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Yahia Dalloul jumped at the chance to introduce a new game to the youth at the Edmonton Islamic Academy when the Eskimos Junior High Flag Football program was created in 2016.
Based on his own personal experience, football taught Dalloul a lot of life lessons, such as teamwork, effort, respect, dedication and discipline.
“So I’m hoping to introduce these different traits to these young students that we have at our school,” said Dalloul, the physical education and athletic director responsible for the sports and gym classes.
Dalloul was a defensive end with the St. Francis Xavier X-Men during five years of university football in Nova Scotia and tried out with the Montreal Alouettes in 2009 and Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2010.
“It was a wonderful experience, man,” he said about his CFL opportunities. “Truly loved every minute of it. Too bad it ended really shortly, but it was definitely a fun time, for sure.”
Sports – and football in particular – was Dalloul’s saving grace after he moved to Canada in 1997. He was born in Palestine.
“I had to learn the language, I had to learn the culture and the traditions, so one way for me as a young kid to get into that type of stuff was sports,” he recalled. “I used to love gym class and then one of the coaches saw me performing and invited me to play football.
“To be honest with you, if it wasn’t for football, it would have been a hard time for me. It opened so many doors, it opened so many opportunities. I got to meet a lot of great people so it helped me a lot to grow up and get used to the culture and the people.”
The Edmonton Islamic Academy has had a boys team and a girls team play in both seasons of the junior high flag football program, which is basically a five-week exhibition league in May/early June “where everyone gets a chance to learn and play,” according to John Ioannides, the curriculum co-ordinator of junior high athletics for Edmonton Public Schools.
“Last year, we did it for the first time and this year the kids were excited,” said Dalloul, who had 15 players on both his girls and boys teams this season. “The kids loved it, they worked hard, they picked up the game really fast.
”We had Ramadan during the season so I wasn’t really sure if the boys and the girls wanted to do it, so I had to talk to the parents to let them do it, and all of the kids were so into it. They were playing and they were fasting in the sun, so it was really cool to see that they weren’t just going to quit.
“We’re Muslim, so the girls wear hijab and they’re running,” he continued. “It’s really fun to see these girls playing football because they’re starting to really enjoy it. But at the same time, I want to break the sterotype that some people around the world have, especially for Muslim girls, for them not playing sports … but we’re trying to change that in our school.”
Dalloul, who moved to Edmonton in 2015 after teaching in China and Qatar, coached the girls team to a championship final this year while some high school students interested in football coached the boys team for “leadership hours.” He’s hoping to eventually have a football program at the high school level at the Academy.
Dalloul said his players enjoyed the chance to go to the Eskimos’ facilities and talk with some of the players and “experience these different professional teams that we have around Edmonton.”
Flag football isn’t the only sport he has introduced at the Islamic Academy, also adding badminton, volleyball, cross-country running and track and field to the staples of soccer and basketball.
“Just to get the kids interested in being physically active and healthy and eating right, which will help them later on in their life,” he said.
The Eskimos Junior High Flag Football program was created after a casual conversation between Ioannides and Ian Murray, a friend on the Eskimos board of directors, as they reminisced about their younger days. That led to a lunch meeting with Eskimos president and CEO Len Rhodes.
The program started with 28 teams, but jumped to 41 teams from 24 different schools this season. The boys division went from 16 to 24 teams while the girls division increased from 11 to 17 teams.
“I think we’ll get more and more (teams) as we go along because now the Catholic schools are more into it as well,” said Ioannides, who also has schools from the St. Albert and Leduc school districts involved as well as the Edmonton Islamic Academy.
The Eskimos ran full-day clinics involving their professional players in February and March for junior high schools interested in playing flag football for the first time. There were four clinics with three one-hour training sessions involving more than 500 participants this year. Among the sessions are a classroom-style talk about leadership and nutrition and how to prepare as an athlete, an explanation of the basic fundamentals and drills, and a full scrimmage with officials to help the players learn the rules.
The season wrapped up with a three-day football festival in June, with all of the teams playing in a tournament on six 60×30-yard fields (including two 10-yard end zones, so basically 40 yards from goal line to goal line) at Vernon Barford Junior High School. Players from the Edmonton Huskies junior team plus the Harry Ainlay Titans and Strathcona Lords high school teams served as officials.
Eight of the flag football teams will be on display at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium during halftime of the Eskimos’ home game against the Ottawa Redblacks on July 14. The boys teams are Vernon Barfield Blues, D.S. MacKenzie Trojans, St. Hilda Hawks and Crestwood Bearcats while the girls teams are S. Bruce Smith Scorpions, Vernon Barfield, D.S. MacKenzie and St. Hilda.
In addition, players from the league will also form Football Alberta’s team in Football Canada’s U16 Western Flag Football Challenge from Aug. 10-14 at the UBC campus in Vancouver.