NORTH SURREY — Joe knows football, and most local people involved in the game know Joe.
This is Joe Connelly we’re talking about, a man who has lived and breathed North Surrey Minor Football for five decades.
He began coaching the game in the late 1960s, and never really left.
In Surrey and around the province, Connelly is a football pioneer who was recently recognized as such during the Orange Helmet Awards, the annual celebration of amateur football hosted by the B.C. Lions at a Vancouver hotel.
“Joe is probably as good a coach in minor football that you’ll find in all of Canada, maybe North America,” affirmed John Hocking, a longtime ally of Connelly’s with the club in North Surrey.
“He’s one of the reasons why the club is so productive, so well thought of,” added Hocking, who’s been the club’s equipment manager since 1984.
“He’s a great football diplomat – just great.”
Connelly, 69, is humble, though, and doesn’t really want this story to be about him.
“Make it about North Surrey football, not so much about me,” he said while seated inside the association’s clubhouse, at Bear Creek Park.
“It’s about the kids, the players, teaching them the game, making sure they become good people. That’s why I do what I do.”
(PICTURED: Joe Connelly, left, with the North Surrey U12 Assassins flag football team)
The clubhouse, filled with photos, trophies and other football memories, is a facility Connelly helped build in 1988, at a time when he was with the association for already 20 years.
“When I first started here, we were basically out of the trunk of a car,” he explained. “Then it was somebody’s basement and then in the early 1980s we had use of a stall in the worksyard over here. The city gave us a 15-foot-by-four-foot strip and we’d put the two-by-fours and chicken wire up, and that’s where we put the equipment. And wow, we thought that was a big step up, holy moly. What else is there, right? But then we built this.”
Originally from Scotland, Connelly was introduced to the gridiron while a student at Queen Elizabeth Secondary. He played there for two years before he took up coaching.
This is his 49th year in the game, and this spring he’s helping out with a U12 flag football team that involves a great-nephew named Joey, whom he coaches during the fall tackle-football season as well.
Joey’s mom, Michelle Bentley, is amazed by her uncle’s dedication to the game in Surrey.
“Everybody who’s been part of the organization knows Uncle Joe, from 30 or 40 years back, even longer,” said Bentley, manager of her son’s Assassins team. “He’s coached kids who are now here as coaches and parents. They all know what a strong coach he is, what a great mentor he is. It means a lot to these people that he’s been part of their life.”
Connelly never had children with his wife, Diane, which makes his commitment to football that much more amazing. Typically, a parent will get involved, and sometimes stay involved, in a sport played by their child.
“I didn’t get married until I was 40, never had kids,” he said. “I just have a passion for the football, and I love the Canadian game better than anything. That’s a big thing for me. And now I’m coaching my great-nephew, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had some family involved on a team for a long time, other than another nephew back in 1989, I think.”
Connelly is an old-school coach, and he’s not shy about it. Those who’ve coached and played against him – probably half of the football community in the Lower Mainland – tell stories of Connelly’s competitiveness. He yells. He rants. He can be hard on refs.
One player on the Assassins jokes that coach Joe needs a Snickers chocolate bar before every game in order to keep him normal, like in the TV commercial.
“Christ, when I was young I made Attila the Hun look like a princess, always yelling and screaming,” Connelly said. “And I’ll still do it at the little kids sometimes, but at the end of the day I’ll get them a juicebox or something and pat ’em on the head. We have a lot of fun.”
On the sideline, Connelly hobbles a bit these days, due to hip-replacement surgery, but he’s at nearly every game and practice.
“He was on holiday last week, on a cruise ship in Hawaii,” Bentley related, “and he was texting us during our game asking how it was going, what the score was. That’s just how he is.”
Over the years, not only has Connelly volunteered his time with the North Surrey club in a variety of coaching and board positions, he’s been involved at the provincial level, too. He was a founder of the Vancouver Mainland Football League (VMFL) in the early 1980s (alongside Don Berger, former NFL-er Mitch’s dad), and was president of B.C. Minor Football later that decade.
(STORY CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO FOR ORANGE HELMET AWARDS)
This spring, he’ll help the Assassins during the flag season before turning his attention to tackle football in the fall, both in North Surrey and as coach of a junior team at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary.
The Assassins and dozens of other flag-football teams will play at Newton Athletic Park on Saturday, May 14 as part of a series of jamborees held this spring, involving five-on-five squads from around the Lower Mainland. The short season concludes in June at a provincial tournament held in Kelowna.
Connelly will be there the whole way.
“I just don’t quit,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t have time to scratch my ass.”
Football is his life.
“I don’t really think of what I’ve done, other than maybe help create a great environment for football here now, and some great facilities that are second to none for a community program, and I’m proud of the position that North Surrey has in the football community in the province.” Connelly said.