Putting together an amateur football team requires more than just players and qualified coaches teaching the sport. There’s the equipment – and making sure the key items, like helmets, meet safety standards.
The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest network of educational institutions, is doing everything it can to preserve the tackle game – one that has been around for decades and, this year, has about half of its secondary schools with teams.
With a large and diverse community, football isn’t the first thing on the mind of students.
There are young people new to the country, others having not growing up with the game of football, some facing the challenges of other sports, peer pressure, part time jobs and many more items.
When it comes to sports, like football, there’s a crucial word – safety.
Hockey, soccer and rugby, seem to get pushed aside in favor of football when the topic of discussion focuses on head injuries. And while concussions are a serious issue in any sport, the TDSB is doing what it can to keep the game safe and attractive to students who want to learn and play.
So the TDSB is not just talking, but putting money towards safe football equipment.
“Safety is, and must be, the key in a school program,” said George Kourtis, the TDSB’s Program Coordinator for Health and Education. “Football is popular, and has been for a long time, and we want our students to be physically active, take part in sports and have fun. But as a school Board, our responsibility is to provide safe, and certified equipment, and to teach students about awareness and injury prevention.”
According to Kourtis, a sum of $2,300. is available for each team to ensure helmets meet the standards and, if necessary, the cost to get them re-certified – or replaced.
With about 90 high schools in the TDSB, Kourtis said one third of them have football teams. In some cases, schools have senior and junior teams.
“Some sports need to be treated differently, extra costs for equipment,” said Kourtis. “The bottom line is that if we can’t ensure safety, there are no activities. The goal is to have students compete, learn, and also avoid debilitating traumatic injuries and to know, if injured, when to seek help and not to re-enter a game at the urging of teammates.”
The TDSB’s Department of Health and Physical Education also provides guidance to coaches and students through a series of sessions, in some cases graphically portrayed, on concussion awareness and prevention.
Leonid Kilimnik, a teacher and football coach at Newtonbrook Secondary, said sustaining a sports program, like football, isn’t cheap, and the availability of funding from the Board helps tremendously.
“We have to be safety conscious when our students compete in sports,” said Kilimnik, who once attended Newtonbrook as a student and was a Toronto champ in wrestling. “At our school, there is value in having a football program – and it is a big deal when students know that the equipment, they are using, is safe.”
At Central Technical School, football has been part of the school sport culture for years.
Just check in with the dozens of students who, after high school graduation, went on to play university football, in Canada and the United States. In some cases, they jumped to the pros, like current Edmonton Eskimos coach Mike Benevides and former players Adriano Belli and Tristan Black.
“We threw out about 70 football helmets last year because their usage time had expired and they were no longer safe,” said Lisa Edwards, Principal at Central Tech. “We need to have the best certified equipment available for our students. Plain and simple.”
The TDSB paid for the purchase of new helmets.
Paul Dias has been around football for a long time.
He has watched what the sport has meant to students, and he’s been the coach of the Etobicoke Collegiate Rams, a team that won two of the past three City-wide championships. Dias has seen spectator support swell to the thousands for key games.
“There is something special, at a high school, about having a football team, and the funding is huge,” said Dias, who replaced 22 helmets this past year. “Without (funding), there’s no doubt in my mind that a large number of schools would struggle to have football teams.
“The average top notch helmet is about $350 and while helmets can last for 10 years, they do get bashed around. New technology on helmets has helped with all the focus on concussions, but having a football team is not cheap and students are doing their share by pitching in financially
While the challenges and outcome of a football game are always factors, players can take a deep breath, add some composure with a sense of onfidence and poise knowing the equipment they are using isn’t a safety hazard.
“Every student wants to get in to a game and, for me, I feel real safe with the equipment that I wear and the way coaches have taught me to prepare for a game,” said Sakib Khan, a 17-year old 6-foot, 250-pound defensive lineman and centre, who plays for SATEC at Porter, also referred to as the Scarborough Academy of Technological, Environmental and Computer Education.
School officials at Porter says there is an emergency action plan strictly for football. Student athletes have to take special sessions, learn about concussion training and are required to take eight contact practices in full gear before they see game action.
“I don’t coach football for the (championships), I got into this because I know, as a former athlete, that it’s important for a student’s lifestyle, confidence and to help build character,” said Steve Konupka, Porter’s head football coach. “We discuss safety and injury prevention at practice and we make sure the goalposts have pads, players have proper equipment, everyone has a mouth guard, and even check for holes on the football field. Football is great, but safety is No. 1.”