The path to gridiron greatness appears to run through Smiths Falls, as two of the town’s top athletes have been accepted into the elite Football North training program in Ottawa. The program is run out of St. Joseph High School in Ottawa, which is where the two will attending school is year.
It’s a significant achievement for grade 1l students Nathan Coleman and Joshua Pilon, who’ve been best friends since they started playing with the pigskin eight years ago.
In addition to providing training with some of Canada’s top-level coaches, Football North opens the door to playing against nationally ranked high school teams stateside, where talent scouts and university prospectors regularly attend packed stadiums to select cream of the crop players for scholarships to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) schools.
“It feels good playing higher-level football, it gives me a lot more experience,” says Coleman, who’s always loved football because it’s “a team sport, a bunch of people working together to make the big plays.” While many Canadian youngsters dream of National Hockey League glory, Coleman admits chasing a puck around the arena was never high on his priority list, in large measure because he couldn’t skate well.
While Pilon did play hockey as a kid, he admits “I’d rather play football any day of the week. Football is more complicated, there’s a lot more to do in the game, more types of plays. I love it.” He says he was inspired to take up football because of Playstation’s Madden Games, an immersive screen experience named for the legendary National Football League (NFL) coach, Super Bowl winner, and colour commentator John Madden.
Pilon says he’s always preferred to play defensive roles in whatever sport he tackles, and in football, he plays linebacker, taking care of the opposing team’s offensive rush and short passes.
Both young players have a great deal of respect for their mutual abilities. “Nathan is definitely someone people look up to,” Pilon says, noting his best friend’s multi-talented skills include slot wide receiver, punter, and kicker. “What he brings to the team and how he plays is pretty amazing.”
As much as they love football, both Coleman and Pilon are also intrigued with the notion that their education could be fully paid for if recruited by an NCAA school.
Full, four-year sports scholarships are far more common in the U.S., and Football North participants are seen by a greater number of American schools seeking to beef up their squads. Coleman hopes to study sports medicine while Pilon is interested in pursuing engineering studies.
Coleman’s father, Matt, has coached both teenagers in Smiths Falls minor football and is proud to see both young men now playing at the highest level possible for Ontario players.
Matt says that the local football association’s role in promoting the sport – taking young players to see Red Blacks games in Ottawa while inviting Canadian Football League players out to Smiths Falls – has helped grow the game in the area. Matt himself was a baseball coach who took training courses and clinics to learn the football ropes when his son showed interest in the sport but, he jokes, “when they got to a level that I couldn’t coach, I became the chauffeur.”
Coach Coleman says that younger players like his son and Pilon being exposed to American-style football has been an eyeopener. While there are some fundamental differences in how the game is played south of the border, where he says “the level of football is much higher than it is in Canada,” there’s also a major cultural shift.
“Football is huge in states like Ohio and Texas and Florida,” he explains. “It’s like a religion down there, and you’ve got 7,000 people going to a high school football game.”
Both Nathan and Josh have been key members of the Ottawa Myers Riders championship squads over the last two years, most recently capping off an undefeated season as part of the Ontario Varsity Football League.
Meanwhile, their Football North squad did their team and supporters proud when they recently scored a devastating 61-0 victory over a Maryland high school in a game played at Syracuse, New York.
“It means quite a bit,” says Pilon. “I never thought I’d do something like this, playing in the States, but I’m doing it now.”
Asked whether they would immediately make the jump to a professional team if offered the chance, both Coleman and Pilon said they wanted to finish their university studies first. But after graduation, if a team like the Minnesota Vikings or Hamilton Tiger-Cats came calling, Pilon says, “if I could go far enough in professional football, I definitely would go for it.”