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Prepare for contact: Tackle football coming to R.D. Parker Collegiate

Brett O'Meara would like nothing more than to see high school students who don't run in the same circles start hitting each other. On the football field, anyways.
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Coach Brett O'Meara instructs players at a practice for R.D. Parker Collegiate's new nine-player tackle football team that will play its first game this fall.

Brett O'Meara would like nothing more than to see high school students who don't run in the same circles start hitting each other.

On the football field, anyways.

The owner of the local McDonald's franchise, who has spent about $20,000 on football equipment, was enthused during the second practice for would-be high school football players about getting into full-contact drills.

"We'll be geared up next week and that's going to be really exciting because football really isn't football until you start hitting," he said. "That's going to add another level for these kids just to learn how to safely play football, safely engage and hit somebody and we're going to teach them all those skills and it's going to be really exciting."

A former coach and board member with the Spartans football club in Victoria, B.C. as well as a player on a Division 2 team in Calgary for a few years, O'Meara says seeing the interest there is in the fledgling high school football team gets him excited about the season coming up and the ones he hopes will follow in the future.

"Here we are -what it's about nine degrees out, it's raining -we've got 42 kids out at my last count," he said, watching players going through a hand-off drill. "I'm aware of 10 that have work and other commitments so it really is, to me, this is the proof right here."

His co-coach, Kurtis Stolth, a former Manitoba Bisons football player who worked with O'Meara and others to bring flag football camps with current and former members of the Bisons and Winnipeg Blue Bombers to Thompson the past two springs, says the numbr of students coming out is not the only reason to be pumped.

"I don't think this is normal for 70 kids to come out to a school sport," he says, noting that many have never tried out for a school sport before. "They don't go out to any other sports."

What's more, they're all but guaranteed to find a role.

"There's always a position they'll fit into," Stolth says. "It's great."

The response to the high school football team, which was just an idea as the school year began, convinces O'Meara that he and Stolth are kicking off something that Thompson's been waiting for.

"There certainly is a need for it, looking at the kids who come out and probably one of the biggest benefits that I see is you look out on this field you've got kids who typically don't go out for other sports and now you've got a situation where they've got something that they can play on an equal playing field," O'Meara says. "There's nothing more exciting than seeing a lineman being helped around the field when we're running laps by other players. You know, encouragement. You don't see that in any other sport. It really is amazing."

On the field, the goals for the team in its inaugural season are modest: to host a game and lay the foundation for the future. The other teams in the Rural Manitoba Football League include squads in Virden, Moosomin, Sask., Neepawa and Dauphin. Those teams are already playing and already have a head start as established squads. But as Stolth points out, with the number of players who have shown interest in Thompson, the city could field three teams for nine-a-side football.

Off the field is where the bigger challenges lie.

"The goal is just to get everything up here, get the big costs out of the way, get some sponsors onboard and hopefully grow it from there," says Stolth.

O'Meara says any risk he took by backing the start-up team financially was mitigated by the fact that he knew the community would get behind it.

"Looking at the response, which I knew would be there, from the business community, whether it's the mine or any other large businesses in town, I considered it a small risk," he says.

In keeping with his goal of giving everybody a chance to play, O'Meara envisions getting businesses to put up the money for one set of gear as the team gets established. For now, though, he's satisfied with planting the idea that R.D. Parker Collegiate can have a football team and bringing other teams up - even if it means covering their expenses - as a way to showcase the city.

"We've had great support from the athletic department and it's just something that the town is really going to take notice," says O'Meara. Tentatively, the team's first game is scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend and the coaches know that the little football experience their players have is going to be important. "We've got in the neighbourhood of four to five kids that have actually played football, which is really going to help us. But I tell you, this year is more about how can we get these kids interested, passionate about football, wanting to return next year. If they're graduating this year, they can actually say, 'Hey, we were part of something at R.D. Parker, we started tackle football.' When I look back at my senior year in high school, they didn't have football. I didn't have those two games."

Ultimately, if the community steps up to support tackle football in Thompson, O'Meara sees a changed landscape when it comes to local youth sports.

"This will no longer be a hockey town.," O'Meara says. "This is going to be a volleyball town, basketball, soccer and now football."