From Wilmington to Winnipeg: Bulldogs’ head coach Walls has ambitious plans for his team

Tom Walls, head coach of the Churchill Bulldogs of the WHSFL, has moved from Delware to Ireland, from New York State to Manitoba, in a gridiron life that inspires respect. Now, he plans to move his small but mighty team up to even greater heights through an ambitious program that is sure to challenge and motivate his players.

In his role as history teacher Coach Tom Walls uses a classroom exercise called “Get the Autograph of Someone Who…” as an icebreaker for his students. The students get to run around the class and gather autographs from fellow students who fit certain categories. These include students who “was born in the same month as you,” “is in another class with you,” were “born outside of Canada,” or who “likes broccoli.” Tom says this exercise cannot be beat as a class icebreaker.

“I took the original from a course called History Alive, and it is really, really useful. It really works right away.”

If there was a classroom exercise where you had to get the autograph of someone who was born in Wilmington, Delaware, who had played for the Irish All-Star football team against Scotland, who is an American living in Winnipeg, and who is Head Coach of one of the smallest, but also one of the most successful high school football teams in Manitoba, Tom Walls could give you his signature on every line.

Since 2011, Tom has been the Head Coach of Chuchill High School’s football team, the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs compete in the Winnipeg High School Football League, and while they are one of the smallest schools competing in the city, they play in the WHSFL’s high division, the AAA Potter Division.

In a lot of ways the Bulldogs are mirror of their head coach. Tom was born in Delaware, a small state that is an unheralded state in a lot of ways that Tom acknowledges with the affectionate deprecation of the hometown boy.

“It’s the only state in the country that is jealous of Rhode Island,” Tom jokes, “If you have heard of Delaware it is probably only because of [blues musician] George Thorogood. But I do have a lot of affection for it, that’s where my family still lives. My parents live down there by the seashore and we take a once a year vacation there.”

Tom moved to Winnipeg from Vestal, New York, a town on the Susquehanna River near Pennsylvania and home to Binghamton University. For Tom, the move from New York State to was all for love and family, and was based on a promise made to his wife.

“My wife from here originally and when we got married I promised her that if she ever wanted to go home we would,” Tom said, “It was one of those promises that you have to make your spouse.”

The adjustment after any move can be considerable, but Tom has been accommodating well to his new home despite certain unavoidable realities of life on the prairies.

“Things really aren’t very different. I almost feel guilty saying I’m an immigrant when I see what other immigrants have to deal with,” Tom said, reflecting on the oft-hashed over concept of the differences between Americans and their Canadian neighbours. “I would say,” Tom added, “That if there was a difference it was a regional difference rather than a national one. I would have more in common with someone from Toronto than I would from Winnipeg. One thing, I will never, ever get used to is the wind here. I mean, in the winter time this wind will kill a man if his car breaks down!”

The Bulldogs are outliers, outsiders in a lot of ways. As a small school competing against rivals who are all much bigger, the Bulldogs could easily develop an inferiority complex that could cripple their play, but Tom sees the opposite effect at work with his team.

“I would say although the school is small – we have about four hundred students, and we are competing against schools that graduate a thousand kids – we don’t wear that small student population like a hair shirt, rubbing our hands over it, we actually embrace it,” Tom says, “We embrace it like the defenders of the Alamo staring down Santa Ana’s ten thousand soldiers, knowing that the only way out is a wall in back of us.”

For Tom, the Bulldogs’ attitude as a David against the Goliaths has an able embodiment in one of their toughest players.

“I think what summarizes it best is this kid I have on my team, Adam Swanson,” Tom said happily, “Adam is not particularly big, he plays quarterback for us and sometimes halfback, but Adam is a kid who just really, really loves playing football. He was interviewed once and was asked a question similar to this one, and he said ‘This school is a lot like me, I am almost the smallest guy on this field, but I run into everyone on the field at full speed because I think that I am as tough as they are.’”

As much as the team has become Tom Walls’ responsibility, it is the attitude that Adam Swanson personifies that he thinks makes the Bulldogs a unique team. Tom believes that the Bulldogs’ ability to vie in their league’s most competitive division has less to do with his own personality, background, or personal coaching style and much more to do with what he refers to as Churchill’s own “pride and tradition.”

“There was a coach here that ran some pretty good records by the name of Brian Dobie,” Tom says, referring to Coach Dobie, who has been head coach of the Bison at the University of Manitoba since 1996, “He started a phrase, a slogan here at Churchill, and it has become almost a mantra at the school: ‘pride and tradition.’ And I think it has faded a bit, and we are really making a school wide effort to bring it back.”

That effort to bring back Churchill’s “pride and tradition,” and to build on the Bulldogs’ strong tradition, has been Tom Walls’ goal in his two years at the helm. In doing his part to bring back the Bulldogs’ “pride and tradition,” Tom has several ambitious plans for the Bulldogs this year, including running a series of practices under the well-known Washington State based coach, Hugh Wyatt, famous for his Double-Wing offense. Coach Wyatt has been acting as a mentor for the Bulldogs for the past two years, and Tom is hoping to build further on Wyatt’s advice.

“[Wyatt] is such a good, old school coach. I once e-mailed him my practice plan and he replied back in all capitalized, bold letters: YOU’RE RUNNING TOO MANY GODDAMN PLAYS,” Tom says laughing, “We are really hoping to get a fine-tuning of what we think we do already that is pretty unique, and then we are hoping to pick his brain for how we can take what we do that’s unique and adapt to one or two kids we have on the team who we think are really exceptionally good athletes.”

But Tom has an even more ambitious plan in store for the Bulldogs this year: a grand tour of his old stomping grounds in New York State. The boys from Manitoba play several exhibition games around the state, including games in New York City. Perhaps most excitingly for Tom on a personal level will be the practice game the Bulldogs will play in Vestal, New York at the high school where Tom was an assistant coach before moving to Winnipeg. According to Tom, his Bulldogs will be facing a tough challenge in their swing down south.

“The practice game we are going to play is going to feature two or three other teams,” Tom says, “One of whom is a four time New York State champion school. So our boys are going to get a real good taste of what American football is like a real high level.” Tom is, however, full of confidence in his team’s ability to face the challenge and come out even stronger, “We are going to do just fine. The boys are tough as nails and we are going to do just fine.”

It can be easy for kids growing up in a relatively unheralded place like Winnipeg or Wilmington to internalize a certain low expectations unfairly put upon them. In the continual battle against low expectations, the young players taking to the field for the Bulldogs have in Tom Walls a superb example of one of our best combatants. Tom has built an impressive resume on the gridiron so far, and as his ambitious plans for his team unfold he is certain to be a head coach to watch.

Much like Tom Walls’ hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, Winnipeg is also a bit of an unheralded place in Canada. Both are tough, hardworking cities that often hit above their weight class in their countries. Both have the honour of having been the butt of a slightly cruel throwaway joke on The Simpsons (When visiting Wilmington the Simpsons consider the tourist attractions: “I want to visit a screen door factory!” When the Simpsons visit Winnipeg, the welcome sign reads: “We Were Born Here, What’s Your Excuse?”) It is the perfect town for a scrappy, outsider team like the Bulldogs, competing against far bigger schools, and continually proving themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Despite his reservations about the vicious prairie weather, Winnipeg is the perfect town for a scrappy, hardworking head coach like Tom Walls.

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