Counsillor Rob Ford, Football Coach

It’s a crisp, cool October Friday evening – perfect football weather – and on a flawless Forest Hill field, the number one-ranked St. Michael’s Kerry Blues are hosting the Don Bosco Eagles of Rexdale.

The field at St. Michael’s College School is named after billionaire Eugene Melnyk and surrounded by luxury condos; the artificial turf wouldn’t look out of place at the Rogers Centre. The young men from Don Bosco Catholic School are a long way from home.
“You should see our field … oh my God, there are potholes everywhere,” says Fatima Langa, mother of Don Bosco’s starting quarterback, Jonathan Langa.
Ms. Langa makes for a one-woman cheerleading squad, generating as much noise as humanly possible: blowing a whistle, barking cheers into a plastic blue megaphone, shouting encouragement to her son, pounding her brown boots on a stainless steel bench. In between plays, Ms. Langa hands out Eagles stickers to other spectators, all the while admonishing them to cheer ever-more loudly.
“I’ll have no voice left tomorrow,” says Ms. Langa.
Coming into this game, the team is ranked number two in the GTA; the Eagles narrowly lost 4-0 to Birchmount Collegiate in the Toronto championship finals last year. But the story of the Don Bosco Eagles is far more than a tale of a successful high school football program.
It is one of hope and second chances, with an unlikely protoganist: Toronto City Councillor Rob Ford, best known for generating conflict and controversy at city hall.
Seven years ago, Mr. Ford decided to revive the dormant football program at Don Bosco, which he allows is in a “pretty rough area” of town. More than half of the team’s players reside in public housing units.
“Many of the kids on this team don’t have fathers in their lives anymore – some never did,” says Mr. Ford.
Mr. Ford says he wanted to give Don Bosco students something to aspire to other than hanging around the mall after school or linking up with gangs. He was so bullish the football program would act as a catalyst for positive change that he spent $25,000 of his own money to resuscitate it. Today, 80 kids make up the junior and senior squads.
“I know what football did for me as a kid,” says Mr. Ford. “I grew up in a family with a few problems, and I probably wouldn’t have finished high school without football. I just want to give back to these kids what I got out of football.”
On the gridiron, Mr. Ford finds a metaphor for life, and what it takes to be successful. “More than any other team sport, everyone in football must be a team player. It requires ethics and morals and discipline, and the harder you try, the more successful you’ll be.”
Perhaps the biggest individual success story to date is Jerome Miller, the beneficiary of a football scholarship at Missouri University of Science & Technology. Mr. Miller, a Don Bosco alumnus, will be headed for the National Football League draft upon graduation.
Mr. Ford notes Mr. Miller, before he took up football, was less than angelic, and was hanging out with the wrong crowd. “If it wasn’t for football,” Mr. Ford says, “I’m absolutely sure he [Miller] would be dead or in jail.”
In a phone interview from Rolla, Missouri, Mr. Miller says simply: “Without this program, I wouldn’t be where I am today. This [football] was an opportunity, and I ran with it.
‘‘Rob Ford has been able to take a lot of kids off the street with this and [the success of the football program] has made Don Bosco a school where kids want to go to now. I can tell you I’m now living the dream in real life, and I hope it never stops.”
Mr. Ford demands every player on the team put effort into their schoolwork. He regularly phones teachers at Don Bosco to check up on his players’ academic and attendance records. “If any player skips class or is late for class, the whole team gets punished. And players must get passing grades or they’re off the team,” he says.
Ms. Langa says Mr. Ford has emerged as a father figure for many of the kids, helps pay for their shoes and bus fare when needed, and holds team barbeques.
‘‘He’s doing everything he can to get these kids involved in school and keep them off the streets. He’s strict, but he speaks to them man-to-man, not like they’re little babies.”
Mr. Ford has had to contend with his own demons. He readily admits that despite having a father who was a successful businessman and politician, his family wasn’t always a happy clan; indeed, sometimes domestic problems threatened to tear the Ford family apart. As a city councillor today, Mr. Ford makes it a regular habit to criticize the spending habits of his fellow councillors. The result: he is often shunned and even mocked by his colleagues at city hall. An outsider who has experienced his fair share of hardship, Mr. Ford appears to identify with many of the kids on his football squads.
“These guys are my family,” says Mr. Ford of the players. “I’ll go to the wall for them. I’ve told them no matter what happens off the field, if you get into trouble and you need to call me at three or four in the morning, then call me.”
Have any players ever taken the coach up on his offer? “I’ve had a few late night calls,” he says. “I’ve had to bail a few out.” But he says some parents have “cried tears of joy,” because the football team turned their sons’ lives around.
“It keeps [my son] busy, keeps him off the street,” says Julian Nika, an Albanian immigrant whose son, Christian, plays linebacker, and was there on that perfect Friday in Forest Hill to cheer Don Bosco on.
“We don’t know this game in Europe, but believe it or not, I’m now going crazy for this sport.’’
A few seats over, the noisy Ms. Langa was especially rooting for a comeback victory over St. Michael’s. The last time the two teams met, in July, she says the game devolved into an ugly affair and that St. Michael’s players employed trash talk, calling the Don Bosco players “welfare cases” and “homie homeless.”
“They were really mocking us,” she says.
Alas, victory was not in the cards. The Kerry Blues lived up to their number one ranking, clobbering the Eagles 22-7. But even so, there were few long faces from the Don Bosco parents. In their corner of Rexdale, success can be measured in different ways.
“What this program has done for school spirit and bringing the community together … it’s incredible,” says Don Bosco principal Sebastian Karubia.

Source: By David Menzies, National Post

Advocating for football prospects one story at a time.

Leave a Reply

Loading cart ...