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New program for youngsters, teens hopes to continue growing

Seventeen-year old Simeon Mercer plays hockey and baseball but, for as long as he can remember, he’s always wanted to play football.

The ball carrier is about to be taken down by a tackler in the minor football game played earlier this week at Rainbow Gully field in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.

He never got the chance until this summer.

Mercer, who guessed his height and weight at 6-2 and over 200 pounds, has found a game he seemed destined to play.

“I’m a big guy, and it seemed like football is one of the sports that’s made for me,” said Mercer.

“This is an aggressive sport and I like hitting people,” he added with a smile.

Mercer, who plays on the offensive and defensive line, said it was a big surprise to him that he’d ever get to play the game here.

Football hasn’t been played in the province since the early 1960s when it was played at the junior high level, but a group of dedicated people has formed an executive and reintroduced the game for those eight to 18 years of age.

When he heard about it last April, Mercer, a Grade 12 Mount Pearl Senior High student, was one of the first to sign up.

He said the experience is what he’d expected it to be. He’d prefer to play the 12-aside game, but the sixaside games (because of registration numbers) are fun as well.

A spot for everyone

All shapes and sizes, and levels of ability were on display under the lights on a drizzly Tuesday night at Rainbow Gully field in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s where sets of teams took turns playing what amounted to carefully run “controlled scrimmages,” as the organizers termed the two-hour session divided into age groups and body size.

In addition to Tuesday evening games, the players are run through a pair of practices each Saturday and Sunday.

What the kids lack in skill they more than made up for with their enthusiasm. The younger ones were practically giddy on the sidelines waiting for their turn to take the field.

The coaches/officials on the field, some from the United States and mainland Canada, were there to teach the game more than to officiate.

They are careful to call the play dead so there are no late hits. You hear them give helpful hints after each play. Mistakes are pointed out, but the players are always encouraged.

The youngsters and teens warmed up for about 30 minutes before playing. Even the warmups were structured to get the most out of them.

There were lots of errors, of course. Several fumbles and dropped passes were the order of the day to go along with some nice tackles, three or four impressive long runs and a few solid blocks.

What stood out, however, were the dedicated volunteers who obviously love the game. They clearly want to pass on their knowledge to the eager youths.

This is football at the very basic level of the sport, and only those with lots of patience need apply to help out.

The on-field coaches who ran the scrimmages showed tremendous patience and remained positive while pointing out the mistakes and offering some encouraging words.

It was evident they were enjoying themselves as much as the kids.

Those in charge know who they are dealing with.

Most of the kids on the field have never played the game before, but you know they’ve seen it on TV and they want to be a part of something new and exciting. The cool equipment alone, provided free of charge from Football Canada, is an incentive to participate.

It’s just the sort of people who run the program want to be involved with. Show us you care and we’ll show you how to play, seems to be their mantra.

Brian Hughes, the executive’s the vice-president technical who has 30 years of coaching and officiating in Ontario, is the man responsible for bringing along coaches and officials.

Top-notch coaching

Hughes is one of five coaches, which include former players from places such as the University of Nebraska, the Canadian Football League and Mount Allison University.

“There’s a lot of experience amongst that coaching staff,” Hughes said.

“This is fun,” he said about being involved with a minor football program from scratch.

Hughes, an Ontario native and former principal at St. Bon’s, said he’s started high school programs before from scratch, but this one is a little different.

“I’ve never started a program from scratch where nobody has played the game before. That’s something I’m not familiar with,” he said.

“But the older kids are quick learners and they love to play the game and are really excited about it, as are the little guys.”

Hughes admitted it’s more difficult for eight- and nine-year-olds to come to grips with technical concepts of the game.

Mercer, meanwhile, will be too old to play in the program next year. He hopes that if he goes to university on the mainland, he’ll find some level of the game to play somewhere in a province where the sport is more prominent.

Local organizers are hoping that one day their sport might reach prominence here.

Organizations: University of Nebraska, Canadian Football League, Mount Allison University

Geographic location: Portugal Cove, United States, Canada Ontario

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