback,” said Smith.

“On defence, he has played linebacker and line. This speaks to his athleticism and why he was heavily recruited by a number of CIS programs.”

While looking forward to moving on to the next level of his career, Hladik would love to finish his high school career with a provincial championship.

“We have a really good team, we just need to realize it and play harder,” he said.

The Panthers battle Fulton Friday, Oct. 14.