“What time is it? Time to get busy!”
Alouettes Coach Don Matthews’ unofficial song belted out of the speakers at Mistissini’s makeshift football field in front of 200-plus eager, football-hungry kids.
The song, made famous by Mathews after he performed his own rap rendition a couple years back, led a short workout by Matthews’ girlfriend, personal fitness trainer Stephanie Brown.
And then it was time to play ball.
Children from as far away as Whapmagoostui and Chisasibi took part in Mistissini’s Third Annual Football Camp June 28-30, and they walked away with new heroes.
After the Ottawa Renegades were forced to sit out of this year’s CFL season and miss the camp for what would have been their third time, the Montreal Alouettes, led by Coach Matthews, decided to pick up the slack.
“I was very thankful to be asked to be honest with you,” said coach Matthews. “I’ve been very fortunate, as have all of us in the CFL and professional athletics, so to be able to give back, it’s something that needs to be done. There was no question that as soon as I was asked I felt very privileged,” he said.
The camp is set up to promote the sport in a non-traditional market like Eeyou Istchee, but it is also worth much more. Kids learn to express themselves to people who genuinely care about their well-being. They also learn important aspects of life like sharing and teamwork. In the end, their self-esteem is boosted, albeit for a few days.
“It’s always a big load of my shoulders after it starts,” said Gordon Hudson, Director of Youth Healing Services and the rock that holds this thing together. “There are always questions as to if the kids are going to show up again, how the kids are going to react to Don (Matthews), but once it starts everything falls into place.”
Hudson was quick to point out that the camp could have been held in any sport; it is the results that matter. “It’s not about football here. This is the vehicle we’re using to get to these kids. The participation is amazing. We’re jumping around, tackling and throwing and that gets kids active. They’re happier, healthier, they are better at home and better students, it covers so many aspects.”
“We got the cheerleading going this year because so many little girls asked. It’s not a sport, but they’re still active,” said a beaming Hudson.
There was a touching moment when, after a kid sprayed another kid with water, Coach Matthews consoled him by giving him a jacket to warm up with and by bringing him over to his mother. The family had come all the way from Chisasibi for the camp.
“I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things with children, but this is totally unique,” Coach Matthews told the Nation. “The need for this is so vital because of the isolation of this community and how they need people like us to come up and to expose them to a different way of life, a different thought process. It’s very gratifying for us to be able to come here.”
Some of the players were deeply touched as well.
“It’s been a great experience, said Tackle Uzooma Okeke. “The kids are wonderful, they’re open, they come to you and ask you where you’re from and what you do. It’s good to be around kids who are so enthusiastic and want to get to know you.”
Okeke is married with two kids of his own, so the experience was all the more gratifying.
“I have a heart for kids,” he said. “To be here and to be with the kids is a tremendous experience.”
Okeke said the uniqueness of the camp was what attracted him to Mistissini. “I have coached different clinics where the emphasis is on football,” he said. “But here it’s not just about football, but to encourage them and give them hope and to try to give them love. I hope that they appreciate us coming here and talking to them to get to know them.”
“I hope they’re getting the message that there are people out there that do care about them, who want to see them succeed. They can be superstars. They can be football players. They can be whatever they want to be as long as they work hard and do it and never give up hope.”
The whole thing fascinated Steve Einish, 17. He was excited and hopeful that the camp will be the catalyst towards a football league in Mistissini.
“It’s cool, it was fun,” he said. “It was a good workout and good to do when you have nothing to do during the day,” said Einish, whose favorite player is Timothy Strickland
The 6-foot plus teenager is a basketball player with Chisasibi, but wants to give football more of a try.
“I was learning a lot of fundamentals, like how to control a ball, how to catch it and how to play the different positions and the conditioning drills,” said Einish.
“It’s got to be a great experience for them,” said Coach Matthews. “It’s not just football we’re teaching them, we’re teaching them about the wonderful world outside of this little isolated community and that people care about everybody in the world. This is way deeper than just football skills. This is a personal contact with people of different backgrounds and hopefully they appreciate us as much as we appreciate them.”
Also on hand was Rod Jacobs, Manager of High Performance Programs with the Aboriginal Sports Circle.
“We’ve been working with a number of national sport organizations including football Canada, to try to implement more recreational types of sports in order to get our athletes at a higher level of participation,” said Jacobs. “We’re happy to be here and to show the community and other Aboriginals that we’re serious in promoting football.”
“In the long run it’s about recreation and participation and getting these kids active.”
Jacobs also added that he enjoys the grass roots contact when visiting Aboriginal communities. “My negative spirit was taken away when I took a dip in the Lake,” he said. “When I popped my head out of the water I was rejuvenated. Coming to a community is always refreshing. You get back to yours roots, your history. Although I’m Ojibwa, I was able to share my language and culture with them. For me it was not only a sporting event, but it was a spiritual awakening.”
Linebacker Timothy Strickland was almost without words.
“It was a very humbling experience to me because it gives you an idea of what other people go through,” he said. “No matter the hard times I might have had growing up, seeing them has put into perspective that everybody has their way of coming up through life.”
“I had a great time just hanging out with the kids and doing the exercises with them and teaching them football.”
Strickland also said that he has never done anything of this magnitude. “I was able to see a whole different side of life and how people live there,” said Strickland, who has been with the Alouettes for five years.
Hudson is looking forward to August when Mistissini’s flag football teams will hopefully be taking off. Although he warned that they will be taking ‘baby steps at first,’ he said things look good for next summer.
“We want to get an eight-team league going here by next summer. Eventually, we’ll branch out into the other communities, but we wanted to start out small and grow. We don’t want to do too much at once and fail,” said Hudson, who has his eyes on competing in the 2011 Indigenous Games.
“We have kids coming here at 9, waiting for the camp to start,” Hudson continued. “We had parents saying ‘I’ve never seen my child come home and go to bed at seven at night.’ The police say vandalism has gone down and youth crime has dropped. I think bringing the positive role models in here where kids can watch them on TV and they can consistently, year after year, deliver the same message, it has an impact, and it shows.”