At least three times a week, every week, throughout the first months of fall and into December, members of Earl Marriott Secondary’s football program gathered on a back field and practised.
They stayed socially distanced, they followed the COVID-19 safety protocols – including health and temperature checks, among other procedures – and they worked on their skills. There were no pads or helmets, just a few footballs and players divided into small groups. They hit the field rain or shine – “unless the rain was coming in sideways, then we’d call it off,” head coach Michael Mackay-Dunn said.
All without any hope of playing a real game.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the high-school football season – along with every other fall and winter sport – was cancelled, but members of Earl Marriott’s Grade 8, junior and senior teams decided, along with a handful of coaches, not to let a lack of competitive games dampen the season.
“They’d show up at the field, with their bright smiles and energy, asking, ‘Hey can we do this today?’ or ‘Can we work on this? What about this?’ And I was just standing there, amazed, saying, ‘Wow,’” Mackay-Dunn told Peace Arch News.
“We were pretty energized by the kids and their enthusiasm. It was pretty neat. We’re out in the rain sometimes, but I’m not going to be sour about it because all these kids had smiles on their faces.”
The official workouts ended the first week of December, Mackay-Dunn noted, while adding that “if the kids had their way, we’d still be out there.”
While the practice-only approach was not ideal – Mackay-Dunn said players would ask “every day” if games were going to be possible – the longtime EMS coach and teacher said the thrice-weekly sessions were important from a mental-health standpoint while also serving as an important fitness outlet for the students.
“You need to keep them engaged – even if it’s just out practising – because if they aren’t engaged, it usually shows up in their classroom work, and they can go sideways,” he said.
“I saw a lot of that during online teaching, worrying about the mental health of the students. It’s especially tough for our Grade 12 (players), this would have been their last season. I feel terrible for them, but you have to raise them up, and give them some hope and help them the best you can.”
One positive, both Mackay-Dunn and fellow EMS coach Todd Fenwick noted, was that the turnout bodes well for the next time they can field a real team during a real season. More than 30 Grade 8 students took part in practices and there were many first-time players at all three levels, including junior and senior.
“I think it was special for the Grade 8s to feel like they’re part of the program,” said Fenwick, whose son Carter is a member of the senior squad.
“Normally, we have a flag-football day for (local) Grade 7 students the day before school starts in September, but because of Covid we couldn’t do that,” he said.
“So when we finally got the Grade 8s on the field, we put them in game jerseys, and lined them up across from the seniors and said, ‘Welcome to EMS, welcome to EMS football.’”
That camaraderie extended beyond the football field and into the hallways of the South Surrey school, too, the coaches noted – and grew because of, of all things, some brightly-coloured hoodies.
At the start of the school year, one of the football program’s sponsors donated bright orange hoodies – one of the school’s official colours – to the team. The team stuck an ‘EMS Football’ logo on the front, and they were quickly popular amongst the players.
“Everywhere you’d go in the school, you’d see these orange hoodies. Other teachers would say, ‘why are all these Grade 8s running around with these orange hoodies on?’” Mackay-Dunn explained.
“The kids were just so proud to wear them, and to be part of the team. It was awesome to see – to see that they were proud of what they were doing.”
The hoodies were “very sought-after” items, Fenwick added.
“You need help in school – you need to know where a classroom is? Just look for an orange hoodie. I think it made (the Grade 8s) more relaxed,” he said.
In a typical year, the football season would have ended by now, but Mackay-Dunn was still holding out hope that if the province’s COVID-19 situation improves, provincial football organizers might be able to host some type of all-star game or senior showcase for the province’s Grade 12 players, who missed out on one last opportunity to impress post-secondary scouts.
“It’s unfortunate, what has happened, but it would nice to be able to hold something like that for the Grade 12s, to highlight them,” he said. “It wouldn’t be perfect, but if we can help them any way we can, we will.”