Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON – Tim Petros might have been baking up some of Southern Alberta's most unique and popular pizzas a lot earlier.
Because his football career was this close to being over before it had really even started.
As the story goes, back in 1979, Calgary Dinos head coach Mike Lashuk had no interest in bringing Petros, a five-foot-10 running back who might have weighed 165 pounds soaking wet and wasn't even 18, from rookie camp to main camp. He was too little, the coach said, too small.
But Calgary's running back coach felt otherwise. He'd seen the kid's shiftiness and speed. No one had been able to tackle Petros in practice. So he made Lashuk a bet.
At the start of main camp, they would run a pit drill – a callous test widely regarded as the toughest in football – and Petros would be first man up. If someone tacked Petros, the running back coach told Lashuk, you can cut him.
"I was nervous as hell, because (Lashuk) shouts out, 'Where's this Petros kid?'," recalls Petros. "There's still 60 other young kids there, and he says 'You're up, let's go.'
"He brought the best linebacker out first to come and tackle me, but I deked him out. And then I deked the next guy and the next guy, and I went through every linebacker. Nobody tackled me."
"And then I remember Lashuk throwing his binder on the floor and saying 'God damn it'.
"And then I got invited back."
And the rest is history.
Petros would go on to have a decorated five-year career with the Dinos, culminating with a Vanier Cup. He then had a seven-year run in the CFL with his hometown Stampeders, and now he's the pizza guru behind Tim's Gourmet Pizza in Cochrane, where some of his best customers are his old U of C teammates.
"It's almost like exactly when we were playing when I see these guys, whether they come into my little restaurant, or I see them at the farmer's market, it's like we're back in the old days."
Like toppings on his famous pies, these memories remain fresh for Petros, who grew up working in his uncle's restaurant and then for his father at Nick's Steakhouse & Pizza, never far from the oven.
"I always cooked," he says. "Even when I was a kid, I remember going to my uncle's pizza restaurant and I'd make the dough. I love the smell as it rises and it was always so soft, it was so beautiful, I just sort of fell in love with it."
Just across the way from Nick's – so close that deliveries arrive piping hot – sits McMahon Stadium, the home to Petros' other passion.
An unheralded university football prospect coming out of John G. Defeinbaker High School, Petros started at running back for the Dinos in Week 2 of his first year and held that spot down for the next five years at McMahon.
"I believed I could play, I always did," said Petros, who didn't learn of the coaches' bet that decided his fate until a few years later. "I knew there was certain things I had to learn to do and I did learn to do."
Petros was a three-time conference All-Star with the U of C and led the Dinos in rushing four of his five seasons. He still ranks among the program's top 10 all-time for both rushing and receiving yards, though it's ultimately one game that defines his university career.
The last one.
After finishing a distant fourth in the 1982 league standings, the Dinos made Peter Connellan their new head coach going into Petros' senior year. Calgary struggled mightily out of the gate, losing both its exhibition contests and its first two regular season games, but Petros held firm a belief his team could win the 1983 Vanier Cup.
"In my second year we were very good; we lost in the playoffs to Alberta, and they went on to win the Vanier Cup," he recalls. "I was still pretty young but nobody really impressed upon me how important that playoff game was and what it would mean if we won. I remember being in the locker room and the coach and a bunch of the old vets were crying, and I was thinking, 'Geez, it's just a game, what are you crying for?'. Being young I didn't realize how important it was.
"When I got to my last year, we started off 0-4, but for some reason I knew how good we were," Petros continues. "I remember calling some of the other captains in and saying, 'We've got to have a team meeting and tell these guys what's at stake here,' because back in the day no one told me how close we were to being the best team in the country, and I didn't realize it until after the fact we lost.
"Once you know that you can be the best, the expectations go up and everybody performs and does better."
Sure enough, Calgary won its final six regular season games. The Dinos then beat UBC in the Hardy Cup to advance to the Vanier Cup, where they would face the favoured Queen's Gaels at the 21,000-plus seat Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
"It was packed, and when we were out there warming up they were throwing snowballs at us … and they were all screaming against us.
"But it didn't matter."
Petros ran wild that day, racking up a Vanier Cup record 260 rushing yards on 25 carries, to go with 51 receiving yards and 94 yards on returns. He was awarded the Ted Norris Memorial Trophy as most outstanding player in Calgary's 31-21 win.
"It was so much fun, just being there with all of your good friends that you grew up with, fighting hard to win that game," he says. "To win everything means almost everything."
That could have been the point where he traded in his helmet for a chef's hat.
Throughout university, Petros had continued working at Nick's, only furthering his love and knowledge of the restaurant biz, but the gridiron kept calling. Literally.
The phone rang while Petros was sweeping up one night, a voice on the other end telling him he'd been selected by the Calgary Stampeders in the 1983 Canadian Football League Draft. Petros was gobsmacked: He wasn't even aware the draft was taking place.
"I always wanted to play in the CFL. It was my dream to play for the Stampeders, but I didn't know it was going to happen then," says Petros, who was picked in the fifth round, 42nd overall. "I didn't even know what I was going to be the next year, actually."
Petros, who by then had packed about 20 more pounds onto his five-foot-10 frame, would carve out a solid career in the CFL. He played an even 100 games over parts of seven seasons with the Stamps before retiring in 1990 with over 2,200 rushing and more than 1,000 receiving yards to his credit.
"I was nominated for some awards, but just playing and making the Stampeders was my highlight in the CFL," Petros says.
Upon bidding goodbye to the gridiron, Petros became a regular fixture at Nick's, involved in pretty much every aspect of the operation. Eventually Petros and his wife Laura, a successful Calgary realtor, moved with their two children to an acreage just outside Calgary.
Taking the role of stay-at-home parent, Petros built a small commercial kitchen at the acreage and began baking pizzas that he sold frozen at area markets. With their distinctive taste, creative combinations, and made strictly from high-quality ingredients, the pies were a hit.
Finally, once his kids had graduated high school and moved onto university, Petros turned his attention towards a long-standing aspiration, if not his destiny.
In September 2013, the first slices were served at Tim's Gourmet Pizza.
"Restaurants take time - you work and work and work, you can't leave them alone, you've got to be there," says Petros, 56. "So I always told my wife, when the kids get older, and I don't have to be home as much, we should open a restaurant."
The pizza menu includes basics like pepperoni, alongside a number of signature specialty varieties from "Honey Bunch" to "Good Golly It's Gouda". The three sizes - Little Tim's, Tim's, and Big Tim's - seem rather poetic given the erstwhile halfback was once deemed too small to make the cut before he sliced through extra-large lineman like a pizza cutter through thick crust.
"In Grade 1, there were three Tims in my class," Petros explains. "My teacher would go, "Tim?' and we'd all say yes. So she goes, 'Ok you're 'Little Tim', 'Tim' and 'Big Tim.'
"So when we had the three (pizza) sizes, I said, 'I remember this, let's do 'Little Tim', 'Tim', and 'Big Tim'.
"I was Little Tim back then, but I've turned into Big Tim."
About the CW Alumni Spotlight:
Each year a new crop of Canada West student-athletes graduate and begin to make an impact in their communities as professionals. The CW Alumni Spotlight series looks to highlight the positive impact former CW student-athletes are making in communities across Western Canada and beyond.
Canada West – training leaders, building champions.