Gridiron guru juggles player number problems

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

There's a terrible irony following Vince Zvonkin these days.

As registrar of the London Minor Football Association, he has just processed 736 players and has more than 40 more youngsters on a waiting list.

Nearly every day, he gets an e-mail or phone call from another boy's parents asking if there's a spot available in the league. No one can attest to the popularity of football in London better than Zvonkin.

But the gridiron guru is also head coach of the Canadian Junior Football League's London Beefeaters, who have struggled mightily to attract players and coaches since last year's 0-8 Ontario Football Conference season under Windsor's Rob Bloomfield.

The Beefs were so badly undermanned in their 54-7 home- opening blowout loss to the Windsor Fratmen two weeks ago they didn't have a backup quarterback. Zvonkin is patiently waiting for the proverbial cavalry to come charging.

There are always tiny slivers of hope. The Forest City Thunderbirds have indicated some of their players are on the way, and there could eventually be more bodies culled over the next week from Western Mustangs training camp cuts and interested Fanshawe College students.

But heading into tomorrow's game in Burlington, the Beefs have 38 players and a coaching staff of four with the recent addition of quarterbacks boss Darwin Barker.

"Ideally, you'd love to have 45 or 50. Guys have work or other commitments and can't always make it out," he said. "Right now, it doesn't feel like practice, but we (the coaches) split up the duties and I think we manage to get to everything that needs to be done."

The Beefs have been in hurry-up mode all summer. Zvonkin's out-of-the-blue hiring was too late for him to put much structure in place and he's juggling this team with his minor football duties and his commitment to help coach high school ball at Catholic Central this fall.

He could have said "thanks but no thanks" to the Beefs, but there were good kids coming back who wanted the chance to play.

"The way it worked, we almost needed the season to start around September," Zvonkin said.

It's either that or hope the Thunderbirds or the Ontario Varsity Football League's London Falcons fold, which isn't likely.

The strange thing about the Beefs' struggles is it is a healthy franchise everywhere except on the football field.

The team has a committed executive, a reconnected alumni base and a boatload of successful fundraising initiatives.

Their home games have an authentic pigskin feel to them. If you drive past John Paul II high school on a Saturday night when the Beefs are playing, the scene has the atmosphere of the fervently contested high school football culture in the United States.

The games are played under the lights. There are hotdogs and hamburgers. There's a good crowd of people in the stands and lined along the fence.

"We had a good turnout at the first game. There weren't many empty seats and there were people were lined up along the fence," Zvonkin said.

By the time the Beefs return to their home field Sept. 10, Zvonkin hopes the place will be well-populated with players and fans.

At this point, a well-earned victory would be a nice bonus, too.

'Backs seek first win

The London Silverbacks are 0-7 this season and hope their first victory comes tomorrow night against the Detroit Downriver Diesels, 7 p.m. at TD Waterhouse Stadium.

It won't be easy -- the Motowners beat London 47-14 July 16 and are in top spot in the North American Football League's Eastern Lakes division with a 6-0 record. There's a free punt, pass and kick competition beginning at 5 p.m. Registration is at 4 p.m. and all participants and their parents will get free admission to the game.


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