January 25, 2019

Huddle Up kicks off 18th Year

A teenager’s 18th birthday is a milestone occasion. It’s symbolically the time where the transformation from youngster to young adult takes place. For the Toronto Argonauts ‘Huddle Up’ bullying prevention program, its adolescent days are now officially in the rearview mirror.

On Thursday the program celebrated its 18th birthday with a trip to the west end of Toronto.

Huddle Up has preached its message to over 600,000 GTA kids – a remarkable figure by any standard – and held its first stop of 2019 at St. Pius X Catholic School near the corner of Jane and Bloor.

The campaign is the brainchild of Jason Colero, the Argos Director of Education and Community Programs.

“I can’t believe it,” the 5’2” dynamo told Argonauts.ca following the presentation. “Eighteen years and we’re still doing it.”

The program has evolved in the nearly two decades of its existence. Obviously, the players involved have changed, with one notable exception that will be addressed later. Technology has forced Huddle Up to keep up.

“We try to tie in cyberbullying,” explained Colero, who has been with the Argos since joining them as an assistant equipment manager in 1985. “We talk about social media because that’s now the kids’ tool.”

Colero started the program to spread the word that bullying is a problem. His size made him a target and he was bullied in high school to the point where mentally he went to some very dark places. His hard work has been recognized by the league, as in 2016 he was named the recipient of the CFL Commissioner’s Award in acknowledgment of his contributions.

Individual accolades are not why he does it though. Over the years he’s received many letters and emails from kids who have said the program “saved them”, others from parents and coaches who have seen kids be pro-active in preventing bullying on a team or in the schoolyard. That’s his payoff.

Pat Tari is the Principal at St. Pius X and admitted he also had personal experiences with bullying while growing up. He thought the message delivered to his students through the demonstration hit the target.

“It’s one thing to talk about bullying, the types of bullying and the things we should do,” Tari told Argonauts.ca. “But today the players, along with Jason and the Huddle Up team brought to life real-life experiences and how the students can face setbacks.”

Tari’s students prepared for the visit by having several classes and projects dealing with the subject. A series of skits showing examples of bullying was presented to the assembly before the Argos started speaking.

“It’s one thing to deal with bullying,” Tari continued. “It’s another thing to be pro-active and to prevent it. That’s what we try to do here as a school community, all of us working together – teacher, principal, custodian, parents – we all have a role to play and we all look out for each other in the St. Pius community.”

The program has been an instrumental part of what the Argos do.

“This is real life,” said Chris Shewfelt, the Argos Vice President of Business Operations. “What we do on the field is bring excitement into people’s lives, but these are real-life issues and real-life things that matter. With these kids and the age they’re at right now, the messages they hear from these athletes can make a huge impact on their lives, so this message is tremendously important.”

Current Argos Matt Black, James Wilder Jr. and Tyler Holmes made the trek, as did two cheerleaders. Black, who as the father of a six-year old daughter really related to the younger kids, acted as the spokesperson for the players. He shared his story of being bullied because of his size and that he suffered from dyslexia. But it was the Pied Piper of positivity that really got the audience participation going with his unique brand of storytelling.

Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons has been a part of the program since day one. He spoke about his experiences of being bullied, but then focused on the positive, with his message aimed to the smaller kids, and benefiting from the help of Wilder and Holmes.

Clemons, perhaps 5’6” on skates, stood between the 6’4” offensive lineman and the 6’2” running back and said, “These two were supposed to play football, I wasn’t.” He didn’t tell the kids that size doesn’t restrict you from dreaming big, he didn’t have to.

The four-time Grey Cup champion and Hall-of-Fame running back loves the fact that this program has grown the way it has.

“He’s got this thing down to a science,” said Clemons of Colero. “He’s so articulate, he’s so transparent it really does reveal his story. He says it so well and in a practical way that young people can understand.”

He then focused on why Huddle Up means so much to him.

“The most frustrating thing for me is to see a young person with no hope,” said Clemons. “That’s not because of them, that’s because of what our world has done to them. Sometimes they don’t have a supportive environment at home, sometimes it’s actually at school. The more opportunities we can take to build young people I think the better we are as a community, a country, and a world.”

As mentioned Clemons has been doing this for a while.  When the program began he was just wrapping up his career as a player. As he was leaving the gymnasium after the presentation, one student said, “I got autographs from the three players, but I didn’t get that ‘Pitbull’ guy.”

Perhaps that, more than anything else, shows you how long this program has been going. A new generation of students is hearing a message that sadly, still needs to be preached. That’s forced the program to get bigger and better. The kids and staff at St. Pius X are the latest people who can attest to that.