Game Fixer

Hogtown loves a pigskin renaissance

BRIAN BAKER, The Game Fixer

There’s no reason why we can’t bring back Friday Night Lights in TDSB football.

Those are the words of Jason Colero, Toronto Argonauts’ manager of community relations, and they would make anyone smile like they’re witnessing an Ochocinco victory dance.

I agree. But I could be biased, as the gridiron is my favourite sport. I’ve followed it long before both my teams’ Grey Cup and Super Bowl appearances.

Saskatchewan Roughriders — don’t tell Colero — and New Orleans Saints aside, the cause for excitement is all part of a pigskin renaissance in Hogtown.

Teams that folded 30 years ago have been resurrected, much like the Eastern Commerce and C.W. Jefferys Saints.

Still, every school has had a hefty defensive line to penetrate, shelling out $20,000 to buy new equipment for 55 players.

That’s where those who love the sport, their schools and their kids plan a new strategy to keep the game going.

It all snapped during the mid ’90s where Metro Bowl champs were losing, but not titles, their teams. Georges Vanier SS, who won in 1984, disappeared much like their Viking namesakes because teams were no longer affordable.

Metro Wildcats president Chuck Richardson remembers well as even Lawrence Park Panthers were faced with extinction.

“There were other sports that were a lot cheaper where kids were starting to play,” he said. “You’ve got to remember the demographic of the city was starting to change. It’s always changing.”

His solution: Form an alumni association, much like at Leaside HS or East York CI, where former football players and graduates help keep their beloved programs alive.

“Budgets were getting slashed, teachers were getting ready to go on work-to-rule,” Richardson says. “So you were losing volunteer coaches, which was a big problem.

“If football could die at Lawrence Park, it could die anywhere and we were able to get (the sport) back on board.”

Some former high school players don’t have a specific school they focus on.

Scarlet Heights alumnus and former Carleton Raven — and now mayoral hopeful — Rob Ford has made it his mission for the past three years to get football in every high school in Toronto.

Last year he gave $10,000 to three teams. Along with the $10,000 the Argos had given to Lester B. Pearson, C.W. Jefferys and Eastern Commerce through Level the Playing Field, the schools were able to restart their gridiron programs. This year Thistletown, Downsview, Mother Theresa and Danforth Tech are in line, according to Ford.

“We’ve been very successful and it’s great because if the kids are playing football, they’re getting an education,” the Don Bosco Eagles coach says. “It’s sent a lot of kids down to the States and a lot of kids to Canadian universities that otherwise wouldn’t have gone to university if it wasn’t for football.”

Even if Ford loses his mayoral race this fall his intentions are to keep the foundation running.

“I know what football did for me,” he says. “It kept me in school, sent me to university and kept me out of trouble.”

Keeping students focused and on the field is no fringe benefit either.

“It’s like asking what the importance of your kid’s free time is to you,” Richardson says. “If you value your son’s free time — where you can do a lot of other things and you know what that means — then you value football in your community.”

Now, it would be ironic if Hogtown didn’t hype the renewed interest in pigskin. Regardless, for Colero it’s the kickoff to high hopes.

“You’re going to have a lot more competition but — call me a dreamer — what I’d love to see is high school football like it is in the States where it’s not just the school but the whole community that comes out to support their teams and watch their sons,” Colero says.

With the help of alumni associations, individual donors and pro sports teams, it’s a touchdown drive if there ever was one.

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