Tangible success

Kenn Oliver
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St. John's Touch Football League still going strong in 29th year

From a distance, a Coors Light St. John's Touch Football League game might not appear to be anything more than a friendly Sunday afternoon pickup contest between friends at a local soccer pitch. On closer examination, it's clear there's more at stake than just bragging rights and a beer tab.

On offence, quarterbacks shout audibles on the snap, receivers run patterns through a field of defenders and lay it on the line to catch even the most uncatchable of Hail Mary passes. On defence, rushers sprint to sack the quarterback - even if in the touch game, a sack only constitutes a mere tap on the wrist - while his or her teammates do what they can to break up the play or nab an interception.

Coors Light St. John's Touch Football League is still going strong in 29th year. - Photo by Kenn Oliver/The Telegram

From a distance, a Coors Light St. John's Touch Football League game might not appear to be anything more than a friendly Sunday afternoon pickup contest between friends at a local soccer pitch. On closer examination, it's clear there's more at stake than just bragging rights and a beer tab.

On offence, quarterbacks shout audibles on the snap, receivers run patterns through a field of defenders and lay it on the line to catch even the most uncatchable of Hail Mary passes. On defence, rushers sprint to sack the quarterback - even if in the touch game, a sack only constitutes a mere tap on the wrist - while his or her teammates do what they can to break up the play or nab an interception.

"Once you get into it, you get addicted," says the league's former president, 40-year-old Mark Peters, a 19-year SJTFL veteran who led the executive for 13 seasons.

"It's a great way to stay involved in sports as you get a little bit older and some of the really competitive sports, you may not be up for," adds Peters, who plays for the Labatt Outlaws.

Dave Cochrane, member-at-large on the executive and member of the Harbour Gulls, says "it's the most fun I've had playing sports."

"It's competitive without being hyper-competitive. It's probably the equivalent to a good solid division two or division one basketball league in a lot of ways."

While you might figure rugby or even soccer players would make the best touch footballers, it will surprise many to learn that basketballers are seen as doing the best when transferring their athletic skills to the touch gridiron.

"This is zone defence, man defence, cutting and catching. The jumping, the quickness, the suddenness, the hands," Cochrane explains.

"Moving in space without the ball and catching the ball in traffic. Those are two things you work in basketball more than probably any other sport at top speed or three-quarters speed.

"Rugby is more similar in a proper sense, but there's no forward pass. Soccer players are great to have because you need kickers and punters, but they don't use their hands in that sport."

Like basketball, contact is expected to be limited, but "everyone knows there's a tonne", says Peters who has had his share of injuries, including a broken nose and broken collarbone in consecutive years.

"You're going for a ball and with two guys coming across running full at it, it's easy to get injured. Especially when you get older, it takes a little more time to get over the pain."

The league is filled with players of all ages, although the five-team women's league maintains a lower average age. Take Cochrane's team for instance. The youngest player is 24-years-old, while the oldest is a wily 40.

Geoff Tessier, who's been around since the league's second season in 1982, turns 46 later this year and is still regarded as one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the league.

"I've played with a lot of my friends for 15 or 20 years and they are still playing, There's a lot of camaraderie and I really enjoy the competitiveness of it," says Tessier who insists the caliber of athletes "make it as competitive as any other sport" in the province.

And where do most of the athletes come from?

Memorial University.

The best players in the women's league, according to Cochrane ,who coaches the Coast 101 team, are current and former varsity sports athletes. He should know, since his lineup is complimented by the likes of former Sea-Hawks Meghan Dalton, Maureen Murrin and Erin Mullaley. Other former MUN varsity basketball stars in the women's league include Sharon Gregory, Amy Pryse-Phillips, Sandi Ennis, Michelle Healey and Amy O'Reilly.

While the men's players often come from a slightly more varied sports background, plenty of the players have suited up for the Sea-Hawks basketball teams in the past, such as Peter Benoite and Evan Constantine.

Others come from soccer backgrounds, off the volleyball court, and the baseball diamond while for some it's only sport they've ever competed in.

"Most people who play in this league have finished playing their hyper-competitive level sports like university level or Canada Games athletics. It's what you play next," says Cochrane.

Growing pains

The men's league is in its 29th year, the women's is 19 years old. For most of that history, the leagues have managed to maintain an average of 10 male and five female teams, with about 15 players to a roster.

But like any recreational sports league in this city, its longevity and success hasn't come without some growing pains.

Peters says obtaining consistent field space has always been the biggest challenge faced by the leagues, especially in the early 1990s, when they played at up to 10 different locations throughout the metro region.

"We don't have a field of our own, so there was never a place where we could show people 'this our signature field and we play here all the time.'

"Sometimes we'd be out in Southlands. Sometimes at Quidi Vidi. Sometimes at the Torbay Rec Centre."

This season, the leagues use only Brother Egan field in the west end of St. John's.

Cochrane, meanwhile, suggests finding a "competitive balance" is the league's biggest challenge because "good quarterbacks are hard to find."

"It's hard in any year to find 15 people, who can not only throw a ball, but can read a defence and hit a receiver in the open spot.

"You're not going to be competitive without one."

At the same time, league members agree that even bad quarterbacks can become good if they can slug it out and develop their skills over time.

Teams from this province have attended nationals championships almost annually since 1981, never winning it all, but always proving competitive. Considering every mainland team has the advantage of players who've competed in full-contact football at the scholastic and collegiate level, it speaks to the quality of the local leagues and its members.

"We're not big on numbers," says Tessier, "but we have a lot of players who are big on talent and committed to their teams and making their teams better and thereby make the league successful."

koliver@thetelegram.com




LEAGUE HISTORY

The men's league was formed in 1981 when Roger Wheeler, a football player from the Maritimes. Wheeler and his team, the Blues, started the league following the creation of an intra-mural flag football league at Memorial University
The first seven teams were The Fighting 59th, The Crew, Mudsharks, Bombers, Blues, Eagles and Sidewinders
The Fighting 59th won first league championship 30-1 over The Crew and went on to win four more titles in row
Forty teams have competed in league history, but only six have won league title (The Fighting 59th, Golden Seals, Carriageworks, Goldens,
Mustangs and Outlaws)
The women's league began in 1991 when the Green Sleeves ladies played exhibition games against men's teams. Two more ladies' teams joined in 1992
The Lady Hurricanes won first women's championship with 6-3 win over Green Sleeves
Other past women's champions include Hickman Motors/Lambs Rum, The Heat, Daley's and Sundance
2008 champs: Coast 101 (women's), Mustangs (men's)

Organizations: Touch Football League, Labatt Outlaws, Coast 101 Hickman Motors/Lambs Rum

Geographic location: St. John's, Southlands

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Recent comments

  • Joe
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    This sport is right up there with Rugby....for athletes who are no good in real sports!

  • Joe
    July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    This sport is right up there with Rugby....for athletes who are no good in real sports!