Photography by Alan Wardle
For Head Coach Farhan Lalji and the rest of the Hyacks Nation, the looks on the faces of the kids as they come charging out of the tunnel onto Mercer Stadium field on Homecoming Night says it all. With that short run, the young men taking high fives and having their names announced under the Friday Night Lights have undergone a rite of passage that connects them to their program past and present, their city, and a tradition of excellence on and off the field.
And regardless of what happens on the field, they’re always winners—and so is New Westminster.
“I just take a look at the players’ faces,” says Lalji. “To see that and to see the little kids playing touch football in the end zone and maybe 2,000 people in the stands—you can’t beat that.”
In 2005, the recently-resurrected Hyacks Football program was looking for some sort of signature athletic event that would connect a new generation of footballers with the pre-1977 teams and community at large. So Laji and his team looked south and, by and large, liked what they saw.
“We wanted to create some sort of destination event and in the States, they go a bit further–they have a Homecoming king and queen. We don’t do that,” says Lalji.
“What we do have is a signature event where people can come back and return to their school year in and year out and that’s special.”
“Special” is an understatement. There is nothing like the Hyacks Football annual Homecoming Game north of the 49 parallel. Other BC high school football teams don’t pack over 2,000 fans into their stands to watch the game ball arrive by parachutist and are then treated to fireworks both on and off the field. It’s the kind of spectacle you expect to see south of the border in football-crazy states like Texas.
“It’s the biggest single showcase of high school football in BC and maybe even across the country,” says Lalji. “I have schools calling me up asking to be our Homecoming opponent because they want their players to play in that environment.”
The September classic has become one of the marquee sporting events in New Westminster since it was first held in 2005. The game is played in honour of New Westminster football grads past and present. The Hyacks have gone 11-1 at Homecoming, outscoring their opponents 379-139 in the process.
The game itself is the finale of a larger community celebration featuring on-field kids’ activities like a bouncy castle and football toss. Another highlight is the Alumni Football Game which brings players from past teams back to have a little fun and share memories.
With corporate sponsors like Key West Ford and Save-On-Foods, Homecoming brings together the Royal City’s sporting, business, and community groups. You might even catch a glimpse of Mayor Jonathan Coté and his Councillors competing with School District Chair Jonina Campbell’s Trustees at the tug-of-war contest.
Of course, an event like Homecoming doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and commitment from a lot of volunteers. That’s where “Hyacks Nation” comes in. Hyack Football operates both a Varsity and Junior Varsity program at New Westminster Secondary School, as well as a community program for children as young as five. With the support of an extended family of parents, former players, and supporters, Hyacks Nation organizes and stages Homecoming year after year. They also set up and tear down for dozens of football games played by the Varsity, Junior Varsity, and Community Football teams.
The commitment to community extends beyond the football field. Members of the Hyacks Football program volunteer to help out at major city events like May Day, the Hyack Parade, RiverFest, and International Reading Day as well as raising money and donating gifts for the Christmas Bureau and others.
In the process, the NWSS Hyacks Football program was named the Hyack Festival Association Community Service Group of the Year in 2006 and has received multiple City of New Westminster Youth Group Awards.
The same level of commitment is shown on the playing field. Over 220 players ranging in age from five to 18 participate in Hyacks Football annually. Their 40 coaches each volunteer hundreds of hours to help the players be the best they can be.
The results speak for themselves: 32 NWSS grads have gone on to earn college scholarships, six of them to NCAA Division 1 schools in the US. Hyacks teams consistently make the playoffs. And last year, the Junior Varsity Team won the AAA High School Football Championship–the program’s first provincial championship.
Despite these big numbers, the success of the Hyacks Football program is built on a focus on each individual player.
“It’s not just about football,” says Lalji. “There are kids who come from challenging situations and others who don’t. There’s a wide spectrum of experiences. We never give up on a player and when you see them start to figure it out, that’s very gratifying.”
Fair weather and foul, the Hyacks Football program has been there for teens that needed a challenge, support and to feel part of something bigger.
And so in September, when it rained for the first time on a Homecoming celebration, when you might have expected folks to stay at home and keep dry, Lalji stepped out onto the Mercer Stadium turf, took a look at the 1,500-plus folks crammed into the stands and the cheer teams and others lining the track and was blown away.
“There is community spirit. There is the pride that connects us all. We get support from so many different sectors in the community because that’s what we’re about. We started the program 14 years ago and it was just an idea. It keeps going because people buy in and see its purpose.”