Bills charge into students' psyche

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

Never mind the Buffalo Bills talk of invading the GTA, they already have a small beachhead at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy.

A day after the NFL team revealed it was taking a more aggressive marketing campaign north, including a future pre-season or regular season game, nine of its rookies appeared at the North York high school yesterday to donate about $2,000 in equipment to the school's new football team.

"Just a coincidence," said Jay Sweeney, director of development for NFL Canada. "This visit has been in the works for months."

The rookie Bills, led by quarterback Trent Edwards and running back Marshawn Lynch, usually tour hospitals and charities in the Buffalo area.

But this first mass visit garnered a hero's welcome from 400 Fleming students and the 30 uniformed Chargers in particular. The Bills brought some shoulder pads, blocking shields and footballs (Canadian and American), presented a slide show, did a question-and-answer session with students and watched the Chargers kick off against West Hill.

"We're here to show some love," B.C.-born defensive tackle Cory Mace said, dancing around the question of the Bills stepping on the toes of the Argos and the CFL. "A big chunk of our season tickets (estimated from 15% to 25%) is here and that's a lot. Ontario is where it's happening."

NFL Canada has donated $100,000 in equipment to Canadian schools as well as sponsor an award for coach of the year. Though Sweeney was quick to point out the NFL and CFL have worked together in the past, that was before the Bills proceeded this far with plans for local games. The visit to Fleming brought the Buffalo media here as well.

"I don't care if we play in Toronto or Africa," Mace said. "I just get up every day to do my job."

Though he, too, didn't wish to get in a CFL-NFL turf war, Fleming principal and assistant football coach Arnold Witt said he did approach Michael Clemons and the Argos first about support to re-launch the Chargers after 35 years.

"Since we started the team, it's been huge among the kids and we've seen a reduction in behavioural incidents," Witt said.

"I know Pinball has spoken of helping young black males and we have a school that is 50% East African/Somalian and a large group from the West Indies."

City councillor Rob Ford had offered $20,000 to any high school in the area that would start a football program as a way to motivate students. With donated gear from Forest Hill, Leacock and Emery, the Fleming team was able to get off the ground. But it still was in need of equipment and last month, Witt connected through NFL Canada to the Bills, who were looking to make a goodwill gesture.

An attempt to reach CFL commissioner Mark Cohon about the Bills' visit was not successful, but he spoke last week of his concern that Bills games in Toronto could be the first step to more active involvement.

"To me it's not NFL-CFL, it's what inspires kids," Witt said.

"We're a little school that you pass in the blink of an eye off the Allen Expressway and our kids rarely see any celebrities. These Bills players were students once and they're an inspiration."


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