By Martin Cleary
Grace Wilkinson certainly knows the North Gloucester Giants organization inside out.
She joined the 55-year-old minor football operation in 2011 as a parent to support her son Jarred. But for the past eight years, she has enthusiastically held two major volunteer positions as well as numerous unofficial roles with the Giants.
Her commitment and upbeat style are relentless and her willingness to tackle a new assignment for the good of the Giants gets her fired up every time.
If you were to ask her to score a touchdown or kick a game-winning field goal, she would somehow find a way to turn the clock back 40 years, put on the pads and make that happen.
Officially, Wilkinson, 57, is the Giants’ coaching co-ordinator and the manager of the midget team. The Giants went undefeated at 9-0 all the way to the final, but lost the championship game by a touchdown to the West Ottawa Knights.
But Wilkinson sees her role with the Giants in much broader terms.
“I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” she proudly said in a phone interview this week. “I keep the boys in check. They don’t like to hear my mouth. Once I shout, everything goes dead silent.
“I do a lot. You have too. If the president is busy at a meeting, you need someone to be in control, calm and collected and get things done.”
The Giants certainly know of Wilkinson’s love of football and her work ethic and so does the National Capital Amateur Football Association, which recently inducted her and eight others into its Hall of Fame.
Nine players, coaches and builders were welcomed into the NCAFA Hall of Fame during its 67th Championship Weekend. Besides Wilkinson, the association put the spotlight on coaches Brian Patterson, Bob Barr and the late Bob Stephen, builders Sydney Gilchrist and Jim Wagdin, and players Neville Gallimore, Darren Joseph and Dan Basambombo.
“I was surprised. I didn’t know this was coming at all,” Wilkinson said about becoming an Ottawa football hall-of-famer.
NCAFA called Wilkinson the backbone of the Giants for many years and is “a superhero when it comes to all the hats she wears.”
“Her positive mindset and incredible mentorship have benefited the Giants and made them into a NCAFA powerhouse under her leadership.”
Sports has been a major pillar in Wilkinson’s life since she was a teenager. When she attended the former High School of Commerce, she played soccer, basketball, volleyball, floor hockey, badminton and table tennis. And she played each sport well.
Wilkinson suggested to her son Jerrod 11 years ago that he give football a try, after several years of playing soccer. He stuck with it, played for various Giants teams through 2019 and was a linebacker with the Ottawa Sooners this season.
“I love my sports,” she added. “As you get older, you have to stay mobile. I have to keep going, keep energized. And you have to be energized to do something.
“Football and sports. I’m on it. I’m ready for it. Sports gives me the extra energy I don’t have.”
Being around the young boys, and sometimes girls, in the Giants’ tackle football program, makes Wilkinson feel young again.
“No matter how old you get, the kid-feeling doesn’t leave you at all,” she said with a great tone of happiness.
Wilkinson didn’t plan to become the Giants’ coaching co-ordinator in 2015. But the decision makers of the team had noticed during the previous four years she had the potential to play a big role with the club.
“I didn’t volunteer. The ex-president of the club made the position for me. The coaching co-ordinator was leaving and we needed the position filled. I was nominated out of the blue. But it paid off in the end,” she said.
For someone who loves sports, it was a no-brainer for her to attack this position like a lineman smashing into a blocking bag.
“Why? Because I’d be sitting at home doing nothing or twiddling my thumbs. I wanted to help the kids out and see them on the field,” added Wilkinson, who became the Giants’ midget team manager about six years ago.
Wilkinson is proud of her contributions, whether it involves coaching, managing, keeping the team clubhouse in order, advising the parents, making sure there’s enough equipment, securing the clubhouse for the players or having everything ready for practices and games.
“And it does run smoothly,” she said with confidence and a tone of authority. “Football gives you that extra adrenaline you don’t have.”
When Wilkinson’s induction was announced on Facebook, she received many positive responses.
“The club would fall apart without you,” wrote Crystal Bonhomme.
But Sam Dore thought being named to the NCAFA Hall of Fame maybe meant farewell.
“She’s not leaving the Giants is she?” Dore wondered and worried.
Not to worry Sam.
“Until that spark comes out of me, I’m not coming out for a while,” she said emphatically.
Football is that raging fire that keeps her burning bright.
The NCAFA Hall of Fame also welcomed eight other outstanding members of the Ottawa football community:
· Darren Joseph: a former CFL running back with seven teams over 13 seasons, including the Ottawa Rough Riders and Ottawa Renegades, an outstanding NCAFA coach and role model, played for the Ottawa Sooners and University of Ottawa from 1988-1992; holds CFL single-game record for most special teams tackles at seven.
· Neville Gallimore: a graduate of the South Ottawa Mustangs, earned a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma and was a second team All-Big 12 player as a dominant defensive lineman in 2019; selected by the Dallas Cowboys 82nd overall in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, one of the top players and ambassadors in the NCAFA for on-field efforts and community-driven attitude.
· Dan Basambombo: a speedy and strong multi-talented player with great instincts for the game, emerged from the South Ottawa Mustangs program to be a linebacker at Université Laval and recently completed his second year with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks; he’s a valuable member of the Ottawa football community.
· Brian Patterson: a tireless coach in the Bell Warriors organization since the early 2000s, dedicated, passionate and patient in his approach to the game, named the Warriors’ volunteer of the year in 2015 for his many contributions to the club.
· Bob Barr: the Kanata Knights club has significantly benefited from his coaching skills for more than 30 years, served as a coach, president, ambassador and parent with the Knights, which named their home field on Hazeldean Road after him.
· Bob Stephen (posthumously): played football at St. Pius X High School and the Ottawa Sooners (winning a national junior title in 1979), was the centre for the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1981-85, coached in the Myers Riders and former Nepean Redskins systems, took pride giving back to his community.
· Sydney Gilchrist: a former coach and NCAFA president for more than 25 years, current association registrar since 2008, “played an intricate role in building the landscape that NCAFA stills stands on today and his dedication to the league has paid dividends for the success of all players, coaches and organizations in the NCAFA.”
· Jim Wagdin, involved in the NCAFA since the 1980s, coached Bell Warriors bantam teams for 20 years after starting at the mosquito and peewee levels, president of the Warriors from 1995-2011, as NCAFA vice-president he “contributed to eliminating weight limits for players so everyone had an opportunity to play football.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.