By Dan Plouffe
A second local team will take to the gridiron for the next season of Ontario Provincial Football League play, as the OPFL recently accepted a bid from the Orleans Minor Football Association and the University of Ottawa to have the Ottawa Jr. Gee-Gees join the fold.
“I can’t even share the words of how excited I am,” says Orleans club president Qasim Khan, a former Gee-Gees player himself. “We’re very proud that we are a club that fits what uOttawa was looking for.
“We are inclusive, we are diverse, we’re a strong, fiscally-responsible club.
We’ve been around since 1973 and we are ingrained within the community in Orleans and Ottawa. It’s just awesome to be able to do it.”
A key architect in the Orleans/uOttawa partnership was Aldège Bellefeuille, the Gee-Gees’ football operations manager and brother to freshly re-minted head coach Marcel Bellefeuille.
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“I’m excited that the University of Ottawa showed faith in the Orleans Bengals because I get to marry both worlds,” smiles Bellefeuille, a coach, director, volunteer and fundraiser with the Bengals for a dozen years.
Orleans reached out to high schools and other youth clubs in the National Capital Amateur Football Association to make it clear that the Jr. Gee-Gees are open to all, not just Orleans players, which further reinforced the merits of the relationship, Bellefeuille adds.
“It’s about bringing the football community together,” underlines Bellefeuille, a Gee-Gee player in the early ’90s.
When the Cumberland Panthers exited the OPFL in 2018, the only local entry left in the provincial loop was the Ottawa Sooners, who won an OPFL Bantam title in 2019. Though there are no territories/boundaries in the OPFL, the Sooners are based in the west end, while the Bengals partnership gives the Jr. Gee-Gees an east end flavour.
Across the Bantam, Junior and Varsity age groups, roughly 150 more local teenagers will play OPFL football once the Jr. Gee-Gees enter the mix – a core motivator for those behind the project.
“Ottawa’s a hotbed for football,” Bellefeuille signals. “We felt that providing an OPFL franchise, and all the support from Ottawa U, would be paramount to helping those kids reach their full potential as student-athletes.”
High travel costs were cited as a hurdle for past local teams to play provincially. Jr. Gee-Gees player fees will be lower than what local OPFL players used to pay, Bellefeuille indicates, thanks to use of Gee-Gees facilities and equipment, suppliers and partnerships.
The Jr. Gee-Gees will fill a bit of a void for Ottawa football, Khan adds, noting the premier level of competition and all the pieces that go into top-level programming doesn’t trickle down to every local club and team.
“Especially with uOttawa, there’ll be so much of a development focus for these kids,” signals Khan, who briefly competed for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers alongside older brother Obby in 2009. “At 13, 14 or 15 years old, you’re already learning the university experience.”
The Jr. Gee-Gees will emphasize off-field healthy living topics such as diet and social media, and players will consult with academic advisors “because without your studies, you’re not going to get to that next level,” highlights Bellefeuille, a uOttawa political science/history grad.
The Jr. Gee-Gees will make use of uOttawa facilities – including Gee-Gees Field for home games and most practices, and film work in an auditorium – while Gee-Gees coaches and players will be involved.
“First and foremost, it’s about giving back to the kids in the city,” Bellefeuille stresses, noting it’s also advantageous from a Gee-Gees perspective to get their brand out across Ontario (similar to rival Ontario university programs such as Guelph, Western and Queen’s, who also have affiliated OPFL teams).
The OPFL season usually runs from May to July. COVID wiped out the 2020 season, and there remain question marks about whether they’ll be able to kickoff in 2021.
“We would love to play next summer,” Bellefeuille notes. “The most important part is the kids being able to play safely.”
Building a culture of inclusion organically
Football is generally regarded as a sport that’s welcoming to players from all kinds of backgrounds, and Bellefeuille felt the Orleans association provided the perfect fit to live the mantra of “no child left behind.”
In the dozen years he’s been involved with Orleans football, Bellefeuille notes that the club presidents have been from Indigenous, Pakistani, Caribbean and Greek origins. Some years, Orleans teams have had a majority of Black head coaches, and their current executive is two-thirds female.
“It just comes natural to us. We’ve been doing this for so long,” states Bellefeuille, who’s seen the club transform from overwhelmingly “white and English” in its earlier days. “Now, the Bengals are really a microcosm of Canada, and that makes us strong.”
As many sports grapple with how to become more inclusive in today’s world, Orleans football would provide an interesting case study. The club didn’t form committees to address inequality; instead, a culture of inclusion and diversity came about thanks to conditions that promote it naturally.
“It’s the cheapest sport to play,” Bellefeuille highlights as a first pillar, adding that most clubs have programs in place to help kids play football no matter what socioeconomic barriers they may face.
Football clubs own all the equipment and helmets, and provide those for players so that they don’t always have to buy it all on their own. Footwear is usually the exception, but thanks to partnerships, fundraising and a program for families to give cleats to the club when they outgrow them, Orleans football has shoes of all sizes ready to give to kids who need them.
Most community coaches are volunteers, with piles of past local university/pro players jumping into those roles.
“Football is a game where there’s a lot of less affluent and at-risk kids who play the game,” explains Bellefeuille, who grew up in the Hetherington and Heron Gate Ottawa Community Housing neighbourhoods (his mom had her fourth child at age 19 and worked as a waitress, while his dad was a furniture mover).
“We know full well about people who paid it forward for us,” he adds, recalling that local football builder Sandy Ruckstuhl would buy food after games for players like him who didn’t have money for the canteen. “For me, that instilled that feeling that I’ve got to give back.”
For some kids, their football coaches can deeply impact their lives as father figures, so there’s “a natural inclination” to become coaches themselves as adults.
“They have this burning desire, and they say, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t have reached these lofty goals that I was able to achieve without someone helping me out, so I owe it to that next generation of kids to do it for them,'” details the 2018 City of Ottawa Brian Kilrea Award for Excellence in Coaching recipient, who was followed by Orleans coaches Victor Tedondo in 2019 and Jean Guillaume (recently featured in the Ottawa Sportspage‘s Inclusion in Sport Series) in 2020.
That story rings true for Khan as well. After living in B.C. for 5 years, “it was a no-brainer” when former Bengals president Michael Johnson asked if he’d be interested in helping out when he returned home.
“It’s a natural feeling,” Khan indicates. “This proud, ingrained, instinctual kind of drive to support the club that built the man – the fabric of who I am really.”
Bellefeuille feels greatly indebted to the sport as well.
“I went to university to play football, and lo and behold, I ended up becoming a student, and graduating, and changing my destiny,” recounts the federal government employee of a quarter-century. “I want to make sure that every kid who wants to reach their fullest potential, or change their destiny, has an opportunity to do so. For me, that’s what’s most important.”
NCAFA 65th anniversary podcast series
Though COVID has wiped out its 65th anniversary season, NCAFA is marking the milestone with a podcast series hosted by the Sooners’ Wayne Jacobs.
The “NCAFA: 65 years of Our Huddle Includes EVERYONE” podcast features conversations with many notable figures from NCAFA’s history, including the likes of Ettore Lattanzio, Tom Casagrande, Darren Joseph, Nate Behar and Matt Sekeres.
The episodes are available on many platforms via: https://anchor.fm/wayne-j3