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Perhaps drawing parallels between the mythical Phoenix and the resurrection of the McGill Redmen football team is bordering on hyperbole. Yet, just one year after the cancellation of the remainder of the 2005 season following a hazing scandal, the team has parlayed an inconsistent 2006 regular season campaign into a much-coveted playoff berth.
While the players have had to operate in the shadow of last year's truncated season, they seem to have turned the corner. "Last year was really tough," says quarterback Matt Connell, a third-year veteran of
the squad. "This year's team really reached out to the freshmen." Connell goes on to credit such team-building activities as
dinners, movie nights and group community outreach programs with bringing the closer together.
Leadership could have been a problem for the Redmen this year, with a squad loaded with first- and second-year players — traditionally players who defer to veterans. With a dearth of experienced players, McGill's locker room ran the risk of being a very quiet place. Chuck McMann, in his sixth year as head coach, shakes his head at this outdated hierarchy of sport. "I don't believe in veteran entitlement. If you want respect, if you want your spot on the team, you have to earn it."
Right from season's outset, McMann and his coaching staff challenged younger players to step forward and assume leadership roles. "Our theme from Day One has been ‘don't tell me what you're going to do, show me.'"
This past spring, 10 Redmen players took McMann's words to heart, volunteering to coach in the Aces youth football program. The four-team league takes some of the city's most troubled elementary school children and puts them through a rigorous six-week season. "The kids all took it very seriously," says Connell. "They had two two-hour practices a week and a game every Friday. It was a really rewarding experience."
Derek Drummond, interim director of the athletics department and one of the Redmen's biggest boosters, invited some of the Aces players and coaches to the annual season-opening barbeque. "Seeing these kids interacting with our players was really special because you could see that they had created a real bond," he says. "I think our guys benefited as much from this as the kids."
So, while on paper the team looks like an underdog to go deep into the playoffs, the wonderful thing about sports is that you never know. Age, size and experience can all be measured by conventional means but heart — the athlete's greatest attribute — cannot. Perhaps this team has a little more of the Phoenix in it than most expect. Or at least a couple of aces up their sleeves.