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CFL athletes motivate youth to set goals

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Edmonton Eskimo players Ryan King and Godfrey Onyeka visit East 3 school in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to conduct anti bullying sessions and flag football activities. © Esks Staff (2)

It’s hard to tell who had a more amazing experience.

Edmonton Eskimos players Ryan King and Godfrey Onyeka, along with ex-Eskimos offensive lineman Andrew Jones, who is now the team’s community relations co-ordinator, or the three Inuvialuit students who won youth service awards and earned an opportunity, courtesy of the Eskimos, to attend a Canadian Football League (CFL) game at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

Mackenzie Cockney, 13, Madison Steen-Cockney, 13, and Edward Pokiak, 12, took a four-hour flight from Inuvik to Edmonton (two of them also had to take a two-hour chartered bus ride to get to Inuvik). Once there, they went to Rogers Place to watch part of a Florida Panthers National Hockey League (NHL) practice, with their faces pressed up against the glass. They went on the field to hold the giant flag for the national anthem and take pre-game pictures with the Eskimos fire truck, cheerleaders and mascots Punter and Nanook. Ryan brought them into the dressing room for five minutes before the game to show them some of the equipment the Eskimos wear and also arranged for autographs with his teammates after the game.

“These kids are going to be able to express how good a time they had up here,” Ryan said.

Meanwhile, Tara Day, Administrative Assistant and Communications Associate for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), is counting on the three award winners to “be great role models continuing on from here” in their communities.

Edward had been to three previous Eskimos games, but it was the first time for Madison and Mackenzie.

“Awesome,” was Madison’s impression of the Eskimos game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “I like when they tackle each other.”

On the flip side, the Eskimos players and personnel were just as overwhelmed by their visit to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk earlier in October.

“We drove two hours on the road to Tuktoyaktuk and never saw one intersection and only met one car,” says Alan Watt of the Eskimos Marketing and Communications department. “It was an eye-opener.”

Alan had visited the Inuvialuit Settlement Region two years ago with former Eskimos President and CEO Len Rhodes.

“People said, ‘You should come up here and bring players and go to our schools,” Alan recalls. “So, we did that.”

The IRC organized the trip for the Eskimos that included the 142-km journey from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk with Tara driving a big SUV to all the school visits and 14 opportunities to talk to 1,000 children at the elementary, junior high and high school levels.

“Andrew, Ryan and Godfrey spoke at the schools about bullying, setting goals and reaching for them,” Tara says.

“What a cool experience it was for us to go up there and do some community work,” says Ryan, who also took advantage of the chance to take a quick swim in the Arctic Ocean and taste ‘country food’ like Muktuk (raw Beluga Whale), caribou soup, dried fish and Inuvialuit donuts. “We were welcomed with open arms the moment we landed. They did a tremendous job getting everything set up for us so we could be super efficient with our time and be able to see as many kids and community members as we could.

“We were received so well, especially at the schools with the kids. These kids don’t often get to see figures like us go up into their communities and talk to them. I noticed even from the first talk to the last, that every single thing we said these kids were listening to and digesting it all. It was really cool to see the impact that we could have in a small-town community like that.

“One of the coolest things that I saw was in Tuktoyaktuk,” Ryan continues. “We gave out about 250 footballs, and the kids got out about half an hour before we left the school. When we started driving through the community, I looked over and saw what we thought were birds flying all over, which is a normal scene up there, and it was actually the mini footballs flying all over the community. It was one of those moments of awe where I wish I took a picture of it or video, but all of us in the car were just shocked. There were 250 footballs flying around a community. Kids were outside, smiling, laughing, having a good time.

“That’s what these kids need. These kids need a sense of hope or a sense of opportunity out there. That’s the message we delivered to them.”

An example of one of the discussions the Eskimos players had with the students is that the chance of a high school player becoming a pro athlete is one per cent. Ryan, 33, who has been the Eskimos long snapper for eight seasons, and Godfrey, 25, a second-year defensive back, were able to beat the odds and play professional football, but their message wasn’t just about sports.

“We try to deliver the messages of motivation and being able to fight adversity for them to then be ‘the one-per-cents’ in their communities. It doesn’t have to be to play pro sports, but if it’s ‘the one-per-cent’ who starts a charitable organization up there, if it’s ‘the one-per-cent’ who leaves the community to explore other opportunities, if it’s ‘the one-per-cent’ who stays there and has a massive impact.

“So, we try to drive that ‘one-per-cent’ vibe and motivate them to do something different for their communities so they can give back, too.”