Ask Jalem Catlin what he likes about playing football with the Abbotsford Falcons, and the eight-year-old doesn’t miss a beat.
“I get to hit people,” he says. “I don’t get to do it at any other place. This is the only place I can do it.”
Catlin says it without a hint of a smile. He takes his football seriously. The second-year running back/linebacker is a captain on the Falcons atom squad, composed of kids between the ages of six and nine.
Last Saturday morning, prior to a jamboree-style preseason tournament at Albion Sports Complex in Maple Ridge, Catlin was barking out instructions to his teammates as he led pregame stretches. No doubt about it, this kid is hardcore.
Looking on, Falcons head coach Dennis Roy can’t help but chuckle.
“When we get into the huddle, he always yells out, ‘Ten and oh!’ because our regular season is 10 games,” Roy says, shaking his head. “And I’m like, ‘You’re jinxing us, dude. Our season hasn’t even started.’”
Catlin talks the talk, and he walks the walk. On the very first play of the Falcons’ first game of the day against Royal City Black out of New Westminster, he takes a hand-off from quarterback Noah Nairn and sprints 65 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. Catlin’s next three touches yield another TD and a short run for a convert, accounting for all the scoring in a 13-0 Abbotsford win.
“I just like getting points,” Catlin explains afterward.
* * *
Introducing elementary schoolers to football is a summertime tradition in Abbotsford that dates back two decades – the Falcons community football club is marking its 20th anniversary this season.
Roy is tasked with laying the foundation with the atoms in 2011. He was pressed into duty as defensive co-ordinator last year after his son Evan joined the team, and he stepped into the head coaching role this year.
“I was a hockey player growing up,” Roy, 38, admits with a chuckle. “I’ve never played football in my life.
“But even if I wasn’t a coach, I’d be here as a parent. So you might as well help out.”
Roy says he’s having a lot of fun, and it shows. After Catlin’s game-opening TD run against Royal City Black, he’s practically giggling on the sideline.
“Did that work or what?” he exults, speaking to his assistant coaches.
Roy derives as much enjoyment from working with the diverse personalities on the team as he does from making a savvy play call.
Case in point are the two running backs, Catlin and Blake Neufeld. While Catlin is a vocal leader, Neufeld is a quiet boy who battles nerves as game time approaches. At nine years old, he’s at the top of the atom age range. But this is his first year playing tackle football, and he tends to take some time to warm up to new situations.
The previous week, at the Falcons’ first preseason jamboree in South Delta, Neufeld was feeling sick to his stomach. But after scoring his first touchdown, he was all smiles. He went on to win tournament MVP honours.
On this day, though, the butterflies are back in full force. During the second game – a 6-6 tie with Meadow Ridge Blue – offensive co-ordinator Len Eksyma notices Neufeld grasping his stomach on the sideline.
“Your tummy will settle down,” Eksyma says.
* * *
After opening the tourney with back-to-back games, the Falcons’ schedule calls for a half-hour break prior to the third game. Downtime, it turns out, fosters a certain amount of chaos in this age group. Some players take turns enthusiastically bodychecking each other off a park bench. Others turn somersaults. One kid is randomly repeating the word “nincompoop” over and over again.
Noah Lochbaum, whose father Kelly played nine Canadian Football League seasons with the B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders, seems to be in the middle of everything.
The six-year-old offensive lineman has been wired since the moment he woke up, such is his passion for football.
Recently, the Lochbaums redecorated Noah’s room with Falcons gear – curtains, flags, even a night light. (It helps that the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons’ logo is similar to that of the Abbotsford club).
At home, his dad says, Noah tackles anything that moves – his older brothers, the dogs, the cat, his 20-month-old sister.
“We’ve got to tell him to take it easy on her,” Kelly Lochbaum says with a chuckle. “Playing football is a dream come true for him. He’s super, super excited.”
* * *
It isn’t until the Falcons’ final game of the day, against Royal City Orange, that Neufeld rids himself of the butterflies for good.
He busts loose for a long touchdown run, then recovers a fumble on Royal City’s next possession. A handful of plays later, he leaves the Royal City defenders in the dust once again en route to the end zone. The Falcons win 13-0.
“When I scored the touchdown, I felt good about myself,” Neufeld says with a smile afterward.
When it’s all said and done, Roy is pleased with his team’s progress.
“There are going to be a lot of football stars out of this group,” he predicts. “It’s just their passion, the way they want to learn.
“In the beginning, they tend to wander – their eyes are looking everywhere, not paying attention. But you give it a couple weeks, and the kids realize they really want to play. It’s unbelievable – the camaraderie, how well they listen, and how disciplined they are.
“It’s just a lot of fun.”
* * *
• The Falcons are holding a 20th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Sept. 3 to coincide with their regular season home openers. All five Falcons teams – atom, junior bantam, bantam and two peewee – will be in action. The event will include a ceremony to honour club founder Gerry Ennis and longtime president Rick MacDonald.
Falcons atom players pay varying degrees of attention on the sideline during a game against Royal City Orange.