HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
As a football head coach, Jim Mick was familiar with drawing up the best possible plan with his dedicated coaching staff for every game.
Well, that same philosophy also worked in his own life.
Three years ago, Mick, now 56, started his Exit Plan. There were two equally important aspects to his plan.
As a physics teacher and department head at St. Peter Catholic High School in Ottawa, he was taking his first steps towards full retirement as an educator. As a volunteer teacher/head coach since the Knights’ football program began when the school opened in 1992, he also would step down as the sideline leader as part of the deal.
The Exit Plan has started to unfold, a year or so behind schedule.
When you’re able to attend a National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association football game this season – spectators are strongly discouraged at this point because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – you won’t spot Mick in the sea of Knights blue on the sidelines.
Mick and his faithful assistant coaches Tony Rino, Tom Lawlor, Justin Malloy and Mark Magee have turned the school’s most precious athletic asset over to a new coaching brotherhood. Mick is relieved the original coaching staff is passing the baton to a solid group and feels the program is in good hands.
Robert Begin, Harrison Lowe and Stephen Kent, who are teachers at St. Peter (Grades 7-12), Ryan Begin, Matt Lapointe and Daniel Tshiamala form the new Knights senior football coaching staff. All six attended the school and played under the original staff.
Part 2 of the Exit Plan will see Mick, who also is the school’s department head for science and business, close the physics books on his teaching career in June, 2022.
Mick was planning to initiate his Exit Plan earlier, but with the arrival of the pandemic in March, 2020, he decided to remain a teacher/coach during this critical time. Plus, time was needed to find the right individuals to guide the football program, which captured a remarkable 14 NCSSAA senior championships (1994-2019) and won two of five OFSAA Football Bowl Series Festival titles under Mick and company.
“I was getting (text) updates throughout our first game,” Mick said in an interview Wednesday night, a few hours after the Knights’ first game of the 2021 NCSSAA season, which ended in a 35-22 loss to Ashbury Colts.
Some people said they saw Mick on the sidelines. Others were wondering where he was. Mick had a little chuckle inside as he was getting the game updates while he was inside his physics classroom.
As students and teachers follow a quadmester system this academic year, teachers don’t get to see each other as often as before. Not everyone knows the news. So, Mick was receiving a lot of pre-game positive vibes – “Good luck, today” – from his colleagues.
“It’s different,” Mick said about not being on the sidelines with his student/athletes for the first time in 29 years of coaching (first two with the junior team, 26 with the senior team, and no football in pandemic-driven 2020).
“But I’m excited for the young coaches to get their feet wet. They’re positive. They’ll step up. I’m happy for them. We could have stayed around (for 2021) and transitioned. But why not do it fresh this year.”
It has only been a few weeks since Mick officially left the Knights’ football program, but there are some things he misses, and things he doesn’t miss at all.
“The part you miss is the (weekly) game, seeing the kids outside on game day,” he added. “I teach some of the kids who played for me and they’re positive. On the grand scheme of things, I’ve accepted it and I’m moving on. Let’s go.”
It was a logical football decision to make for Mick. Lawlor retired as a teacher three years ago. Magee has retired but came back to coach before moving out of the city. Rino is planning to retire in 2022.
So, what doesn’t Mick miss about fall football?
“All of the paperwork behind the scenes,” he said as he was taking a break from marking student lab reports. “And I don’t miss being tired.”
If Mick was to compare the time he spent preparing each day in his academic role to the time he devoted to football, he believes football was the bigger hour eater.
“The new coaches are all young and enthusiastic. You have to be,” Mick reasoned. “Everyone sees you going out to practise or play a game once a week. But there’s all the work behind the scenes. It’s not 10 players. It’s 40 students to monitor. It’s not just the paperwork, but all the things for the season, including making sure there are no (student) behavioural or academic issues.
“I honestly think I put in more time coaching than teaching.”
Mick is hoping the new coaching staff can enjoy some of the rewards his group has enjoyed over the past three decades. Besides 14 city championships and two National Capital Bowl victories (2005, 2009) in the OFSAA Football Bowl Series Festival, Mick was uplifted to see his players develop as athletes and individuals or meet them down the road.
When St. Peter opened in 1992, many of its students came from neighbouring St. Matthew Catholic High School. Mick coached the junior team in 1992 and 1993 before starting the senior program in 1994 with 18 players. A modest start before the Knights hit a nearly unstoppable crest that the program rode for many years.
“We’ve been kind of lucky,” a modest Mick explained. “Well, I’ll take some credit for it. But our coaching staff stayed together. That provided stability. It was five guys for the longest time. It was easy to walk the halls and recruit.”
A number of Knights players experienced university football and some had CFL tryouts. Eli Ankou, who played for the Knights before spending his final year at Red Lion Christian Academy prep school in the United States, is in his fifth season and with his eighth team in the NFL. Ankou was signed by Pittsburgh on Monday and placed on the Steelers’ practice roster.
Mick could spend an evening or two reminiscing about the “good old days” at St. Peter, just as he did last Friday when he hung out with his former coaches, who also are “really good friends.”
One of his best memories was of the 1997 team, which experienced something brand new, when the coaches didn’t show up for practice because of a two-week teachers’ strike.
“We had a really good team and not too many could stop us. But for two weeks, the kids practised on their own. We played the final at Carleton University and the field had to be shovelled. That was our first championship,” Mick said proudly.
While Mick has accepted stepping down as head coach and is moving on, a little part of him wants to make guest appearances.
“I couldn’t watch the (Wednesday) game at 12:15 p.m. because I was in class,” Mick said. “We’ll see the game film. But we’ll let them tell us what happened. It’s their program.”
You can take the football out of the hands of Mick, but you can’t expect him to surrender his love of the game.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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