While the fall football season was initially in jeopardy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airdrie’s youth football players are getting some time on the gridiron.
Airdrie Minor Football’s (AMF) atom-, peewee- and bantam-aged teams are taking part in a modified season this fall with competitive exhibition games against teams from Calgary and area. The games, which are held on Saturdays at Shouldice Athletic Park in northwest Calgary, will run until late October.
“There are no words for how excited the kids are,” said Tyrell Rohl, the head coach of the Airdrie Storm peewee team. “You have to come and see the kids’ smiles on their faces at practice – that in itself shows you truly how much this sport means to the kids.”
According to Rohl, the Calgary Peewee Football Association’s (CPFA) season was adapted to comply with the Alberta government’s return to sport guidelines and rules set out by Football Alberta. With a maximum of 50 people allowed to participate in an outdoor sport together, teams are limited to 25-person cohorts, Rohl said, including players and coaches.
The smaller rosters mean each team fields nine players, rather than the usual 12.
“Once Football Alberta and Alberta Health Services figured out the rules of play for how it would work in cohorts, it was just a matter of [figuring out] how we could make these games work,” Rohl said.
Because of the smaller rosters, he added both the Storm and Raiders were divided into two groups of roughly 20 players each.
Teams have to wait two weeks between games, according to Rohl, to allow for a 14-day period before mixing with another cohort. Because of that, each Airdrie squad will only play four or five games this season and there will not be any playoffs.
Still, Rohl said CPFA officials are keeping score and posting game results online. In their first matchups Sept. 12, the Storm cohorts played the Calgary Hilltoppers and the Foothills Eagles of Okotoks. The Airdrie sides dominated each contest, winning 40-6 and 30-0, respectively.
As for the older age group, AMF General Manager Doug Robertshaw said the Raiders’ U15 players were similarly excited to get some games this year. The Raiders will play exhibition games against other Calgary Bantam Football Association teams this season.
“Everyone’s been so positive and working really hard to make sure these kids can be successful and get on the field,” he said.
On Sept. 19, the Raiders White kicked off their season with a 35-21 loss against the Calgary Stampeders, while the Raiders Black overcame the other Stampeders team 40-8.
Raiders quarterback Ben Klassen said he was excited for the opportunity to play football this fall, though he added it was disappointing the team had to be divided into two cohorts.
"It's a lot different having three less players on the field and a narrower field is a lot different as well," he said. "You get a lot fewer blockers on [the offensive] line, so you have to do a lot more scrambling and extending plays."
The season hasn’t been without hiccups, however. According to Robertshaw, one of the Raiders players tested positive for COVID-19, which meant the whole group had to cancel their first game and self-isolate.
“He didn’t get COVID at practice but an outside event,” he said. “For safety’s sake, we shut down practice for two weeks until every kid on the team got their COVID results back negative, including all the coaches. We wanted to make sure we went through our due process.”
According to Robertshaw, the player who tested positive has fully recovered and the team’s season has been allowed to resume.
“After that happened, the league was really good about it,” he said. “They wanted to make sure we were going through their processes, but then we adjusted them to try and make it so things were a little more clear for everyone.”
Given the disruption to normal life caused by the pandemic this year, Rohl said the players have relished the opportunity to play football.
“It feels like ‘normal’ to them, which is huge,” he said. “With everything else they’ve been dealing with, we’re giving them that one place they get to go to every day where it feels like a normal day. They don’t have to wear a mask at practice, and they get to be with their friends, running around, being kids and having fun, enjoying a sport they just really love playing.”