Even at 13, Hunter Campbell knows playing football has helped him become a better person.
Campbell first started playing the game at the age of six with the Thunder Bay Minor Football Association, and it has quickly become his favourite sport.
“Minor football has helped me in life,” Campbell said before his team’s championship game at Fort William Stadium on Saturday. “Paying attention in class has been helped from listening to the coaches.”
Rob Thompson, president of the TBMFA, said the participation rate for the organization has steadily been on the increase over the decade.
He said seven or eight years ago the league would have around 170 kids sign up, but that number now averages just under 300.
Thompson, also the coach of the bantam Mustangs team, thinks along with the popularity of the NFL, the team atmosphere and camaraderie of the sport attracts kids.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” he explained. “You can have more individuals in hockey, but you have to have a full team in football. You can have a real good player, but you need everyone around him to be a good team.”
Mary Kay Paternoster signed her son Jacob, 7, up for football for the first time this year and so far he has enjoyed the experience.
The league makes it easy for first players, as TBMFA supplies all of the equipment except for cleats and mouth guard, and charges a $200 registration fee for the entire season.
“This was his first year and I wish I had gotten him in it last year. He enjoys it and it’s a good social game for them,” Paternoster said.
“I found (the price) was reasonable. It’s a one-time cost and your equipment is covered. I don’t find it super expensive. It was one of the more affordable sports.”
The organization also serves as a developmental ground for athletes looking to play the game at the high school level.
Thompson said the names of players called at the high school level is almost exclusively an alumni list of the minor football program.
“If you look at it, our minor boys that play in our league are some of the best in the high school ages for both junior and senior,” he said.
“The goal for us is to keep playing football. If you look at the kids that are doing really well in high school, I would say 90 per cent of the players are coming from our league.”
Thompson said the administration at Superior high school, who recently had to forfeit a game due to lack of bodies, has requested the organization’s help in creating a strategy to rebuild their football program.
As both the president of the organization and a coach, he is hoping to use his expertise to create solutions when he meets with Superior principal Michelle Probizanski.
For the youngsters, continuing to play the sport at a higher level is definitely a goal.
“I’m definitely really excited to play in high school,” Campbell, who will likely be a future Hammarskjold Viking, said. “I think most of the kids will (keep playing). I don’t know why any of them wouldn’t.”
The association has done different things to protect the kids against the risk of concussions. They use Revolution helmets, educate coaches about warning signs and have brought in coaches from the University of North Dakota to teach proper tackling techniques.
“They teach how to tackle and not to use the head, and to keep it to the side,” Thompson explained. I’ve never had 28 years in our league an issue where we’ve had a serious concussion injury.”
Their proactive stance has quelled any fears that parents might have about playing their children play the contact sport.
“They’re equipment is so good,” Paternoster said. “He’s solid in there and he has the mouth guard and the helmet. I’m a really cautious mom, and I think he’s good.”
In championship action, the Mustangs defeated the Huskies 30-6 to claim the bantam crown. The Alouettes won the atom championship with a 44-33 win over the Renegades. The Lions needed extra time to net a 25-19 overtime decision in the tyke final, and the Stampeders rode past the Bombers by a 37-22 score in the peewee contest.
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