While Mayor Rob Ford was in political hot water this week, the Eastern Commerce/Monarch Park high school football team his foundation helped kick-start was getting set for its fourth season.
The two schools joined forces in 2009 and are one of a group of underprivileged local schools that have received funding from the Rob Ford Football Foundation.
This is the same foundation that the mayor is facing a lawsuit over for allegedly violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act during a Feb. 7 city council meeting where he and fellow councillors voted to rescind a previous order that he repay $3,150 in donations to his foundation from lobbyists and clients of lobbyists.
Sean Henderson, head coach of the football team and head of the science department at Eastern Commerce, is no politician but he can attest to the financial help the program received to get started from the Rob Ford Foundation.
“I won’t comment on anything political,” said the 31-year-old at his team’s first practice behind Eastern Commerce on Thursday. “But I can say with certainty that Ford’s foundation put money into this program.”
Along with the Toronto Argonauts and some in-school fundraising, the football program launched after receiving roughly $30,000 according to the team’s general manager and Eastern Commerce faculty member Lesley Wallace.
“It’s always in the back of our minds how long we can keep this thing going,” Wallace said, while also pointing out that the school needed to spend $2,000 to recondition 50 helmets before this season.
“It’s been nothing short of a miracle how well the kids have got along together. They’ve become personal friends.”
Wallace and Henderson, a former University of Toronto football player, have been at the forefront of the program since its inception. A little help is always needed, however, and Henderson came by some honestly when the program first started.
“While running one of our first practices I was struggling handling all the kids when a passerby noticed and offered to help,” Henderson said, of Scott Wooder, a former Queens University football player. “At the end of the day he said he’d be happy to come back tomorrow and he’s been here every day since.”
Eastern Commerce boasts a student body of roughly 350 students and Monarch Park a little under a thousand.
The football team has had its growing pains on the field competitively — they finished 0-4-1 in the Toronto School Board District’s Tier 2 East/West Region last season before a tough playoff loss, but the benefits of having the program are apparent.
“It’s helped build a football mentality around the school,” Henderson said. “We’ve had a lot of students that have faced tough circumstances where they’ve struggled and the natural option is to just quit.
“It’s hard to stick with this and that when things get hard but with the older guys on the team to look up to it makes it easier.
“The twinning of schools has been great not only for the players but the neighbourhood as well. It helps bring the whole community together.”
Running back Ted Koulakis has played on the team every year.
“We lost a lot of close games last year but we have great coaches who teach us it’s not just about winning, its learning life lessons,” said the 18-year-old.
“This year we have some new guys and a new quarterback, but we also have some experience and want to win. We’re a smaller team but we got the mentality to hit big and play big.”
The schedule for the season won’t be released until later this month but the team will be playing all of its games on the road this year as their home field at Monarch Park is currently under construction while being upgraded into a dome.
With the three extra away games it will cost an additional $1,000 for buses according to Wallace.
It’s all worth it in the end for the student-athletes, says Koulakis.
“If I weren’t playing football I’d probably be going home and just playing Xbox and doing homework.” he said.
“Probably just Xbox.”