Bucking Broncos again

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

The helmets were the masterstroke.

Jeff Bertrand had football pads and pants and while most of it was a little dated, it was at least usable.

What he needed, if he was going to revive the boys' football program at Brampton's Bramalea Secondary School, was helmets.

Help came from Brampton Minor Football officials, who met Bertrand at a clinic for coaches. They had helmets, scads of them, unused through the school months and available for rental.

And so it was that a goateed third-year teacher who was willing to help, managed to lay a new foundation on to scorched earth.

The Bramalea Broncos are 2-2 this morning, and their coach, Jeff Bertrand, is batting 1,000.

Bertrand, 26, is the first winner of the Argos' Leo Cahill Award for Football Excellence and if the recognition is nice, the $10,000 cheque to the school is sweeter.

Football was gone by the time Bertrand began his rookie year at Bramalea three years ago.

"Bramalea has traditionally had a very strong football program," Bertrand said. "We've placed three players in the CFL or the NFL and we won a championship in 1996."

Then came the Common Sense Revolution and a provincial government eager to incite a conflict with teachers. The teachers obliged. A work-to-rule campaign wiped out one season. A strike by Peel teachers killed another.

By then, the well had been poisoned. The school managed one season in 1999, but staff involvement had trickled down to one on-staff coach. The roster sat in the mid-20s before the program disappeared.

Bertrand wanted to kick-start football but couldn't find the minimum help, at least one more teacher willing to pour in hundreds of uncounted hours. When 25-year-old Mike Shannon, a graduate of Greg Marshall's McMaster University program arrived, Bertrand had his co-coach and his Tonto.

That the team has won two games speaks to a coaching miracle. The average experience level among the typical Bronco player is, well, zero.

"We've got a lot of good athletes," understated Grade 12 lineman Jason Brown, "but we don't have a lot of football experience."

Bertrand knew immediately the tough-talking, flinty-eyed football coach cliche wouldn't work.

"I know the image of the high school football coach, chewing out players, spit flying out of his mouth.

"The kids here wouldn't respond to that. You can scream yourself hoarse but if the players don't know what they're supposed to do, it won't help."

Bertrand has preached team. "No one player can win every game," he said. "Not on this team. Not on any team."

"Everyone talks about great players but if you haven't got everyone doing the right thing, you can't make progress," Brown said. "He's taught us what that means.

"We're a team of basketball players and hockey players," linebacker Mackenzie Conacher said, "but we've picked the game up pretty well."

Football is just one of the new sports at Bramalea. The senior boys' basketball team is back. There are new rugby teams, for boys and girls, and a new cricket team. Kids now have a choice of 30 different activities at the school and it has made a difference.

"The attitude here wasn't always the best," Bertrand said, "and I think it has changed for the better, not just because of football but because so many other sports have come back."

Bertrand was a major contributor to the school's new student athlete contract. Any athlete undertakes a pledge to keep all his subjects over the 60% level. If the student messes up academically, he risks forfeiting the right to play.

Bertrand also has underscored the concept of community.

Football has become integral to the way students see their school, he said, because so many people, from the kids who video the games to the ones who move the chains, can get involved.

The Broncos offered a buy-back for their home opener. Students who bought a ticket could miss their last period.

The proceeds went not to the team but to the Terry Fox Run. The stands at the rear of the school were packed and the Terry Fox Foundation profited by $1,300.

The Argos' gift, Bertrand said, was especially welcome since the team had a pressing need that can now be addressed without denting the school budget.

"Helmets," he said.


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