Mistissini was the scene of hundreds of cheery, smiling kids throwing footballs and having a grand old time as the second annual Mistissini All-Star Football Camp rolled into town August 23-25.

The Ottawa Renegades of the Canadian Football League went to Mistissini to continue what they started last year – introducing football to kids more used to playing hockey or broom-ball, but who have shown an amazing ability to adapt to the sport.

The camp attracted 328 kids aged 6 to 18 from across Eeyou Istchee. “I’ve never seen so many smiles on so many kids’ faces,” said Gordon Hudson, Mistissini’s Regional Director of Youth Healing Services. “We had 15 coaches last year and this year we have 35. These people have all volunteered their time to come up here and I could hardly believe the response.”

The camp is designed to encourage physical activity and to provide young people with positive role models, Hudson said. “Every one of these coaches I brought up here has had a struggle at some time in their life. For myself, I struggle with alcohol and drugs, but I’ve overcome it for over eight years now and we want to pass along these positive messages to these kids so hopefully they don’t make the same mistakes we did.”

Hudson is credited with bringing football to the north when he picked up the phone one day and called Ottawa Renegades coach Joe Paopao and asked for a favour. “I told him that I saw some of the struggles that the youth were facing and I asked him for his help,” explained Hudson.

Hudson, a former CFL tight end, had the Renagade coach’s number in his rolodex because they were once teammates on the old Ottawa Roughriders team for two years in the late 1980s, when Paopao called the shots as quarterback.

Aside from the camp, Coach Paopao also hosted a bunch of Eeyou youth in Ottawa last October to watch the Renegades take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“When Gord called me and asked me to help out I said yes without knowing what it involved,” said Paopao.

“I grew up in a family of 10 kids and have been associated with kids all my life. I have four of my own and I think everybody could use an extra pair of hands or some advice, and I can do that through my experience.”

The camp may have been about football, but the coaches made sure that they mixed different activities in there as well to keep the kids focused.

Leapfrog, one-legged races and water balloon fights helped keep the kids loose and happy at the three-day camp. They also learned how to throw and catch a football better, and to defend against the run. Most of all, they learned teamwork.

“Every activity we’ve done is based on the fact that you need someone else to accomplish your goal,” said Hudson. “So what we’re trying to instill in them is that it’s okay to ask for help and that it’s okay to count on other people and that it’s okay to not be alone.”

Hudson told the Nation that after last year’s inaugural camp, he has seen an increase in kids throwing around the football and having fun with the sport. He is aiming for a touch- or flag-football team or teams in the next couple of years and then hopefully one day soon, a hard-hitting football club.

Prayers were interspersed between activities and breaks for lunch, thanking God (or the Creator) for everything that day.

The Mistissini Band Council could be thanked in a different way: they footed the $55,000 bill it cost to get the kids from Wemindji, Waskaganish, Waswanipi and other communities to Mistissini. Coach Paopao and the players gave their time for free.

“I think the football camp is a great idea for our kids but I’d like to see a continuation after these players leave,” said Dorothy Nicholls, the Vice -Principal at Voyageur Memorial School.

“It is a good thing because the kids who participated last year were very excited and they encouraged other children to join. Participation is up thanks to more communities being involved,” said Nicholls, who added that an unfortunate aspect of the camp is the delay of the start of school.

Ray Jacobs, a defensive end, was happy to be there with the kids. He believed in what the Renegades were doing, even though it meant time away from his family during Ottawa’s week off.

“I certainly enjoyed every last one of them,” said Jacobs, who had problems with substance abuse when he was with B.C and Saskatchewan and was suspended recently by Ottawa for “actions detrimental to the team.”

“I’m going to miss them. Even when I left, I was going to walk up to the store, the group of kids that really touched me had their dads drive them up the street to look for me. I just kind of gave them a hug, and told them I’d miss them, and that I’d enjoyed it and I looked forward to seeing them again.”

Another player, wide receiver David Azzi, was battling with health issues within his family and made a sacrifice to be there.

“My dad beat lung cancer once and we’re kind of worried that he might have brain cancer and it could be terminal,” said Azzi. “I almost didn’t make it up to the camp but I know how much these kids mean to Gord and with the attention and support he’s given me throughout my life, I couldn’t say no.”

“It’s an incredible experience and just seeing the smiles on the kids faces made me tear up.”