Saints alive and winning with help from Argos

It took 30 years, but Eastern Commerce Collegiate is finally back in the win column in boys’ football.

The Saints (1-1), a tandem-team paired with more than 20 students from neighbouring Monarch Park Collegiate, defeated Lester B Pearson, 22-7, on October 5.

The victory was a step in the right direction for a football program that dates back to 1926, but prior to last season had not played a game since 1979.

“We’ve become known as a basketball school in the last decade, so many kids come here looking to play basketball and because of the competition don’t make it,” said Sam Miceli, principal at Eastern Commerce.

“This gives them another opportunity to get involved in the school and play a game they love.”

Miceli explained that expensive innovations in equipment and an influx of immigrants unfamiliar with the sport led to its demise in public schools in 1980’s.

It took $10,000 grants from the Toronto Argo’s Level the Playing Field program to return the Saints to the football field last fall.

In its inaugural year, the Argos’ program successfully returned football to North Albion Collegiate, C.W. Jeffery’s and Lester B. Pearson, along with Eastern Commerce

“I have nothing but praise for the Argos organization and what they’ve done for us here,” said Sean Henderson, now in his second year as head coach at Eastern. “It wasn’t just a one-year thing, they’ve stayed with us every step of the way.”

The schools received funding for new equipment, uniforms and athletic trainers for all of their home games.

The program also provided player and cheerleader ambassadors that attended practices, games and events at the schools (such as pep-rallies), and will continue to do so this year.

Running backs Andre Durie, Jeff Johnson and Cory Boyd, linebacker Willie Pile, defensive tackle Kevin Huntley and quarterback Cleo Lemon are the six Argos slated to be ambassadors across the city this season.

“We’ll have mentors back with us again this season,” said Henderson.  “It’s great to see the impact football can have on these kids’ lives. I see kids hanging out in the halls [together] that never would have before and we’ve really developed a culture on the team while mixing with the Monarch kids.”

Henderson said despite finishing the year 0-5-1, that winning wasn’t everything and simply being close in every game and eventually picking up a tie was an accomplishment for his young club.

He praised the Argos for their ongoing support heading into the upcoming season, but also wanted to make sure that mayoralty candidate Rob Ford’s Ford Football Foundation received some credit for being involved in the initial funding process.

“These are two schools that wouldn’t be able to field a team without the funding,” said Cynthia Abernethy, principal at Monarch Park.  “It’s really great to see how we’ve come together. The students have all embraced each other and made this a real success.”

Vice principal Steve Yee echoed that point, adding that since home games are played out of Monarch Park’s facilities, school spirit has flourished because of it.

“We have teachers bringing classes out to watch the game, along with friends, families, and students from Eastern Commerce,” said Yee.  “It’s a great atmosphere.”

“I’m really happy to see the way our community has rallied around the team.”

Level the Playing Field was started in 2009 when less than half of the 110 secondary schools in the city had football programs.

Jason Colero, Manager of Community Relations for the Argos was involved in the planning of the program.

“When we saw how low the number [of schools with football programs] was, we soon realized that funding was the main issue,” Colero said.

“It’s not that football has to be in every school, we just thought more kids deserve to experience it. It’s such a team-building sport, you know, anyone can play it, no matter your size, shape or background.”

This season, the program returned football to Borden Business and Technical Institute, Downsview Secondary School and Thistletown Collegiate Institute.

In total, $80,000 will be donated to the TDSB during the 2010 season, as 10 other schools including Eastern will also receive revitalization support for their existing football programs.