It has been nearly four decades since high school football was last played in Chilliwack.
But starting in the fall of 2012, the Grizzlies are going to the gridiron.
G.W. Graham middle-secondary school received official approval from B.C. High School Football early last week and will start with the launch of a junior varsity (Grades 9-10) team. A senior varsity (Grades 11-12) team will come online the following year.
It is big news for Chilliwack, and a long, long time coming.
In the spring of 2008, the Chilliwack Progress ran a series of articles questioning the lack of high school football in a community of 82,000.
In one of those articles, G.W. Graham athletic director Jake Mouritzen listed several reasons for not having football at his school. At the time, he felt that adding football would kill off boys soccer and volleyball.
Three years ago, the school had 60 boys in Grade 10, 70 in Grade 11 and zero in Grade 12.
And that’s your football team right there,” Mouritzen noted. “But with our small population, it would be about the only thing we could run.”
G.W. Graham has grown exponentially, and now has approximately 75 boys per grade from Grades 8-12. That’s more than enough to sustain successful junior and senior football teams.
And the two sports Mouritzen was most concerned about destroying, soccer and volleyball, have simultaneously suffered a sharp decrease in participation.
G.W. Graham didn’t run a volleyball program this year, nor did the school field a middle school soccer squad. The senior boys soccer team struggled with numbers, with several Grizzlies juggling high school and community soccer.
There is a need for another fall sport and a fit for football that didn’t exist in the past.
“2008 would have been my second year as athletic director, and I was not fully aware of what football brings,” Mouritzen added. “We’ve spent many hours talking with coaches and administrators from other schools, getting to see the positives of football, and no longer do I believe that adding football will destroy programs.”
The other perfectly legitimate issue GWG’s AD brought to the table three years ago was finances.
The startup costs for a football program can be enormous, and the ongoing costs are nearly as daunting.
In one of the Progress articles, Mission secondary school principal Jim Pearce cited a figure of $25,000 to start up the football program at that school.
In 2008, G.W. Graham couldn’t have managed that without compromising other programs.
Two years ago, Mouritzen and company had to scramble just to send their senior boys basketball team on an unexpected trip to provincials in Kamloops, running a frantic last-second fund-raising campaign to make it happen.
The reality is that athletic departments across the province are having to do more with less. In the wake of that basketball fiasco GWG formed a committee, mandated to raise money for athletics.
Running a handful of events each calendar year, including a golf tournament and Test Drive a Ford event, the committee’s work has Mouritzen feeling the school can handle the financial burden of football.
“That basketball provincials was the eye opener for me, and following that we had to come up with a way to generate our own funds,” he said. “That committee is a lot of work, but it’s been a huge, huge addition to our athletic department. We’re confident that through our own work, with outside resources and the help of B.C. High School Football, we can add football without taking away from existing programs.”
That’s a key point, because there will be people reading this and worrying about the impact on other areas of the school.
Right or wrong, the perception is that the high price of football leads to less french horns in the music department, outdated textbooks in the classroom and all manner of budget-crunch compromises.
“People have this question about where will this money come from, and none of it is textbook money,” Mouritzen said emphatically. “People need to understand that this money is generated through extra effort by people who wish to see our athletic department continue to grow.”
G.W. Graham principal Diego Testa comes from a music-teaching background, and understands the concerns of those who believe arts programs are an easy target when money is required.
He firmly backed Mouritzen’s notion that the football program will be self-sufficient, and provided surprisingly staunch support for its introduction.
“This school is into its sixth year, and we’re in a very different place now than we were three years ago,” he observed. “Any school, in its first 10 years, goes through remarkable changes in its culture, and we’ve made huge leaps and bounds forward since 2008. Early on, I think the culture of this school was still fragile, and you want to be mindful of how quickly you grow and the risks you take in that kind of environment. Now, we have a really positive culture that envelopes new programs and gives them a much better chance of succeeding.”
Testa won’t be measuring the football program’s success simply based on wins and losses.
“One of the first things I said was that we have a really great thing going here, we have a really well thought out philosophy on the role athletics has in the school and the concept of the student athlete,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re offering diverse opportunities for kids, but football also needs to fit into our existing culture and enhance that culture.”
G.W. Graham’s boss has first-hand experience on how beneficial football can be if it’s done well.
His own son goes to W.J. Mouat secondary school in Abbotsford and started playing Grade 9 football this fall.
“I never would have pegged him as a football player, but seeing what it’s done for him to help him find his place in a new school, to connect as a brand new student, I’ve been very grateful that he’s had that opportunity,” Testa said. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in education, it’s that it’s absolutely critical for a student to be connected to their school community.”
Laurie Smith will be the head coach at G.W. Graham.
Smith helped the Chilliwack Minor Football peewee Giants to a provincial title last year and is part of the coaching staff of the provincial contending junior bantam Blue Giants this year.
It was Smith who, after reading the Progress articles in 2008, approached G.W. Graham about starting a program.
His interest in the game goes well beyond wins, losses, x’s and o’s. He sees the sport as a vehicle for changing lives.
“The thing that marked that peewee provincial title for me wasn’t the win, but the way our team was perceived as being overtly sportsmanlike — a team that focussed on character development and life lessons first,” he said. “My goal in coaching has been to make mentorship and character development number one, and I like football as a means not an end.”
Smith has taken heat from community football people who are understandably hesitant to see high school football infringing on their territory.
In a recent letter to the CMFA executive, Smith talked about why the high school route is so advantageous.
“To me, boys ages 14-18 are at a difficult time in their lives. They are at a cross roads in terms of learning how to respect women, their parents, their friends, avoiding drugs and alcohol, being productive with their time and leisure pursuits,” he wrote. “They need to be valued as individuals yet find a place to fit. They need to learn about dedication, loyalty and self-sacrifice. High school has that concentration of time with teammates, and the tools to create something special in terms of a program that blends life skills, academics, character development and football.”
Who joins Smith on the fledgling team’s coaching staff is yet to be determined, although Mouritzen already has someone from Manitoba relocating to the West Coast.
Equipment options are being explored.
“You go new with helmets, and we’ve talked with a few suppliers. The Riddell Speed Revolution helmet is the only five-star safety-rated helmet, and that’s what we’re hoping to go with,” Smith said. “Everything else, to some degree, you can pick up used or reconditioned. Langley secondary school paid $12,000 to start up their team, so it can be done at a lower cost.”
The team will start at the AA level, competing against the likes of Robert Bateman (Abbotsford), Mission, Holy Cross (Surrey) and Langley.
Home games to start will be played during daylight hours at G.W. Graham. Townsend Park and Exhibition Stadium may be longer-term options.
As far as players go, Mouritzen was absolutely adamant that G.W. Graham will not be recruiting.
“We’re 100 per cent opposed to that and have been from the day we opened our doors,” Mouritzen said. “G.W. Graham plans to follow all school district policies with regards to any students transferring to Graham in coming years.”
Wherever his team plays and whoever they play, Smith can hardly wait for the off-field stuff to get done so he can get onto the field in August.
“I can think of some kids that, in my view, the barricades that will prevent them from graduating are numerous,” Smith said. “Football is an avenue to get them there, to get them connected to the team for four years and see them graduate successfully from high school. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
— G.W. Graham will be holding a football information meeting Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. in the gymnasium. All parents, students and members of the community who are interested in learning more about the program are invited to attend.