Six-a-side football is returning to Eeyou Istchee with the start of the inaugural season of the James Bay Abitibi Football League (JBAFL). The brainchild of James Bay Eagles coach Trevor Allen Monaghan, the JBAFL will be comprised of 20 teams spanning six divisions. The founding of the JBAFL and growth in interest among young athletes comes largely as result of the success of the Chisasibi-based James Bay Eagles football program, particularly the Eagles’ success in recent years competing against teams from across Canada at the prestigious Six Nations Challenge football tournament.

The JBAFL’s six divisions include Youth Flag Football, Girls’ Flag Football, Peewee Tackle Football, Bantam Tackle Football, Midget Tackle Football and Men’s Flag Football. JBAFL teams will include the James Bay Eagles and their traditional rivals Mistissini Mustangs, who will field teams in every division, and two new entries, the Val-d’Or Bears, who will play in every division except Peewee Tackle, and the Waswanipi Gladiators, who will participate in Youth Flag, Girls’ Flag and Midget Tackle.

“We’ve been working to bring the game to other communities for some time now,” said Monaghan. “And there has been an explosion of interest among our young people. We have over 120 kids registered in (the James Bay Eagles) program, with 67 registered in the tackle programs. And with the addition of teams in Val-d’Or and Waswanipi, we are going to see some competitive football.”

Gridiron action gets underway on the weekend of July 14-15, with additional games on July 28-29, leading up to the Big River Bowl Championship on the weekend of August 11-12.

The James Bay Eagles will also be represented on Team Canada, when they take to the field against Team USA in the annual 6-a-side Can-Am Bowl, taking place in Biggar, Saskatchewan on July 7.

Chisasibi’s Vernon Neacappo, the Eagles’ 2011 Midget Team MVP, has established a reputation as a player who quietly gets things done on the offensive side of the ball, and after an outstanding 2011 season was selected to represent Canada without having to try out for the national team.

“The (Team Canada) coaches wanted Vernon to travel to try out, but that would have conflicted with time he had planned with his grandparents,” explained Monaghan. “So they sent us the playbook and we put some film of Vernon on YouTube for the coaches to see. Between that and what the coaches had seen of Vernon last year, they had no problem adding him to the team.”

Neacappo, 18, tries to model his game after Arian Foster, star running back of the NFL’s Houston Texans – a player many believe will score more points than any other player in the NFL this season. But Neacappo also understands that it takes more than raw talent to be successful on the field, and as a result he has spent countless hours training at Chisasibi Fitness Centre, doing what is required to bring his game to the next level.

“The Fitness Centre has been really great for my training,” said Neacappo. “My goal is to reach the university level of football. And I also plan on playing with the Nepean Redskins in Ottawa this fall.”

“We are getting pretty excited,” said Monaghan. “Vernon has been training for the last three years, but the last month-and-a-half has been pretty intense. He is running three to five times a week, and lifting weights at the centre. He has got something good going. Vernon’s success is a true testament of the value of our football and fitness program. He is not just representing the Eagles or the Cree, he is representing Canada.

“Some of these kids, like Vernon, will be recruited by schools in the next few years,” added Monaghan. “So this is not just about the football or weight-room statistics, it is about helping them build their future.”