The man is unmistakable.
Even surrounded by a 40-some players in full football gear, he stands out as the biggest, strongest presence on the soggy Sentinel secondary field despite his modest outfit of baggy sweat pants and hoody.
"Huddle up," he bellows, the sound echoing around the school grounds.
"Stop messing around, let's go," he says. "Too much talking here, call the damn play."
Yes, that's Paris Jackson, professional football receiver for the Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions. And yes, those are Grade 8 students snapping to attention at his call during a spring league practice on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
This, however, is no guest-coaching gig or token celebrity appearance. Jackson is the head coach of this Grade 8 team. Training camp for the B.C. Lions starts up in less than a month and when high school football season rolls around in August, Paris Jackson will still be the head coach of these boys. Pro practice ends at 1:30 p.m. in Surrey, volunteer coaching starts two hours later in West Vancouver. As much as travel, bridge traffic and schedule permits, Jackson will be in both places for the foreseeable future.
"I'll be a busy guy," he says with a laugh. "You know, I'd rather be busy than just sitting at home being lazy."
The scene at Sentinel is surprising for a number of reasons, not least of which is that football was not even on the school's radar when classes commenced last fall. Parent Nadia Daher led the push to revive the school's long-dormant football program when she realized her son Adam, entering Grade 8 at Sentinel, would not have a chance to play the sport he loved. Twisting startup funds out of several local benefactors -- including $10,000 from her husband Sam, a West Vancouver orthodontist -- Nadia helped convince Sentinel's athletics department to give football another try.
Jackson, a North Vancouver native and Carson Graham grad, was added to the equation when it became clear that Sentinel had enough funding and
interest to launch a Grade 8 team this spring that would become a junior (grade 9-10) team in the fall. Originally signed on as an offensive co-ordinator, Jackson accepted a bump up to head coach when the original man for the job bowed out because of health issues. While he worried about juggling the rigours of playing pro football with coaching a high school team, Jackson was won over by the thought of starting something new.
"We're creating our own history right now," he says as the Sentinel players pack up after practice. "It got to a point where I had to kind of think maybe this was the opportunity to step in with a new team, new organization. They're trying to build something here."
Jackson found out quickly that starting a program from scratch is no easy task. Leading it all as head coach through spring training has been eye-opening.
"I just didn't know how much planning, organization that you need," he says. "You need to be very, what I'd say, structured. You have to have a structure here and you got to be on time, you can't be a little late. The kids look up to me so I definitely have to lead by example."
When he arrived for his first practice there were only about 16 players ready to sign up. The next week there were 10 or 15 more.
"Now I think we're up to 42 guys," says Jackson. "Every week it seems like there's kids jumping on board."
In some ways, Jackson's mere presence is helping to build the program.
"I think the moment Paris was actually in the halls, I think we picked up 10 kids that week onto the roster," says Sentinel athletic director Glenn Johnston. "I think the parents are just as excited. In the last couple of years I don't recall so many people in the bleachers to watch a Grade 8 game."
The student body started buzzing about the new football coach once they actually saw him on school grounds.
"Everyone thought we were kidding -- Paris Jackson is coaching," says Grade 8 linebacker Cian Booth. The players are the ones laughing now.
"He really is a good coach," says Adam Daher, another Grade 8 linebacker and the son of team booster Nadia. "Even if he gets mad, it's fun. It really is. It's amazing."
Having a pro as a head coach has other benefits as well -- Jackson has used his CFL connections to bring in some highprofile help. He's constantly bugging Lions general manager Wally Buono and head coach Mike Benevides for tips and bringing teammates like Geroy Simon and North Vancouver-native Dean Valli out to practice. This past week Simon, one of the most decorated receivers in CFL history, stopped by to help run a Game Ready fitness session.
"It was great to have Geroy to come out here in his spare time and influence these kids to go on the right path," says Jackson, adding that he, too, has learned a lot from Simon during their many years playing together.
Life behind the clipboard has given Jackson new insight and motivation for when he straps on the pads this summer.
"Being a coach you kind of look at your own game," he says. "You get to step back and realize . . . maybe I need to work a little bit on these techniques." And if he does mess up on the field he knows there will be 42 pairs of eyes trained on him.
"When it comes to the summertime they're going to be watching me on TV," he says. "The last thing I want them to say is, 'Oh, coach is getting old.' They're going to bug me when I see 'em. So I definitely am here to bring this program in the right direction and they're keeping me young at the same time."
Jackson says he's hoping this is the start of a new chapter in his life.
"My plan is to be a professional coach -- wide receiver coach, offensive coordinator or head coach -- at the CFL or NFL level or even the collegiate level or university level," he says. "Right now these are my stepping stones. I want to build a foundation here that if I do leave in five years time at least they're on the right path. But right now I'm just focusing on being the head coach here and being a B.C. Lion for another year. We plan, the B.C. Lions, to win another Cup in Toronto and I'm kind of a greedy guy, why can't we win two championships -- one with B.C. and one with Sentinel."
On that point he's very serious. Sentinel's plan is to start play at the senior football level in 2013 and by then Jackson wants the program thriving. So far, so good -- the Grade 8 team went undefeated in six games with Jackson at the helm to claim a spring league championship. Along the way they knocked off traditional football powers like Carson Graham, Jackson's old stomping grounds -- no mean feat for a Sentinel program that didn't exist mere months ago.
"I want them to be provincial champs. I want them to be one of the best schools around here," says Jackson. "I'm a professional athlete and I take things seriously when it comes to football. And I expect these kids to be disciplined and on my schedule. It starts up at the top and it goes right down to the bottom. If you don't have the right direction up top, how are you supposed to learn and have direction in your life? I take it serious because I care about this sport, I love this sport and I want kids in the Lower Mainland to love it too."
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