By Linda Scales
For one-time Gee-Gees footballer Trevor Monaghan, an ardent supporter of his former team, employing student-athletes is his way of giving back. Today, eight former players have gained skills by helping Monaghan build a football program for Cree youth in the small community of Chisasibi, Quebec, on James Bay’s eastern shore.
“The uOttawa football program gave me the tools I needed to do this kind of stuff,” says Monaghan, who is a trainer certified by the Sports Performance Institute in Ottawa.
A Wemindji band member born and raised in Ottawa, Monaghan moved north in 2004 to explore his Indigenous heritage. While there, he began empowering First Nations youth through sports and fitness, and invited some uOttawa football players to help him.
Two-time uOttawa graduate Mike Randazzo was one of the Gee-Gees who spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 in Chisasibi. He worked at the Chisasibi Fitness Center during the day and coached players, from ages six to 22, in the evening. He also worked in Mistissini, Quebec, in summer 2013, where he was the head coach of the football program there.
“I’m from downtown Hamilton, so it was a good way to understand what people on reserves deal with every day. It was eye opening and inspiring, and also a way to give back to my sport,” says Randazzo, who earned a coaching certificate from his work and will be attending law school at uOttawa in September.
Monaghan introduced a six-a-side football program in Chisasibi, inspired by another alumnus, Josh Sacobie, a former Gee-Gees quarterback. The six-a-side program was designed for smaller communities without enough players for traditional 12-person squads. But Monaghan made sure that all the James Bay Eagles learned to play multiple positions so they would also be comfortable with the 12-a-side game.
George Neacappo is one local player who benefitted from this approach. He moved to uOttawa to play with the Gee-Gees in 2011 and today works as a personal trainer at the Chisasibi Fitness Center under Monaghan.
The football program in Chisasibi, which includes boys, girls and youth teams, is currently on hiatus while it raises funds to continue. Travel alone is a crushing program expense, with 14-hour bus rides to Ottawa for training (at the Ottawa Gridiron Football Camp, for example) or 11-hour road trips to Mistissini, where the Eagles play their closest rival team, the Mustangs.
Monaghan won’t be coaching the team when football resumes in the community, because “the whole point of the initiative was to develop a model where the players would play and then graduate from playing to coaching,” he says. “I want the young people to take ownership of the program. The initiative is more than a football program for Cree youth. What we’re doing is about the future.”
More recently, as manager of the Chisasibi Fitness Center, Monaghan brought nine of the centre’s personal trainers to Ottawa for their annual professional upgrading. “Some of my trainers have been working for me for four or five years. They now have full-time permanent jobs at the centre,” he says, noting that the trainers are starting to teach in their first language, Cree.
“What Trevor has done with the fitness centre and the football program is foster a health and fitness lifestyle that was not present before him,” says Randazzo. “As far as us Gee- Gees, the opportunity opened our eyes to northern life. We’ll remember the experience for the rest of our lives.”