On the field once again: Toronto high school football players excited for first game in nearly two years – The Globe and Mail

Members of Chaminade’s football team take part in their first practice of the season on Oct. 4.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On a grey Monday afternoon in Toronto, dozens of football players were finally walking back onto the natural grass field at Chaminade College School, and the damp air was filled with the smell of sweat, mud and freshly shredded turf.

“It definitely smells like football,” said Diane Valinho, a science teacher and receivers coach. “It’s the best season ever.”

It had been 678 days since the Gryphons were last permitted to practise, meaning many of the players on the field had already lost more than a full season from their high-school careers. Toronto Public Health gave school boards permission to resume outdoor extracurricular activities and sports on Sept. 20, two weeks after the new school year began, and the team was scheduled to play its first game on Oct. 15.

For the kids, who were dressed in their gold helmets and shoulder pads, returning to the field was meaningful. They, like so many teens across the country, had endured some of the most dramatic changes wrought by Canada’s pandemic shutdowns. More than any other student cohort, they had missed out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences, including proms and championship games.

The practice was the Gryphons’ first in 678 days.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Let’s be real,” Ms. Valinho said, “a lot of them come to school to play football, to play sports. It gives them a drive. It keeps them focused.”

At Monday’s two-hour practice, as the rain sprinkled onto the field, the players were focused on drills. But in stolen moments, there were smiles and pats on the back, a helping hand to pick up a player after he’d done his pushups. In one drill, as coaches ran through a play, a broad smile crossed the face of a defensive tackle as he lined up over a guard.

Cilton Osmond’s eyes lit up and he smiled as he remembered the last time he had played on the field. He was in Grade 9, part of the junior team two years ago, and the stands were filled with friends and family, who cheered on the Gryphons as they won their game.

“It was a great day. I loved seeing people in the stands, the fans watching. It felt like I was playing professionally,” he said.

Cilton Osmond, a Grade 11 student and wide receiver, waits for a pass from offensive co-ordinator Italo Barone.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Osmond, 15, is a wide receiver. He dreams of playing in university, and then perhaps professionally.

His lost year of football would have been a chance to be the older kid on the junior team, a leader to his younger teammates. Instead, he spent his time in lockdown training in his home, hopeful for a return to the sport that was a big part of his school life. Mr. Osmond said he is fully vaccinated to protect himself and those around him, but also because it allows him to compete in school sports.

“Being in pads again, I’m ready for this season,” he said, before joining his teammates on the field.

In any other year, practices would have started in August. Head coach Pat Diodati said he could hear the disappointment among students in the hallways when local public health authorities recommended a pause on extracurriculars at the start of the school year.

Only after pressure from students and educators did Toronto Public Health change direction and call for a gradual return to extracurriculars, starting with outdoor activities.

The students were itching to return, said Mr. Diodati, a careers and religion teacher at the all-boys Catholic high school. “Right away, I had guys come to me to ask, ‘So, there’s a season?’ I’m like, ‘Hold on, I’ll have my meeting and get it all straightened out and I’ll let you know.’”

Roughly 50 students tried out for the senior football team (typically, the Gryphons have a senior team for older students and a junior team for younger ones). About 70 teens tried out for ultimate Frisbee (the team has 20 players) and 85 attended soccer tryouts (18 made it on the team).

Members of the football team are looking forward to playing once again even though this year will have a shortened season.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This will be a shortened season for most sports, but that matters little to the players. “The kids just need to do something,” Mr. Diodati said. “At least they have an opportunity to play. We had it so we’re going to do it.”

Not all schools have restarted outdoor sports and activities, and parents have raised concerns that their children are missing out. School officials say it has been difficult to reintroduce sports because of pandemic restrictions, even though provincial governments have indicated that they should resume. A few schools are only playing intramural games.

Some educators are reluctant to volunteer as coaches because they are worried about the spread of the virus. And the rules around masking and distancing, especially when it comes to change rooms and busing to games, can be onerous.

Even though teens are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, public health officials are nervous that the highly transmissible Delta strain could disrupt schooling. School boards in the Windsor area, in southwestern Ontario, have not resumed extracurriculars because the local health unit has advised delaying sports and clubs until officials can figure out a way to reintroduce them safely.

At Chaminade, Grade 11 student Gabriel Santarelli said he would be lost if he missed out on yet another year of sports. During lockdowns, he lifted weights in his garage, ran his own drills in his driveway and backyard, and practised in the park with his friends. He is a linebacker on the team.

“It was really tough being locked up in the house, not being able to play,” he said. “It’s one of the things that keeps me going, just having that brotherhood of a team, and being on a team of guys who want to achieve the same thing as you, which is to try and go further, play in college, hopefully even the pros.”

As he put on his pads in the dressing room, Mr. Santarelli could feel the excitement building, even behind the masks.

“We’re inside getting ready, everyone was giggling, laughing,” he said. “I’ve never seen a group of guys get dressed so fast to get back on here.”

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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