Never mind the winless record, it's been a dream season for Hamilton's Sir John A. Macdonald Chiefs.
Not only were the Chiefs selected as one of 21 struggling high school football programs to benefit from Nissan's Back in the Game campaign, but they were also chosen as one of two teams – Edmonton's Eastglen Blue Devils are the other – to be featured in television commercials and a web documentary.
Additionally, the Chiefs received new jerseys, equipment, team clothing, a tackling sled and guest coaching from CFL players. Surprises became de rigueur, so when the players were taken to Tim Hortons Field, new home of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, they assumed it was for a tour.
What happened next was beyond anyone's expectation.
Lined up across the field, the 25-player squad watched as a scoreboard video announced that Nissan was flying them to the 102nd Grey Cup game in Vancouver. Following a nano-second of disbelief, the players erupted in joy, yelling, screaming, jumping and hugging. Some even collapsed to the turf.
"I knew it was coming," said Chiefs head coach Jeff Kott. "But for the team, they were shocked … they couldn't believe it.
"It really was a cool experience."
Thousands of kilometres to the west, Eastglen players learned they, too, were going to participate in the football festivities. The Chiefs and Blue Devils will play each other on Saturday at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Stadium.
For Nissan, this is exactly the emotional resonance the program was intended to create. A sponsor of the Canadian Football League since 2007, the auto maker realized it needed to go in a new direction with its marketing.
"Consumers weren't identifying Nissan with the CFL or Nissan with football in particular," said Steve Rhind, Nissan Canada's director of marketing. "We wanted to do something different to improve that association with the brand.
"We felt the best way to go about that was doing something more on a grassroots level."
And so Back in the Game was born.
"It just made a whole lot of sense," said Rhind, calling it a win-win.
"It's a marketing opportunity for us but at the same time, it's doing something good in those local communities."
The campaign concludes with the Grey Cup and Nissan will review its impact. Television commercials showing snippets of high school players – expressing what football means to them – were broadcast during CFL games, directing fans to backinthegame.ca. Initial reports are positive: The first "webisode" has been viewed more than one-million times and Rhind says feedback from its participating dealerships and the community has been positive.
"When we saw the response with this we felt like, 'Wow, we're on to something really strong here,'" he said. "It's really connecting with people and we would like to be able to bring it back."
Kott couldn't agree more. Sir John A. Macdonald is a tough inner-city school, one that has struggled to keep its football program afloat. Kott, a math and phys-ed teacher who has coached the senior team since 2001, says it's a yearly challenge to get kids to commit.
"This year was different," he said. "They had something to be proud of. They had an identity. This is who we are. This is Sir John A. Macdonald football and this is why it's awesome: the Grey Cup and our brand-new uniforms and because of Nissan coming in …"
"It's a life-changing experience for the kids, it really is."
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