NEWTON — It was the 12th game in a long 25-match pre-season tournament involving a half-dozen age groups and teams from across the Lower Mainland and even as far away as Victoria. It began, as scheduled, at 3 p.m. last Saturday afternoon, and ended, as tournament rules stipulated, just 25 minutes later. It featured no more than one or two completed passes, and was most often a congested swarm of helmets and uniforms.
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t exactly the Super Bowl.
But for these players, the 10- and 11-year-olds kids competing in the game pitting one North Surrey Minor Football Peewee team (the Hawks) against another (the Cardinals), this was big-time pigskin. You could see it in their faces, you could hear it in their voices.
In the end, the Hawks nipped the Cardinals 7-6. But while the winners celebrated, Cardinals head coach Atesh Rup had his kids celebrating, too.
Gathering them in a circle, he reminded them they’d lost by 14 points the last time they’d played the Hawks. This time, they’d lost by just one. And suddenly, to everyone within earshot, it seemed like a victory.
This is what good coaches do. And on Saturday afternoon, when the Hawks and Cardinals butted heads during the Bronze Boot tournament at Bear Creek Park, there were plenty to go around.
One was named Kirk Johnson. He’s an assistant coach with the Cardinals, and all game long you could see him talking up his players. He’d often laugh, and then they’d laugh. He’d speak deeply with others, maybe after they’d fumbled the ball or missed a block, relating to them face to face and not letting go until they’d felt better about things.
Johnson’s not exactly new to the sport.
“I used to play the game,” he begins, unassumingly. “I was on the practice roster for the Edmonton Eskimos back in the day. I was there with guys like Marco Cyncar and Tracy Ham. Damon Allen was my quarterback. Warren (Moon) had just left for Houston when I played.
“Gizmo (Williams) was the guy I was going up and competing against. But no one could compete with Gizmo. He’s a legend.”
Born in Jamaica and moved to Canada when he was young, Johnson says he didn’t take up the sport until high school.
“I wanted to be a basketball player,” he explained. “Football was a side hobby. But then I went to Toronto and when I came back to Edmonton, I didn’t have a job.
“One of my buddies who used to play with the Eskimos said, ‘Why don’t you come out? I’ll get you a trial with Jackie Parker.’ So I did some skill tests and Jackie said, ‘We’re going to keep you.’ I was on the practice roster for a couple years. But when Joe Faragalli came in…. New coaches like to clean house.”
Johnson got into coaching minor football with buddy Geroy Simon.
“We knew each other from (Lions) camp and other things. Our kids went to (school in) Cloverdale together so we just started coaching together. We won a championship together.”
Today, he’s spread a little thin, coaching Peewees in North Surrey, Midgets in North Langley, and high school players at Lord Tweedsmuir. And that’s the big reason he remains a specialty rather than head coach.
With the Cardinals, Johnson says he does a little of everything but is primarily a receivers’ coach.
“At this level, it’s just about having fun. They’re just starting to understand the basic concepts of what to do. At the next level, that’s when it gets more serious, the tackling gets harder. Right now, they’re just on that cusp of learning the deeper concepts of football.”
It’s not likely Johnson will ever stray too far from the game he loves.
“I want to give back. Football’s done great things for me. I’ve had opportunities and growth through it. Brotherhood, friendships, family…. I’m just trying to spread the word.”
Just a dozen yards down the field from Johnson and Rup and their Cardinals stood the Hawks and head coach Adam Jenkins (PICTURED ABOVE). A big man who looks like he’s spent plenty of time crushing bodies on an offensive or defensive line somewhere, Jenkins, who admits to being a “diehard Seahawks fan,” had, in fact, no official involvement with football until 2012.
“I never played football. I played minor hockey myself. But I’ve been coaching for the last four years now. I have an older boy who now plays junior bantam – the next age group up – so I’ve been coaching him for a few years. Now I’m coaching with my younger son (Matthew) this year.”
Jenkins is a strong believer in all that team sports can do for kids – and their families.
“It (coaching) gives me the enjoyment of being with my kid, hanging out with my kids, hanging out with their friends, teaching them the game, teaching them the love of sport, teaching them what it’s like to be teammates, what it’s like to play with your friends, how to win, how to be successful, how to deal with not being successful.”
He credits Football BC and a little thing called the internet for helping him learn the tools of the trade.
“The internet is a wonderful thing. And Football BC puts a lot of emphasis on coaching, so there’s a lot of information out there for coaches to learn what they need to know positioning-wise, how the game is played.”
And, he says there’s always Joe Connelly. When it comes to North Surrey Minor Football, Connelly is something of a god – and rightfully so. The guy’s spent the better part of five decades teaching Surrey kids football, and Jenkins has turned to him multiple times during his four-year stint.
“You get the old guys like Joe who have been doing this for so long, and you learn so much from that.”
Minutes before the opening kickoff, Jenkins proclaimed that “we’ll be playing off against each other to see who gets home-field bragging rights for the rest of the year.”
In the end, he and his team had claimed those bragging rights. Yet just down the field, the Cardinals knew the game could have been theirs for the taking. It was that close.
Of course, there’s always next time. And in the interim, two coaches with diametrically opposed backgrounds will continue to do what they love – for the good of the game, and the good of the kids who play it.