It's not just football, it's life

It sounds like the plot of Hollywood sports movies and television series: take a group of boys and introduce them to football, an activity which is more than just a sport, and watch as the boys turn into upstanding young men. This, however, isn't just the plot of famous movies; it's a reality, one that is currently being experienced by youth on White Bear First Nation.

Six young men on the White Bear First Nation are being given the opportunity to succeed in the sport through help from their teacher, Kris Stevenson, the White Bear Education Complex (WBEC), the Chief and Council, the Moosomin Generals, and the community.

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Stevenson may be rather new to the teaching profession, but has already developed a background in helping introduce football programs to assist in ensuring a positive community within a school.

In 2011, Stevenson took a position with Sunchild First Nation in Alberta and began working with the community to develop the first ever First Nations high school football team in Canada.

"In the fall of that year I started plotting out the possibility of starting a football team there," Stevenson explained. "I noticed the student body there; something was missing in the school. There was no real school spirit, parents weren't coming out to things and students would skip practices."

"I started asking the kids, 'Well what would bring you guys here?' And they replied more opportunities. I can't help in the trades, but I asked them about athletics and if they would consider football."

With the principal at Sunchild saying a football team could form if during the winter there were at least 18 youth who were dedicated to attending training sessions.

"Kids were becoming more interested and they were attending class," Stevenson explained. "In 2012 we fielded the first, First Nations football team in Canada. By the end of that season we had 29 kids on our roster. It was a huge success."

Having played football since he was 12-years-old Stevenson knew the benefits of the program and was determined to provide opportunities to youth. Coming to White Bear the thought of creating a football program was therefore at the forefront of his mind, but with a smaller school population fielding a team just from students at WBEC would be difficult.

"I met a mother of an individual who played on the Moosomin Generals and football came up in our conversation," explained Stevenson. "She introduced me to Jason Schenn who within a year or so had created the Generals as I was creating the Sunchild Bison. All the things I've done, he's done in Moosomin and you have to respect this guy for giving up his time and so much of his life to bringing football to [Moosomin]."

"It feels like home because you have the same atmosphere."

With support developing and relationship forming with Schenn and the Moosomin Generals, Stevenson spoke with his students in early May about the possibility of playing football. A total of seven were serious about undertaking the responsibility and competition. Though only three finished the season last spring, Stevenson says the program was a success, which has led to this year's six dedicated players including grade seven students, Bradley Maxie, Braden Pinacie, and Kota Kennedy, grade eight student Matthew Fiddler, and grade nine students Tyrell Kequahtooway and Tyrrell Littlechief.

"Now we've got boys in grade six and seven who have caught on with the pride of these boys," Stevenson said. "These younger players are looking and thinking, 'I want to be part of that.'"

"It's got to the point where we have kids in grades three and four saying, 'I want to be like them,' and giving high fives in the hallways to the football guys. It's a great feeling in a school where there already is pride, but that it's elevating that school connection."

Overall Stevenson says this atmosphere promotes retention of youth in schools.

"My reasons aren't just for opportunity, but for retention," he stated. "I want to see our kids stay here. I want to see them flourish, achieve, and succeed. We need to offer what we can to do that, and that goes for any school whether reserve or not."

"I'm teaching my kids you have to be independent and that you can't be relying on people to do things for you always. We can't sit here and play the blame game in the classroom, we have to invest in ourselves and that comes onto the field as well, they have to invest in themselves. Once you build your self-worth you know you're not just another kid on a reserve or another number, you know you matter and you mean something and that's what I'm trying to achieve and achieving with these kids. I mean, it's just football; but, it's more than that."

Though Stevenson is very much involved with the football program he says the success is not his and points to the six boys playing football as the ones who are truly making a difference. Stevenson refers to himself as simply a catalyst in getting the program moving, but credits the boys for the rest.

"It's not what I want to do with the program, it's what I can get them to do with it," Stevenson said. "Am I the person that built it? No. I have just got them believing they could do it to believe they can play the sport, that they can change their lives, that they can be more successful."

He is also appreciative of the support the school and community has shown because it gives Stevenson the ability to point out the positive people in the boys' lives.

"Looking at financials, it's a burden on anything right, you're trying to pay and fall football is $350 a kid, and we have [six] kids," stated Stevenson. "We've had some really strong supporters in making this happen. One of our councillors on the White Bear Chief and Council, Tanya Littlechief, when we talked to her in the spring and summer, she made it happen, 'What do you need?'"

"They covered registrations, helped us out with a van, and the school's been great in helping us with gas. The Moosomin Generals and Jason Schenn again, I've gone to him saying, 'We're a little awkward with registration right now.' And his response was, 'Don't worry about it, worry about it later. Get the kids on the field.'"

It's this support that Stevenson says can make big differences for youth.

"You relay that to the kids, that these are the type of people that are working for you, they're not working against you. They sometimes hear negativity here on the reserve, but this is reinforcing that there are people that care and these boys need to get out there and network that."

"Even the teammates, I've never heard a racist drop out of anyone, nothing. I see kids laughing, I see kids being kids, and being young men on the field, they're making a change and becoming brothers. I think it's a remarkable thing."

The positivity the team has given to the youth and through them to the school has been one of the most exciting parts of the program to Stevenson: "It's a remarkable feeling that if you do good for others that others will do good for you. I've seen that in the boys, the positivity. They go home at night and the next morning they know something good is happening and continuing to happen for them."

One of the youth, Kequahtooway, has become a leader in the school according to Stevenson, though the boys may not necessarily realize the changes yet.

"Day in and day out these are the guys who are building it [the program] and becoming the young men they possibly didn't believe they could be," Stevenson stated. "It's something they don't see because I don't think they take enough credit for what they do."

When speaking with Kequahtooway, the grade nine football player said, "It's good, [playing football] it helps because I'm not staying home bored. I enjoy playing football, it's fun."

Tackling is his favourite part of the sport, but when asked what football has taught him he replied with one word, "Respect." So the fun of the physical game and being part of a team comes with life lessons the young men are realizing.

Tyrrell Littlechief, also in grade nine, added "It's been a good experience for me; football is making a difference in my life."

One of the strong supporters of the program includes Tanya Littlechief a councillor and member of the White Bear Sports, Culture, and Rec Committee.

"Sports, Culture, and Rec. fully supports the school and Mr. Stevenson's initiative," she explained. "Last year we paid all their fees and we do this if we can as we know how hard it is to get the kids involved."

She went on to say that Sports, Culture, and Rec is not funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), which means the committee works diligently in applying for grants and finding sponsorship through such programs as Sask. Lotteries, Sask. Sport, and more in order to help provide opportunities to youth living on White Bear First Nation whether through this football program or other programs focused on sports, culture, and recreation.

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