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Images are for a feature on the Argos Level the Playing Field initiative that has helped bring back football programs to various high schools in the Toronto area. Sir Robert L. Borden, in blue and yellow, playing Lester B. Pearson C.I. in Scarborough (grey and black) is one of those schools. They are coached by Metro Toronto Police officers Martin Douglas, Jim Farrell, and a number of community coaches, and former student/player mentors. Coach Douglas, middle, speaking to the team before the game. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Images are for a feature on the Argos Level the Playing Field initiative that has helped bring back football programs to various high schools in the Toronto area. Sir Robert L. Borden, in blue and yellow, playing Lester B. Pearson C.I. in Scarborough (grey and black) is one of those schools. They are coached by Metro Toronto Police officers Martin Douglas, Jim Farrell, and a number of community coaches, and former student/player mentors. Coach Douglas, middle, speaking to the team before the game. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Gridiron growth in GTA Add to ...

The game had ended and people were milling about on the field, when one of the high-school football players approached a Toronto police officer with a set of car keys, asking if the officer could help locate the owner.

"Why me?" Constable Martin Douglas asked.

"Because you've got the biggest mouth," was the cheeky reply.

Rather than reprimand the player, Douglas chuckled good-naturedly at the dig which, he would admit, is probably true.

Douglas is the head football coach at Sir Robert L. Borden Business & Technical Institute, whose dormant program was brought back to life this season thanks to the Toronto Argonauts.

Two years ago, the CFL club launched its Level the Playing Field initiative, which has provided financial assistance for seven high schools in the Toronto area to launch new football programs.

Through the program, which is also supported by Tim Hortons Inc. and the Toronto Foundation for Student Success - the charitable foundation of the Toronto District School Board - the Argos have funnelled about $130,000 to the cause. And the club is committed to donating another $80,000 in 2011, when three more schools are expected to field new football teams.

"It's been huge," Chick Kennedy, the athletic director of the TDSB, said of the program. "It's allowed these schools, which never would have had an opportunity to play football, a chance to play."

A surprising offshoot of the program has been the involvement of police officers who volunteered their time to help coach some of the new teams.

Douglas is one of four police officers who help coach the team at Borden, a vocational institution located in a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood in the former municipality of Scarborough in Toronto's east end.

In the city's west end, Detective Constable Aaron Groskoph helps coach the team at North Albion Collegiate Institute, whose program started up in 2009.

"I think it's all about engaging the youth in a positive way," Douglas said. "I think it's made a huge improvement with the students at Borden and their relationship with the police."

The gridiron newcomers all play in the Varsity Development loop of the TDSB, an 11-team, two-division league which is geared for participants whose skill sets in football are mostly at the low end of the scale.

With a 14-0 loss to Lester B. Pearson C.I. last week, Borden concluded the regular season with a 0-5 record, getting outscored 150-12. Still, the players managed to maintain a high spirit and after the game, a couple of them conspired to dump the contents of a large water barrel over Douglas.

"As a police officer, I can vouch for the importance of sports for kids, especially a game like football where there's a big discipline factor involved," he said. "These kids crave it. They eat it up."

Borden has a student base of about 560, two-thirds of which are male. Some of the students live in group homes, many are in assisted housing being raised by a single parent.

The school used to field a football team but the program dried up in the late 1970s or early 1980s, according to principal Anthony Hack.

Douglas grew up in Scarborough's notorious Malvern district and played football at the high-school level, a choice he said helped keep him out of trouble.

"I can tell you from my personal experiences, I avoided some pretty serious stuff that some of my friends went through," Douglas said. "Some of them got robbed or were injured pretty badly. Instead, I chose to go to football practice."

Before he became a football coach Douglas walked the halls at Borden as a school resource officer and he lobbied hard to get the football program up and running.

"Football teaches hierarchy, it teaches that there has to be discipline if you want to succeed," he said. "That's what these kids are learning."

Toronto president Bob Nicholson said the program helps provide a healthy outlet for teenaged boys while also broadening the Argos brand, which the CFL club hopes will help sell some tickets down the road.

"I've been very thrilled with it," he said. "I think it's one of the great things that we've been able to do in the community."

 

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