CANADA'S HOT SOUTHERNER

November 06, 1989

Gill Fenerty can't get to his car. He is standing in front of a parking gate at the SkyDome, a set of keys dangling from his right index finger. "Look, this section is closed to the public," says a security guard. Fenerty, a running back with the Toronto Argonauts, isn't exactly the public.

"It's right over there," says Fenerty, pointing toward his white Audi GT

"Sorry, you'll have to walk around." says the guard. "Only authorized personnel are allowed."

Fenerty, who's six feet, 200 pounds, shrugs and turns away, starting the long walk that will bring him to his car. "It happens all the time," says Fenerty, pushing a pair of tortoiseshell glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. "I guess I look more like an accountant than a football player. But as long as I'm doing my job on the field. I don't care about being a celebrity."

Fenerty is doing his job well enough to be known around the Canadian Football League by his school nickname. Gill the Thrill. After playing in 13 games of the league's 18-game season (he missed two because of a strained hamstring), he was third in the CFL in rushing (1.031 yards) and led in carries (200) and touchdowns (10 rushing, one receiving). He also helped the Argos clinch a spot in the league playoffs, which begin on Nov. 12. In spite of all these accomplishments, a great deal of the attention Fenerty has received relates to an incident that he would just as soon forget.

Fenerty, 26, was a standout running back at Holy Cross from 1983 to '85. He is the school's alltime leading rusher (3,670 yards), and he holds all but one of the Crusaders' career rushing records. The one he's missing, touchdowns scored, is held by Gordie Lockbaum, who had 28 to Fenerty's 26.

"Gordie wasn't as quick as Gill," says Holy Cross coach Mark Duffner, who was the Crusaders' defensive coordinator while Fenerty was in school. "They both had great hands, could read defenses, see holes, and could block like a son of a buck. Gill was just quicker. He was so explosive."

But late in the second quarter of Holy Cross's game with Boston University in Fenerty's senior year, he took several hard shots to the head. "It felt like an air hose blowing pressure into my skull," he says. "It was unreal. After a few minutes, though, the pain left."

Fenerty finished the half. In the locker room, though, the pain returned. Fenerty became violently ill and nearly collapsed. He was taken to a hospital, and a battery of tests showed there was blood in Fenerty's spinal fluid. Doctors think the hits caused a blood vessel near his brain to tear.

"He was in such pain he couldn't even talk," says Chuck Doyle, Fenerty's friend and a blocking back at Holy Cross, who now sells real estate in Nashua, N.H. "He was almost in tears. I think at that point ever playing football again was the least of his concerns."

A few months later Fenerty underwent more tests. "We did the arteriograms, CAT scans and myelograms again. They were all normal," says neurologist Vincent Birbiglia. "The significance was that there was no underlying structural or vascular abnormality that would be likely to rupture again. I didn't think Gill was at any greater risk of having this occur than any other player."

So Fenerty decided to resume his football career. "I'm not stupid," he says. "If the doctors felt there was a realistic chance of this happening again, I would have hung it up right there. But the game has given me so many opportunities, like paying for my education and offering me the chance to see other countries, I just didn't want to quit before I had to."

Fenerty, who is the second of Frank and Eileen Fenerty's three children, grew up in New Orleans. Frank, an attorney who believed in the importance of a good education, enrolled Gill at Jesuit High School, where he took an accelerated curriculum and played football. He pursued other extracurricular activities, too. Fenerty wasn't highly recruited, and he accepted a scholarship offer from nearby LSU in 1981. "Gill was a good player, but he wasn't what you would call a national recruit," says LSU recruiting coordinator Sam Nader. "He was promising. He played on special teams in his first game as a true freshman."

But a short time after that opening game, against Alabama, Fenerty dropped out of school. "I didn't feel like a student at LSU," he says. "Football was stressed much more than the academics. I remember touring the campus on the day that I left, and I was thinking. Man. there's so much here that I haven't seen. I've always known what's best for me. and LSU just wasn't it."

Fenerty returned home and took a job in a machine shop. That winter he enrolled at the University of New Orleans and got in touch with some 20 collegiate football programs. Holy Cross seemed genuinely interested, and after making a visit to its Worcester, Mass., campus, he was smitten. "It was exactly what I was looking for," he says. "It's a place where football is secondary to academics."

The New Orleans Saints selected Fenerty in the seventh round of the '86 draft, ignoring rumors that he might have a medical problem. The Saints had also taken running backs Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes. "I didn't really see where I fit into their plans." says Fenerty. "I also didn't think I was ready to compete in the NFL. So I decided to sit out a year."

Shortly after deciding not to sign with the Saints, he was sought out by Keith Clark, a coach for the Bolzano Jets of the American Italian Football Association. "I saw this as an ideal way to ease back into football." says Fenerty.

He didn't exactly ease back, racking up 610 yards on 64 carries in just half a season in Italy. Feeling confident and healthy. Fenerty decided to keep on playing football. He returned to the States in hopes of joining an NFL team in '87, but the USFL had suspended operations a year earlier, and the NFL was awash with new talent. So he accepted an offer from the Argonauts.

These days Toronto is as happy with Fenerty as he is with them. While his stats aren't always spectacular, Fenerty has a way of controlling plays. Earlier this season, in the first quarter of a game against Ottawa, he made a typical Fenerty run, twisting and squirming for five yards and then carrying four Rough Rider defensemen for another seven. Later he made a one-handed, over-the-shoulder TD catch to tie the score. "He's great for the CFL," says Toronto coach Bob O'Billovich. "Every place we play the fans come out to see him."

Since his first day with Toronto, the Argonauts have known that Fenerty is special. At training camp during his rookie year, the coaches set up a traditional gantlet drill, with four defensive players standing single file about 10 yards apart, between two rows of pylons. A ball is tossed to a running back, who tries to make his way through the tacklers without being brought down.

"Gill went through the first time and nobody touched him." says O'Billovich. "He did it again the second time. The third time he barely got tripped up, by the last man. I remember turning to one of our coaches and saying, 'Cedric [Minter] is going to have a real tough time keeping his job.' "

In Fenerty's first CFL game, against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Jason Colero, the Argonauts" ball boy. was discharging his duties on the Bomber sideline. He remembers the Winnipeg defensive players leaving the field, after an early Toronto offensive series, shaking their heads. "They were saying. 'He sure doesn't run like anyone we've seen,' " says Colero.

Because the CFL plays on a wider field than the NFL (65 yards versus 53‚Öì) and allows only three downs in which to make a first down, Canadian pro football is more open than its American counterpart. Fast backs with soft hands are especially valuable. "Gill is a very elusive runner," says O'Billovich. "He can stop and start so quickly that he makes people miss in the open field."

Over the past three seasons Fenerty has consistently confounded opponents. He finished second in the league in rushing in both 1987 and '88, though last year he missed five games because of a broken leg. Last season he also caught 51 passes for 443 yards. And while individual honors are not his main goals—he's a front-runner for the league's MVP award—they will provide ammunition when his contract expires at the end of this season.

"What happens after the season is only speculation," says his agent, Ralph Cindrich. "It's our position that the Saints don't own his rights, that he could enter the NFL as a free agent. It used to be a joke when I'd talk to NFL general managers about Gill the Thrill. Now they say, 'Yeah, we've had our eyes on that guy." "

"Coming out of college we thought he could play in the NFL," says New England Patriots director of player development Dick Steinberg. "But then he had the injury, and our medical people thought he was a risk. I've seen him up there, though. He's very aggressive. He could make it here."

Fenerty is happy with the Argonauts, for now. "There are a lot of variables to examine in the off-season," he says. "It's always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL, but at this point I'm content to play for the highest bidder."

If the NFL does place a call, Fenerty may not have to go far to answer it. Recently, Toronto defensive lineman Blaine Schmidt bought into a cellular-phone company and sold a fancy little shoulder model to Fenerty, "I'm not sure if it's working," says Fenerty, adjusting the strap against his collarbone. "I haven't had too many calls."

When the phone finally does ring, CFL fans hope the best offer comes from their league. Next season might prove dreary if the Thrill is gone.

PHOTOFrank (left) made sure academics came first with Gill. PHOTODAVID WALBERGIn three CFL seasons Fenerty—a.k.a. Gill the Thrill—has piled on the yards and TDs. PHOTOBETTY JENEWINBefore suffering a serious head injury, Fenerty became Holy Cross's top career rusher. PHOTOFRANK FENERTYAt 13, Fenerty (12) was already displaying the moves that would dazzle Argonaut fans. PHOTODAVID WALBERGHis bookish predilections notwithstanding, Toronto fans hope that Fenerty is no Saint.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)