“Hey, you. Are you coming out for football tryouts?” An intimidated ninth grader spun his head around to two imposing goliaths occupying the hallway between the auto shop room and the science room. The freshman just shrugged his shoulder meekly, “Maybe, if I can find a ride home after.” And that ladies and gentlemen, was my introduction to what has since become a love affair with football.
Football — the American version, anyway — has taken this writer on an incredible journey spanning nearly two decades. Now an adult — though not completely mature — male, I’ve reflected on my path to the gridiron. My career had a clunky beginning and fell way short of a Hall-of-Fame ending, but football is still my passion. After assuming that I was a loose thread in the tapestry of Canadian sports fandom, I’ve come to realize that my passion is shared by many in my home and native land.
It has led me to ponder, Is Canada doing enough to develop the sport of football?
We know that hockey is the monolith in the country when it comes to coverage, marketing and broadcasts. But did you know that golf surpassed the shinny juggernaut in popularity in Canada, according to Statistics Canada, in 2010. It’s only fitting that the Toronto Raptors then won the 2019 NBA Finals. I recently wrote about the success and celebration of Bianca Andreescu for Canadian tennis, in fact, and that is not a sport Canadians typically get a lot of press for. The long shadow that the sport of the puck once cast has relinquished its grasp on the sports throne in the country. During that time, many of the other sports have enjoyed a rise in popularity. Can we say that same for football?
According to that same 2010 Stats Canada report, tennis, football and gymnastics only had 200,000 to 400,000 active participants. Those figures are far behind the 1.5 million Canadians who play golf and the 1.3 million that play hockey. In the United States, 1,088,158 high school athletes played football in 2012-2013 (1,086,627 boys and 1,531 girls), making it the most popular sport among high school students in the country. Considering that Canada is out-populated by its neighbours to the south by an eight-to-one margin, it’s difficult to juxtapose the two nations. However, the core remains the same and if we are to learn anything from these higher numbers it’s that Canada should also increase its support and development of collegiate and professional football prospects.
A great equalizer for Canadian football talent was the advent of the Canadian Football League in 1958. Wanting to showcase homegrown talent, the league enforces a 50/50 split of what they term domestic (Canadian) and non-domestic (international) players. The rule prioritizes Canadian participation and limits the amount of international talent a team can roster. You can understand the intention of the rule and how it benefits the players who fall under its umbrella.
The biggest fight that football seems to be undergoing is not one between the lines, however. It’s with the perception of football. It’s with the parents, guardians and adults who refuse to allow their children to play football. There’s no sugarcoating the obvious. Football is a physically, mentally and emotionally draining sport, regardless of the level of commitment. From training and film work to on-field practices and the games themselves, few sports stick with you for the rest of your life quite like the gridiron game.
Concerns have grown in recent years as more research findings are revealed. Studies such as those on chronic traumatic encephalopathy — aka CTE — by Dr. Bennett Omalu have stirred debates about the long-term impact of contact sports. The counter argument is that those risks to physical health are not exclusive to football. With a better understanding of the game, participants at every level of the sport — youth, high school, collegiate and pro — can take measures to create a safer game that still delivers the organized violence that it’s known for.
With Canada celebrating success over the last six months in tennis and basketball, changing the narrative around participating in sports comes down to quantifiable success. I hold the belief that Canada is willing to embrace new ideas and concepts… the catch is that they have to be proven winners already. The endorsements came in quickly for Minnesota Timberwolves’ F Andrew Wiggins once he was named the first overall selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2014 NBA Draft. Christine Sinclair had been a success long before captaining Canada Women’s Soccer, but it wasn’t until she had entered the top ten in scoring that she began to be promoted as a Canadian hero.
Canada has produced its fair share of gridiron stars, such as Israel Idonije, Laurant Duvernay-Tardiff and Tyrone Crawford. There are some up-and-comers in the college football ranks. Sherwood Park, Alberta, native RB Chubba Hubbard, St. Catherines, Ontario, DT Neville Gallimore and Abbostford, BC, WR Chase Claypool are the next generation of gridiron talent that will carry the maple leaf into the NFL. The path to becoming a professional is still murky, with most of the country’s elite talent heading down across the border to gain exposure. Unless the demand for U Sports Football explodes within the next decade, that’s a trend that will continue. This is more of a call-to-action at the grassroots level. Information needs to be provided to players and parents about a future in football. Info that outlines the options available during high school, how to get the attention of colleges and the different types of offers that colleges and universities will provide during the entire recruiting process.
A more informed parent or guardian would be more willing to talk with their child about the risks and rewards of a football career. Gaining a free education has long been touted as a positive for scholarship athletes, be it football or another sport. One of my greatest wishes would be to know now what I didn’t know back then about the game of football. That doesn’t mean the outcome of my path forward would have changed tremendously if at all. I would love to see the sport celebrated and embraced here as it is by its contemporaries in the States. Canada has always illustrated it’s wealth of athletes throughout its history. That tradition can continue at a modest pace. Or, with more information and development at an appropriate age, we’re sure to see the next Tom Brady or Saquon Barkley ascend to the pinnacle of Mount Gridiron.