Football in St. Albert has come a long way since Dave Granoski and Adam Cassidy tackled the sport they love.
The assistant coaches for the atom Buccaneers made their gridiron debuts in the St. Albert Minor Football Association’s house league peewee division, where the players huddle up for their neighbourhood teams.
“When I started as a nine-year-old in peewee football in St. Albert it was quite overwhelming. There was no atom football and in peewee there were nine, 10, 11 and 12-year-olds, so it was a lot of little guys and a lot of big guys. I remember that first year it was pretty intimidating with all these bigger kids,” said Granoski, who strapped on the helmet for the peewee Swensen’s Earthquakes.
Cassidy was bigger than your average peewee when he lined up for the Standard General Colts.
“Back then we just had the four peewee teams, and then you played bantam. Now minor football has expanded to include atom and it’s nice to see how many more kids are involved now,” said Cassidy, one of the few St. Albert players to get drafted by a Canadian Football League team.
One of Cassidy’s fondest memories was playing for the Colts.
“We had a good group of guys. We started off our first year maybe 1-7 and then the following years I think we only lost three, four games. We had this group of kids and we just all gelled together,” said the former offensive lineman for the Alberta Golden Bears.
“Another favourite memory was the SAMFA year-end banquets at Club Mocombo.”
SAMFA teams played on school fields, instead of facilities like the Riel Recreation Park turf field and other first-class Edmonton and area venues with grandstands and scoreboards.
“It’s unbelievable compared to what we had before. It’s awesome. We used to play behind Ronald Harvey School,” Cassidy said.
The league structure was different until the Capital District Minor Football Association was formed.
“Near the end of peewee we would play the [Edmonton] Safeway Seals and a few teams like that,” Cassidy said. “Now, you play in Camrose, Wetaskiwin, Spruce Grove – all over the place. The organization has grown big time.”
SAMFA has developed into a major sports program after it was incorporated on March 12, 1975.
“It’s much more organized and structured than it was before, which is nice to see,” Cassidy said. “Obviously football is more popular now. Hockey is our main sport here in St. Albert and football is not unique but it’s a little different so it’s awesome to see so many more kids playing now than ever before.”
The level of players and coaches is also at an all-time high.
“The players have more knowledge of the game at a younger age now and the coaches are more knowledgeable and have more training than they were back when we played,” Granoski said.
After peewee Granoski and Cassidy moved up to play for the legendary bantam Palmer 49ers under Larry Olexiuk. The St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus went on to star in high school for the powerhouse St. Albert Storm under field general Bob Brayman.
Memories to cherish
Their years in St. Albert football forged memories to last a lifetime.
“The biggest thing was the camaraderie and friendships you made because it’s such a team sport. I’m still good buddies with Adam and I have so many friends that I’ve made playing football with over the years,” said Granoski, who played junior for the Edmonton Huskies before becoming a successful pharmacist in St. Albert.
Cassidy echoed Granoski’s sentiments.
“The main thing, apart from the wins and losses, is the people you meet and the friends you make,” Cassidy said. “Football is kind of like a community. I’m with the Edmonton fire department now and I still bump into guys that I played with, either in high school or university or even way back in peewee.”
Cassidy’s involvement in football has now come full circle coaching his sons Matthew and Ryan.
“I go places and I see people that I’ve played football with 20, 30 years ago and their kids are now involved in football,” Cassidy said.
Two years ago Cassidy followed in his dad Dale’s footsteps as a coach, when he volunteered to help out the atom Jaguars when Matthew started playing football.
“We were practicing at the old Wild Rose School where I practiced when I played with the Standard General team. We used the same shack, the same field and the same holes were still in the ground. That was really cool just to be able to relive those same sort of memories,” Cassidy said.
It’s a dream come true for Cassidy to teach his boys how to play the game.
“To see my kids do something that I was so passionate about, and to see them being pretty passionate themselves, is kind of every father’s dream to sort of pass the baton,” he said. “My dad played and I was a little better than him. Maybe these guys will be a little bit better than me. Maybe they’ll make it or maybe they’ll just have a cup of coffee, but who knows.”
In the 1996 CFL draft Cassidy was selected 27th overall (round three) by the Montreal Alouettes. The highly-touted guard attended Montreal’s training camp and eventually was acquired by the Edmonton Eskimos in a trade. He was later released by the Eskimos.
“It was an eye opener. It’s a little less fun when you get to that level. It’s a lot more competition and much more serious. You’re playing more for a paycheque – not that the paycheques are that big – than playing for the guy beside you, whereas in university and high school you would break your arm for your team. The bond between the players wasn’t quite the same,” he said.
“It was still a very cool experience to see how that level of football works. It helped me realize how technical you can get with coaching and that helps me now. I actually have trouble bringing it down to a level where these guys can benefit from it and understand it.”
Football is fun
Granoski shares Cassidy’s sentiments about playing football for fun and tries to instil that attitude in the Buccaneers as their defensive coach.
“You try and focus on having fun and build the skills at a young age so they can take that forward. If the kids continue on and keep playing then we think we’ve been successful because obviously they’re having fun,” Granoski said.
Teamwork is also high on Granoski's priority list as a coach.
“When you go on to your job later in life you have to be part of that team and playing team sports like football helps make you a non-selfish team player in your workplace,” he said.
Granoski volunteered his services when his son, Jared, wanted to play football.
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to play when I was young and I want to see other young kids go through that same experience. I just had so much fun doing it,” said the tough and tenacious linebacker in his playing days. “I look at all the guys that gave up their evenings and weekends for me when I was a kid and if nobody does it then the kids can’t play. I just want to help out and give back.”
Ironically, Jared is also a linebacker.
“It’s great having my son playing on a team I help coach. It’s everything I would’ve dreamed off, just hoping that he would catch onto football and watching him progress,” Granoski said. “When he puts the football helmet on he changes a little bit. He loses a little bit of his shyness and becomes more of a leader. He has such a good time out there. It’s a lot of fun watching him.”
Like father, like son
Nine-year-old Jared is a third-year atom player.
“I’m having a lot of fun, especially since my dad is coaching,” said the Grade 4 Father Jan student. “I like playing linebacker. You get to make most of the tackles most of the time, and I like tackling guys.”
Jared said his dad occasionally relives the glory days with tales of greatness.
“A while ago he brought out some scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and showed them to me,” Jared said. “One time he told me in a game he broke a guy’s arm and a guy’s collarbone.”
The Cassidy brothers are thrilled to have their dad coach them.
“He’s really good,” said eight-year-old Ryan. “I’m proud of him.”
“He gives me lots of tips, like how there are certain things you have to do to make a successful block,” added Matthew, 10. “His best tip is probably to stay low when I’m blocking.”
Ryan is a second-year Buccaneer who plays safety.
“It’s lots of fun,” said the Grade 3 Sir Alexander Mackenzie student. “I like tackling because it’s fun getting their legs and watching them fall.”
Matthew looks like a miniature version of his dad at right tackle. The third-year atom player also fills in at nose guard.
“I have a lot of fun, but I think my dad makes me work extra hard,” said the Grade 5 SAM student.
Cassidy gets a huge charge coaching not only his sons but the rest of the Buccaneers.
“It’s awesome, especially when they start picking up on things and they actually get better,” he said. “It’s really great to see them progress.”