Photo: Justin Labelle.
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U of O athlete looks to jumpstart music career as graduation looms

Zach Raynor is used to the sound of cheering fans. He’s taken to the field countless times before as a defensive back for the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees football team. For the most part, one game isn’t all that different from another.

So, Raynor steps on the field as usual. Only it’s not a field; it’s a basketball court. And it’s not a pigskin in his hand; it’s a microphone.

Even though Raynor has played for the Gee-Gees for the last four years of his life, he is now looking to pull off something that few of his friends or family expected: starting a career as the frontman in his own rock band.

Raynor made this known to an entire gymnasium full of basketball fans on Jan. 18 when he and his band The Lionyls performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd during a matchup between the U of O and Queen’s. Rather than donning a helmet and shoulder pads, Raynor and his band mates instead sported skimpy Gee-Gees spirit gear and homemade lion tails crafted from pipe cleaners and yarn.

The band kept the crowd entertained during halftime at the men’s and women’s games that night, dishing out classic sports anthems like “Rock and Roll” by Gary Glitter and a number of their own original tracks.

Raynor led the musical bombardment with his infectious energy and high-flying moves, while his band mates followed suit with a blast of rock and soul. The fact that they played with such synchronicity is surprising, not only because they formed just a short time ago—less than a year—but because their frontman is relatively new to the music scene.

Raynor is now in the last semester of his four-year theatre degree at the U of O. Up until a year ago, competitive sports had been his main focus and had defined much of his university experience.

“I’ve been playing football since I was 10, and it’s been a big part of my life,” Raynor said after the halftime performance. “All of my best friends I know from football. It’s crazy because you’re there with this group of guys and it’s like a family.”

Even though he’s always been a big fan of music (taking particular vocal inspiration from artists like Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke), Raynor never imagined he would pursue a career in it. But after dabbling in music with fellow band members Mike MacAlister on guitar, Antonio Rizzuti on drums, and Ali Abdelbadie on bass, Raynor felt a sensation that simply couldn’t be replicated on the field.

“It’s all about the feel. It’s all about the raw impulse when you’re playing music,” he said. “You feel like you want to do something and you don’t want to hold it back. I feel like music is the purest way to channel that kind of energy.”

Zach Raynor fronts Ottawa band The Lionyls as they perform at a Gee-Gees basketball game.

Raynor’s decision to start a music career got him some funny looks from friends and family. Many of them thought he would pursue either football or acting, having put so much time into both. But even though The Lionyls frontman deeply cherishes the time he spent on the football field, he remains confident in his decision to fully commit himself to music.

“Sometimes you’ve got to let go of that stuff,” he said.

Even though it’s his last year as a U of O student, Raynor is taking the whole process in stride and looking toward his post-graduate future with limitless optimism. Graduation tends to be a turbulent and confusing time of transition for many university students, but Raynor shrugs off the indecision and insecurity that usually accompanies this process.

“If you fall in love with something, nothing else matters much anymore,” he said. “If you know what you love doing, I would just say go for it.”

While he may have decided to divert his career path during his twilight years at university, Raynor’s destination could end up not all that different after all. The band will play at the university again on Feb. 15 when the Gee-Gees take on the Carleton Ravens. And with any luck, this won’t be the last time The Lionyls will play to an arena full of fans.


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