October 28, 2022

Hogan: A Terrific Trip to Tyendinaga

If the sound of children laughing is considered music to one’s ears, members of the Toronto Argonauts were treated to a symphony this summer.

This weekend those kids will be attending BMO Field as guests of the Argos.

The Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory is located near Deseronto, Ontario, one exit east of Belleville on Highway 401. A football clinic was sponsored by the Argos and MLSE there in June; run in conjunction with the residents, including Ottawa Gee-Gees quarterback Ben Maracle.

We introduced you to the QB a year ago in an article about growing football in Indigenous communities, but the Argos didn’t want the story to end there. It was important to the organization to show it was serious about following up on the idea of introducing the sport to a greater number Indigenous youth.

Maracle was asked if he thought it was a good idea. The reply was an enthusiastic “Yes” and the seeds to the event were sown.

The Argos wanted to make sure the concept of a youth football camp would be appropriate with the Bear Clan, so Maracle inquired if the local council was on board. MLSE’s Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Justin Bobb, was approached to see if funding for the event could be made available.

Every good plan needs an advocate and the Argos quickly found they had an enthusiastic one in Bobb.

The Tyendinaga community needed footballs, flags, pylons, and cones; as spring cleaning had inadvertently claimed the community’s equipment. Bobb was good to look after that expense but would pick up several more along the way.

A series of coincidences then started to come into play. It turned out that an active member of the Argos Cheerleader Alumni group, Dawn Maracle, also grew up in Tyendinaga – though she is not related to Ben. She also has multiple degrees in Indigenous studies and has worked with various levels of government and education creating curriculum. She happily volunteered to join the travelling party.

Teaching at the Quinte Mohawk School at Tyendinaga is Justin Shakell, who this typist covered when Shakell was a two time All-Canadian and eventual Golden Hawk Hall-of-Famer at Laurier. Last year he won the CFL Alumni Association’s Indigenous Champion Award, awarded to a coach of Indigenous ancestry for making a significant grassroots contribution to the sport. Shakell is the head coach of the Ontario Football Conference’s Quinte Skyhawks, a senior varsity team that plays out of nearby Belleville.

The connections were coming at a rapid rate. Now, if only the Argos could present a player who had Indigenous blood.

Enter Deionte Knight.

When this initiative was first mentioned, someone in the Argos family noted that they believed Knight had an Indigenous bloodline. When asked about it, Knight confirmed there was Algonquin blood in his background. When asked if he would be willing to coach at the clinic, he enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity.

“This is a dream come true,” he said between drills that day. “If I did have the opportunity to become a professional football player one of the first things I wanted to do was engage with the Indigenous community in Canada.”

Knight had been on the quiet side in his first two months with the Argos; normal for most rookies, particularly for someone who was injured extremely early in training camp. This day provided an opportunity to see a side of the Ottawa native we hadn’t seen before; he was happy, constantly smiling, and having the time of his life sharing his love of the sport.

The kids reciprocated the love; attracted to the 6’4”, 270-pound defensive lineman like moths to a light bulb.

“I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this day and be a part of teaching these kids what a beautiful game football is,” said Knight.

Oh, and to keep the string of connections going, Knight and Maracle were teammates back in the day while playing on Team Ontario.

When the Argos General Manager heard about the event, he immediately called his executive assistant to see if he was free that day. Michael “Pinball” Clemons wasn’t asked to go to Tyendinaga, he volunteered.

There was something cosmically good about this event, which was verified when the weather on June 18 turned out to be perfect; particularly good news considering there was stifling humidity in the region just two days prior.

When the group of 10 people hopped on a bus at BMO Field early that day, it wasn’t long before Dawn Maracle gave those on the trek a history lesson about Tyendinaga and the Six Nations, then answered questions from an eager-to-learn crowd.

The group arrived at Tyendinaga at around 9:30. The Argos – led by Clemons and Knight – got off the bus and met with Ben Maracle, who was presented with a tobacco tie and told the reason for the visit; a show of respect by the team to Indigenous tradition.

It was then that Ben Maracle introduced three of his teammates from the Gee-Gees; linebacker Braeden Cruji, and receivers Dylan St. Pierre and Anthony Grigg, whose father Andrew was a CFL receiver for nearly a decade with Hamilton. They wanted to come along with their quarterback to help run drills with the younger athletes.

Some 60 kids were also there to welcome the visitors. Most of the day’s athletes were very young and had pre-registered for the event, which was free to anyone who wanted to sign up. It wasn’t advertised outside of the community, nor was local media made aware of the event because the purpose of the event was not for publicity; it was to make sure the kids had fun. For some, they were being introduced to the sport for the first time.

With that in mind, each child was given a youth-sized football with an Argo logo on it, and a tee-shirt.

Just before the clinic started, Tyendinaga resident Luke Jeffries addressed the entire group. He spoke in the Mohawk language, in which he is well-versed. At a couple of points, he elicited a call and response from the kids, who replied perfectly. The Argos group was then welcomed and thanked in English.

Then the fun truly began for the athletes.

The kids broke off into four groups and went to one of four stations, each one manned by a Gee-Gees player. They worked on passing, catching, agility and defence, rotating their way through the four stops on the circuit.

Deionte Knight stayed at one station so he could meet all the kids, while Pinball Clemons was, well, Pinball Clemons. He bounced around with endless energy, playing with kids, teaching them football skills, meeting parents and genuinely being among the best ambassadors the sport of Canadian football ever had.

Maracle and Knight called everyone together at midfield some two hours after the clinic started. Sadly, it was time to start wrapping up that portion of the day. When the giant defender asked the kids if they had ever been to an Argos game, almost all of them said “No” in unison. Without skipping a beat, Knight immediately said the Argos were going to invite them all to a game this season.

Needless to say, it was received with a great deal of enthusiasm. The group will make its way to BMO Field for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Alouettes, where Knight will be starting at defensive tackle.

Maracle and his teammates will not be in attendance on at BMO Field, but they’re pretty happy about that. The Gee-Gees host Windsor in a first-round OUA playoff game Saturday at 1:00.

When the clinic ended, everyone was treated to a traditional lunch; highlighted by corn soup, a remarkably refreshing strawberry drink, and topped off with a delicious strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped cream.

After the meal was over, Clemons, Knight and the Gee-Gees players were invited to try their hand at lacrosse, with mixed results. Clemons and Knight were then presented beautiful personalized works of art by a local artist.

Though the visitors to Tyendinaga would have gladly spent more time with their newfound friends, it was eventually time to load up the bus and return to Toronto. It didn’t mean a lasting impact hadn’t been made.

“It’s going to be huge,” Ben Maracle told Argonauts.ca over a cool strawberry drink. “Actually seeing somebody that you can look up to and say ‘Hey, I want to be just like him, if he can achieve it so can I,’ is something that I really would have liked to have had when I was younger.”

In terms of numbers, there is a lack of high-profile Indigenous football players. While not in the CFL, Maracle has the opportunity to be that kind of player; not only within Tyendinaga, but also the greater Indigenous community. It’s something he’d welcome, but more for the benefit of the kids than himself.

When looking back at the day he admitted having one major question he hoped would be answered in the affirmative and was certainly thrilled with the result.

“I knew that they were going to be competitive because I grew up here and I know that competition isn’t hard to come by here. I wasn’t sure if they were going to grasp onto the sport and that was the biggest thing. It was so simple; they loved the sport. I can see so many kids coming back and wanting to play the sport whether it’s on a club team, or high school.”

After the Argos said their goodbyes and boarded the bus to begin the trek home, it was exceptionally quiet for a considerable period of time. No doubt the people on board were reflecting on a day that had gone about as well as expected. The kids and community members had a great day learning about the game of football; those on the bus were both thrilled and a bit emotional having been a part of it.

The final words go to Maracle, who was asked how he thought the day went.

“It was absolutely amazing.”