Senior running back Jaiden Hyland (3) runs into his team's pregame huddle before their season finale win against Birchmount Park.

Red Knights’ football finds success with inclusion

Northern secondary does things 'the right way'

On a rainy September afternoon two days before the first game of the season, Northern Red Knights’ head football coach Dan Domenico stood under a parking structure with a young wet beat reporter and very candidly set his goal for the year.

“We expect to win a championship,” said Domenico. “That’s what we always shoot for.”

Those were pretty strong words considering he had one returning offensive lineman, no returning starting receivers, and a quarterback who was undersized with half an exhibition game under his belt.

But Domenico’s confidence doesn’t stem from nothing. The veteran coach and Northern Secondary alumni has had a winning philosophy and a winning program for over two decades. And it builds on a program that won for a generation before that.

“I think we’ve maintained an excellence in the program and I like to think we’ve done it the right way,” said Domenico, who has had full control of the football program since 1992. “We’ve always maintained the attitude that we want to put 24 people on the field.

“We know we can can probably be a little bit stronger if we put some athletes on the field going both ways, but it’s kept our program strong because kids know there are at least 24 spots.”

With his team finishing first in the Clarke Pulford division (TDSSAA Tier 1) with a first round bye in the playoffs for the second year in a row, success on the field is something Domenico’s teams are accustomed to.

“I remember always having a good team, good coaching,” said Coulter Woodsmaney, a former Red Knight offensive lineman and future Guelph Griffon. “Always had a great environment as a team. Always a positive place to be.”

Part of that great environment is Northern’s inclusive philosophy to not cut students who come out for football.

Students must be enrolled full-time (minimum 6 courses), attend all classes, demonstrate a respectful attitude towards all staff, and maintain passing grades or demonstrate a commitment to improvement to participate in sports, but they will not be cut for performance or athletic ability reasons.

Northern Secondary School principal Ron Felsen is very proud of his school’s football program and has found the inclusive philosophy has translated positively on and off the field.

“We will teach you, you will train with the team, you will become part of the family and part of the group,” said Felsen. “I think the teachers and coaches see their roles as not only coaching a team, but also developing young people and developing character.

“I’m grateful that they have that double objective because, yes football season is only a couple of months, but building character, that’s for life.”

Domenico, a former teacher at Northern, understands that football can teach his players life lessons and strong character as well and knows that higher expectations forces his guys to make choices. He can only hope they’re the right ones.

“I respect these kids a lot because of what we’re asking from them, it’s giving up an awful lot of their time, but if you’re not prepared to put the time and effort in then you’re not going to be successful,” said Domenico. “We hate to hear excuses like ‘I couldn’t get my schoolwork done because I didn’t have enough time’. No, you’ve got to learn how to time manage.

“If you plan to go forward you’re going to have a lot of pressures on your time and you have to start making commitments.”

Tom Europe, a former Red Knight and 11-year CFL defensive back, played just one season under legendary coach Clarke Pulford before taking off to a successful football and fitness career. Europe remembers a similar attitude as a grade 13 transfer from North Toronto Collegiate in the late 80’s.

“He preached team first, he didn’t expect anything but your best, and he challenged us all the time,” said Europe, about his former coach. “I definitely have to thank Northern for helping me become a better player and get where I needed to be.”

Europe, now an author, public speaker, personal trainer, TV personality, and owner of TOMMYEUROPE.TV in Vancouver, agrees that lessons learnt on the field can help with success after football.

“It can give you confidence and teach you how to push yourself to get better,” said Europe. “It’s a discipline and even when you continue life after football, you’ve got to be disciplined.”

Northern Secondary, a school of 1,900 students, has produced a bevy of notable athletic alumni over the years including Europe, current Toronto Argonaut Matt Black, former CFL player and general manager Neil Lumsden, and current Toronto FC player Ashtone Morgan.

It’s also produced scores of players you’ve never heard of who used the experience to go on to success in life off the field.