12 years ago, Paul Racine helped introduce football to the Cree communities in northern Quebec. Now, helping the youth of the James Bay Cree has become one of his passions.
The youth pastor and football coach helped lead football camps organized by Gordon Hudson, a former professional football player with the Ottawa Rough Riders. They were joined by coaches and players from the Ottawa Renegades, creating a lot of excitement.
At the time, football wasn’t exactly a popular sport in the area.
“Completely unknown,” says Paul with a laugh. “Two of the communities even had a football field, but had never used it for football.”
Since those initial camps, football has continued to grow, with and emphasis on six-a-side football, a variation of the game originally designed to allow small high schools in the US to field a football team. This variation has become popular in aboriginal communities across Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan, where it has been played for over 50 years.
“We helped introduce the six-man football program up in Mistissini,” says Paul. “I was coaching community ball here in the city of Ottawa and our community team donated a whole bunch of equipment, jerseys, and they took our name and called themselves the Mistissini Mustangs.”
Those initial football camps built inroads into the communities and opened doors for Paul to return and work with the youth.
“We were just going up there to do a one-week football camp,” he says, “and now I’m spending probably a third of my time up there. There is a huge need there and yet at the same time there’s also a huge opportunity to see God do some pretty incredible things in people’s lives.”
“I do a fair amount of work with kids that are really hurting,” he continues. “I do a lot of one-on- one work with them. I do leadership development with the young adults, team-building, and a proactive Biblical discipleship program. It’s proactive rather than reactive to the social problems that exist.”
Paul is passionate about helping the youth in these Cree communities and football continues to play a part. He’s brought players from the six-a- side program to play in the Athletes in Action All-Star Bowl, which brings together some of the best high school players in the Ottawa area. He has also had players join his team in Ottawa to get a taste of the full 12-man game.
One of those players was Jamie “Bear” Iserhoff. He played with Paul in Ottawa then, after a few years away from the game, took part in the AIA All-Star Bowl as a guest coach and received mentorship in coaching.
Paul also invited Jamie, along with two other athletes from the James Bay Cree, to Athletes in Action’s National Training Camp in Ottawa. The event had a tremendous impact.
“I was hesitant to go when they first asked me if I wanted to go,” says Jamie, with the 24-hour multi-sport marathon feeling particularly daunting. “But I really enjoyed it. It was a great experience for me.”
Jamie lasted 16 hours of the 24 hour marathon before an ankle injury forced him to the sidelines. Even that ended up being a valuable experience, as he felt helpless in that situation but saw others step up to help.
“When somebody gets hurt, somebody else ends up doing the reps for you,” he says. “That was the rule. I could see my teammates doing my reps for me and knowing they were there for me made me realize, ‘Okay Bear, you’re not alone, you’re not alone with what you’re going through.’”
That message—you’re not alone—resonated deeply with Jamie. He shared his testimony at National Training Camp and was blown away by the support he received.
“It was emotional,” he says. “It was a really serious thing that happened back home and it tore our family apart. I told my story and it gave me so much relief and prepared me to go back home and tell my story there as well.”
The support from his teammates and new friends at National Training Camp let him know that he wasn’t alone and that God is with him at all times, even when his own family wasn’t always on his side.
“Whenever you go through adversity know that you’re not alone,” said Jamie. “Always know that God is there.”