Tuesday, June 30, 2009

For the love of the game of football

For the love of the game of football

The Quebec Titans are classified as a semi-professional team, but they actually pay to play



By Randy Phillips, The GazetteJune 29, 2009



Titans’ kicker Tom Koncic, right, came to Montreal from Australia three years ago: “I’m still trying to get used to the helmet and all the pads and the stuff … all the rubbish.”

Titans' kicker Tom Koncic, right, came to Montreal from Australia three years ago: "I'm still trying to get used to the helmet and all the pads and the stuff … all the rubbish." Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette

On an idyllic evening for football in Point St. Charles, John Mouland checks off the names of players hurriedly arriving from the parking lot.

"Come on, guys. You're a bit late," the coach says as players lug equipment into the rear door of a Montreal Catholic Schools Commission building backing on to Parc Leber.

Other players already dressed for practice emerge and trot toward the field.

"Where are those guys coming from, Ottawa?" Mouland asks of no one in particular.

"They're coming," someone replies. "They just arrived. They're getting out of their cars."

Ron Kay, a big offensive lineman already suited up, stands nearby sizing up new helmets team co-owners Jeff Craig and Nick Sarantinos have brought for players to try on.

"How much?" Kay asks as he pulls the first one over his head.

"About $300 with the (eye) shield," Craig says.

"Hmmmm … might have to convince my wife not to pay the Hydro bill this month," Kay says with a laugh. "How much for this other one? Feels like a better fit."

"About $150," he is told.

It's another once-a-week, preseason practice for the Quebec Titans – the only Canadian team in the U.S.-based Empire Football League. More significantly, the Titans are the reigning league champions and are preparing to defend their title when the new season begins on July 11.

The league plays by National Football League rules, and while it is referred to as "semi-professional," the players actually pay to play. They also have real day jobs and families to balance, but by playing this hard-nosed, full-tackle brand of football into their late 30s and even early 40s, the Titans are proof that old football players don't always just fade away.

"It's the passion for the game that keeps these guys wanting to continue to play," says Mouland, 70, a career amateur football coach who is in his fifth season with the

Titans and is also president of the Quebec Junior Football League's Châteauguay Raiders.

"Some guys just aren't ready to pack it in after their time playing junior football, at university, or maybe even in the (Quebec) senior league, where there is no hitting below the waist," Mouland adds. "Some also want to try the NFL rules (different from Canadian Football League rules), but more than anything it's about the passion. As long as they're motivated and healthy, they can do it."

The team – formerly known as the Montreal Titans and Châteauguay Titans – joined the EFL in 2005, two years after the league's Montreal Condors relocated to Ottawa. The Condors were renamed the Demon Deacons and remained in the league until last season.

The EFL is one of almost two dozen "semi-pro" leagues scattered throughout the United States and has been in existence since 1969. This season there are seven teams, including the Plattsburgh North Stars, Amsterdam (N.Y.) Zephyrs, Watertown (N.Y.) Red & Black – the oldest semi-pro football club in the U.S., dating back to 1896 – Massena (N.Y.) Silver & Black Raiders, Binghampton (N.Y.) Broome County Dragons and Vermont Ice Storm.

The Titans beat the Ice Storm 12-10 in South Hero, Vt., last Oct. 25 to complete an 11-1-0 season and become the first Canadian champions in the history of the league.

Though the Titans' practice facility is in Point St. Charles, their home base is Châteauguay, where Mouland resides. Home games are played at École secondaire Louis-Philippe Paré, which has what is believed to be the only NFL-lined football field in the Montreal area.

Sarantinos and Craig, both former Condors, started the new franchise in the wake of the Condors' demise, wanting to keep alive the opportunity for "old guys in the area" to continue playing. Each player pays a $120 registration fee and must have his own equipment.

"All we supply are the jerseys," says Sarantinos, adding that registration fees help defray the expense of chartering a coach bus for road games. "We've got 50 sets (of jerseys), so our maximum roster size is 50.

"You're not looking at two guys trying to make money by owning a football team. Far from it," Craig adds. "Money comes out of our own pockets at times, but hey, it's for the love of this game."

The majority of the players and coaches come from the Greater Montreal region, but in recent years some have travelled from as far away as Toronto for practices and games. On this night, nine players make the trip from Ottawa, leaving right after work for an 8:30 p.m. practice that lasts three hours.

The average age is 25, and walk-ons are a frequent occurrence, as was the case with punter Tom Koncic, who joined the Titans before the start of last season.

"I just live a couple of streets over (from Leber Park) and saw these guys having a go here," says Koncic, a 35-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, who came to Montreal three years ago. "I used to play (Australian) Rules Football and just wanted to see if I could have a shot at punting.

"Last year was the first year I ever played this game," he adds. "My impressions of the game? Not bad, but I'm still trying to get used to the helmet and all the pads and the stuff … all the rubbish."

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Koncic, married and the father of two boys, ended up leading the league in punting last season and earned a first-team all-star selection in addition to a championship ring.

"In Aussie rules, we pass the ball by kicking it, so really the only thing I've had to get used to here is taking two steps before kicking it now," Koncic says. "Take the pads and helmets away and I think this game would be really great, but then you might as well call it rugby, I guess."

Kay, a 6-foot-3, 260-pounder who recently turned 38, also joined the Titans last season, returning to the game after not having played since his days in the midget ranks while attending Rosemont High School. He said his sons Steven, 15, and Ryan,11, get a huge kick seeing their father play the same sport they do.

"A few friends teased me for about a year about coming out to play, and finally I did," Kay says. "And even though my wife, Tammy, is a good friend of Jeff's wife, she wanted her to tell Jeff to tell me not to play. As much as they bugged me at every game I came to see, it was my kids whose eyes lit up when I told them I was being asked to play. I decided to show them that Dad was not too old.

"Winning the championship was a bonus," Kay adds. "My sons' names are engraved inside the ring and they've gotten a thrill out that. And Tammy loves it, too. She'd come out to watch games even if I wasn't playing.

"She says it's an added bonus that I am playing. She says she loves to see me in tight pants."


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