Building GTA football from the ground up

The Sir Robert L Borden BTI Falcons were just one of ten teams taking part in Friday's Downsview Pre-season Football Jamboree. (Downsview-football-photo)

A burly silver-and-blue clad defensive lineman has already broken through the offensive line and is narrowing in on the  quarterback.

But the two do not collide, and the bull-rusher pulls up at the blast of a high-pitch whistle. There will be no sacks today.

This was just one of countless coach-controlled football plays on Friday at the First Annual Downsview Secondary School Pre-season Jamboree, the brain child of head coach Russ Hoff.

“We seem to have a good group of coaches and teams, that are all here for the right reasons,” Hoff told the Toronto Observer, of the event geared towards lower-tier, and developing football programs.

“The goal is to have a good experience, a nice, positive day of football and have everyone get out of here healthy, and happy.”

Ten teams in all took part at Toronto’s Downsview Park, coming from as far as Bowmanville, Ont., at the reasonable cost of $150 per squad.

Many of the schools in attendance featured new football programs, including Hoff’s, entering its second season of play following a 25 year absence at Downsview.

“It’s not cheap to go out there and play, with school buses, supply teachers and referee costs,” said Hoff, who resurrected the sport at the Keele Street and Wilson Avenue high school with the help of the Toronto Argonauts grant program.

“I wanted to make it very accessible.”

The Argos Foundation assists Toronto-area schools in re-establishing or strengthening their football programs with financial contributions and mentorship.

Coach Martin Douglas’s boys from Sir Robert L Borden BTI also benefit from the Argos charity.

In their second campaign since receiving the much-needed donation to re-launch football at the Scarborough high school, the Falcons were thrilled to get involved in the learning-oriented scrimmages.

“I think this is a good way to get our players who are new to the sport to see how it’s done,” said Martin, a police offer and volunteer. “Seeing other teams from around the city, knowing that this is something bigger than just me and my school.”

The well-organized event featured a series of half-field mock games, with coaches getting right inside team huddles, and having the ability to fix plays when things went awry.

Just a single Tier 1 club took part, joining the majority of second- and third-tier teams, along with a lone club from the Varsity Developmental Program, providing for a level playing field.

Scouts show interest

On the sidelines, keeping his eyes peeled for a “diamond in the rough,” was John Engel, the offensive and recruiting coordinator for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

“The thing with lower tiers, is that these kids don’t decide what schools they go to for the most part,” said Engel, joining a small contingent of OUA representatives in attendance on Friday. “You can come here and find some gems.”

Always looking to better his program, Engel couldn’t pass up an opportunity to scout 10 teams in one location.

As a football enthusiast, the coach was thrilled to see a new grass-roots initiative taking place in the GTA, the only way player development can really thrive in a hockey-crazed market, he believes.

The amount of volunteer coaches getting involved, whether they’re former players or not, is a positive sign, said Engel. New programs are constantly surfacing, and to the delight of a recruiter regularly seeking talent, there’s nothing better than an abundance of kids taking up football.

Alex Mckenzie was one of them.

“I think it’s fun that schools from all parts of the GTA are coming together to scrimmage,” said Mckenzie, a Grade 11 student at Western Tech. “We get to see what other teams are capable of, and it’s just a good overall talent showcase.”