The 25 Year Story of Chilliwack Giants
Before 1992, there was no football in Chilliwack. As one of the original fore fathers, Wayne Bjorge, along with Don Weins and Keith Currie started what is today known as the Giants.
The first year, under the name “Greyhawks” they started with a Junior Bantam squad only and 3 Cheerleaders, and eventually, as they became the Giants, they grew to be one of the best associations in the Province. We have gone from playing on a Sardis field, where had to lime lines, rent light structures, announce and film games from scaffolding, and running a concession from the back of a van - to what it is now.
This past season we had 10 U8 Flag Teams, 3 Atom Teams, 3 Pee Wee Teams, 2 JB Teams, 21 Spring Flag Teams, 35 Cheerleaders, and as many a strong history of Bantam and Midget teams. Games can be seen online in HD complete with play by play and colour commentary, there’s a massive screen at the field showing replays and on Friday nights the players are announced as they run out of a giant inflatable helmet with the Giants’ logo emblazoned on the side. All with an announcer on the speaker system, getting the crowd into it, and our very own Concession.
By Tim Amey
Joe Bjorge remembers the bad old days, well…not so fondly. “There was absolutely no football in Chilliwack. The closest place was Langley. So after school you’d race home, eat, change into your gear, hop into the car with Mom or Dad and hit the highway”. And of course it got better from there. “The coaches wanted to bring in Saturday practices because we sucked so bad, and that meant more gas, travel and time for everyone.” Needless to say a few parents got a little fed up.
But that “fed up” if you will was the catalyst for something great. From that Chilliwack Minor Football was born. The year was 1992. Joe’s Dad, Wayne was one of those fed up parents who decided Chilliwack was a perfectly good place to start a community football program. “There were a bunch of kids (from Chilliwack) heading off to Langley, and there was enough interest to form a team out here so that’s what we did.”
The original fore fathers if you will were Bjorge, Don Weins (spelling mine) and Keith Currie. The three quickly formed the original executive for Chilliwack Minor Football. The team was originally called the Greyhawks, who lasted for two seasons. But by 1994 Chilliwack was also home to another team, the Steelers. Bjorge says the Steelers had one age division and the Greyhawks had two or three. So rather than compete for field time and the like, they decided to ban together and thus the Chilliwack Giants were born.
Things did not go smoothly in that inaugural season. “The very first year we had 52 players for one team. And unfortunately we did not understand the rule that you could only have 35 so a number of those players for that very first game had to sit out because we didn’t know that rule,” laughs Bjorge. “We managed to get them in for the next few games…but yeah.” Getting equipment, fields and all that other nuts and bolts stuff added to the fun, but they managed to work through it.
Kieth Currie says originally the Greyhawks were a Junior Bantam squad. “Originally because of the money factor, the cost of the equipment…helmets, shoulder pads and the like we could only really get up one full contact age group”. They had quite a few kids in the Bantam and Midget age groups who wanted to play but they just didn’t have the money to field the teams. They did however have enough for a few flag teams, so an organization, slowly but surely began to form.
”We talked to a number of parents who were interested in coaching, especially in flag. We obviously had to have a Board, an Executive…so that was our core program that first year.
What stands out for Currie the most in those early years were watching novice players struggle with all the new equipment and the enthusiasm. “There were a lot of good natural athletes that wanted to play football”. Little did they realize that their enthusiasm and the commitment of their parents laid the foundation for the Giants.
However the one memory that stands out for Currie the most was a little more lighthearted. “We were playing a Vancouver team, it may have been the Westside Warriors. It was a very close game, 7 to 7 and we had a very big full back. He was one of these guys who could break through the line and carry three or four players 10, 15…20 yards. In the one occasion he’s running down the field carry one or two would be tacklers. Both of them grab on him…he didn’t like wearing a belt on his game pants. Both players grabbed his pants at the same time and here he is running and dragging the two behind him with his pants beneath his knees and he carried them into the end zone”.
All funny anecdotes aside, Currie says that initial season was very successful. The team went 4 and 4, made the playoffs and lost a double overtime thriller to defending Champion Coquitlam. The league demanded Chilliwack field a minimum three teams the following year, so they all got to work and everything really exploded from there. That following year Chilliwack fielded flag, Atom, Peewee, Junior Bantam and Bantam teams.
Location, location, location….
A dozen or so players and their respective parents slowly file into Townsend Field. It’s a practice night for a few of the Chilliwack Giants’ teams. The Chilli Bowl, Chilliwack’s annual exhibition tournament, is a few days away and the respective coaching staffs still need to work out a few kinks before the exhibition season gets underway.
The turf still looks new despite being a few years old. The metal stands will hopefully some day have a cover and the broadcast tower looms over the field. Come Friday night the stands will be full, the concession staff will be working like crazy filling poutine and hot dog orders and an announcer will be describing the plays over the speaker system. It’s not the 10 thousand seat, state of the art facilities that one reads about in the Suburbs of Dallas Texas or Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, but to many Townsend is the envy of the Fraser Valley. Games can be seen online complete with play by play and colour commentary, there’s a massive screen at the field showing replays and on Friday nights the players are announced as they run out of a giant inflatable helmet with the Giants’ logo emblazoned on the side. However it wasn’t always this nice.
Keith Currie says originally, Townsend made a sand lot look luxurious. “It was a practice field with granularized rubbery gravel. It wasn’t very good but it was the only place we could practice under the lights at night time.”
The Giants originally practiced on the field at Bernard Elementary and played at AD Rundle. By around 1995 or ‘96 the games moved over to Sardis Elementary School. That’s where Midget head coach Dave Haynes decided that what would really help things grow would be Friday Night Football. Currie says they wanted to show to the City of Chilliwack that they could get the crowds out. “We would rent these great big industrial portable lights, the kind you see at construction sites. So everyone with pick up trucks would all go together in the afternoon before the night game. I think we had about eight of them. Four on either side of the field. The motors were quite loud and teams from Vancouver would come in and they simply couldn’t believe it.” But rented lights or not, three or four hundred fans would pack the field every Friday night. That was the wake up call for the City to start taking Chilliwack Minor Football seriously. Friday Night Lights was the impetus to put a turf field and taller lights at Townsend Field, and make it the permanent home for the Chilliwack Giants.
Changing Kid’s Lives…
Mike Kelly really didn’t become a football player till he became a Giant. The married father of two and now Chilliwack Giants coach was part of the 1994 inaugural season. His football career actually started in Vancouver, but Kelly never gave it much thought until his family moved to Chilliwack. The Giants were still a year away so Kelly just played other sports. Then a few of coaches came around the schools, talking about this new football program so Kelly decided to give it a try. He immediately noticed a big difference from his Vancouver days.
“The years in Vancouver were just formative. They were really just an introduction to football. Where I really honed my skills and actually got prepared for the sport of football was with the Giants. That was where as a teenager, 16 and 17 year old, I realized that maybe this is something I want to continue doing and carry on.”
Kelly attributes that big difference to coaching. Most specifically Ken Brandle, a former University of Washington Husky Quarterback and then Giants’ coach. Kelly says Brandle was the one who taught him how to become a more than just a community football player. It was about discipline, off field training and nutrition and attitude. About more than just the X’ and O’s of football. It was about how to be a man.
That mentoring paid off big for Kelly. He signed on with the now defunct Abbotsford Air Force of the BC Junior Football League. That led to a solid playing career with the University of Manitoba Bisons, and a try out at the CFL’s Combine. A pro career wasn’t in the books, but Kelly says all those life lessons along the way taught pretty much everything he knows today.
Now Kelly is Chilliwack Giants coach himself with the specific goal of passing that knowledge along to the generations of Giants that came after him.
Rudy Sas remembers two things about that Championship day in Kelowna November 6th, 2002: It was bitterly cold with lots of snow and Shawn Mcissac had a golden foot.
Sas was Offensive Coordinator on what he describes as a Dream Team. The 2002 Midget Giants went 18 – 0 that season, including exhibition games, and all season he had a gut feeling this was their year. However that dream team started many years before. “It started in Flag. We had a core group. And the kids played right through to Midget.
But by the end of 2001 we knew we had something. He says despite differences through the years, by 2002 everyone got behind one another. “Everybody pulled their weight. They all worked hard at practice, we rotated players in and out. They supported each other, everyone got along. It was really great.”
Mcissac was one of those players that could play any position, but decided he wanted to be kicker. Sas loved the kicking game because you can get so much yardage. And he says Mcissac put in some serious time. “He took a ball home every night and practiced punting with his Dad. And he worked with me on Field Goals after every practice . That practice paid off.
The Giants won 16 to 13. They scored one touchdown but Mcissac had three field goals and a single. It was enough to be crowned Provincial Champions on that cold snowy November day in Kelowna.
Suresh Paray remembers standing on the side lines, with his blood boiling. The play was a bit of a gamble but routine nonetheless. It the was 2009 Provincial Championship and Paray’s Midget team was hemmed in their own end. It was third down, and they were on their own 20 yard line, with inches to go. Quarterback Cody Paray, Suresh’s son was supposed to take the snap, and dive forward for the first down. If he makes it, it’s first and 10, if he doesn’t then Chilliwack is in big trouble. Their opponent, the Nanaimo Red Men take over on downs with better than good field position.
“We called the Quarterback Draw…but he got stuffed in hole and bounced to the outside, right down the sideline and just as he got hit he tossed the ball down the sideline, found his receiver and picked up an extra ten yards.”
Paray always told his players, if you’re going to gamble and call your own play, then you better make the play. Otherwise you’re in big trouble. When Paray and his coaching staff saw him sweep to the outside, everyone’s kinda freaked out, but the second his receiver caught the ball, everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. “That was the drive that broke Nanaimo’s spirit. It also made us realize that we might actually have this one.” But Paray did not get ahead of himself. After losing three Championship games in his career before, he wasn’t about to get ahead of himself.
Eventually the clock wound down to zero in the fourth quarter, and Chilliwack won 20 to 10. It would be the Giant’s second Provincial Championship.
They weren’t supposed to win the game. As a matter of fact they weren’t even supposed to be in the game.
The Chilliwack Giants PeeWee Blue team were taking on Coquitlam for the Provincial Final. Coquitlam was the powerhouse that year, but Chilliwack Head Coach Laurie Smith says they were only down 7 to 6 by halftime. “We had a couple of really good Nose Tackles. Coquitlam had been running over Tackles all season, but Laurie says those two took away their running game.
The season started off great. Smith’s PeeWee’s won the Chilli Bowl and every other preseason tournament. They beat Abbotsford quite handily to start the regular season and cruised to a 4 and 0 start. But then the wheels started coming off. “Then we just started losing. We lost badly to Meadow Ridge, then Meadow Ridge again. We lost really badly to Abbotsford, 36 to nothing. Then we had a team meeting after that game.”
Laurie had been giving trinkets to the kids in appreciation for their hard work. But Smith quickly realized he needed a culture change and that the kids had to understand that they were going to win or lose together, as a team. He drove home that there is no “I” in team.
In the second half, Coquitlam started throwing the ball, and Smith remembers them scoring a touchdown. “We don’t do a lot of (pass) coverage because no one throws in the VCFL”. Had they stuck to that plan Laurie figure Coquitlam might have won the game.
His no “I” in team speech worked. They started to win and win big, the next seven games in a row in fact. He says their corners did an amazing job containing all season. Sweeps and reverses are the bread and butter of Peewee football. Smith’s strategy was to keep his corner’s at home, and just cut off the outside. It worked.
Smith thinks the turning point in the Championship game was a 4-3 reverse. They managed to fool the linebackers into following the play, and the backside was completely open. That touchdown put them ahead for good. The Chilliwack PeeWee Blue Giants beat Coquitlam 27 to 13 to become Provincial Champions. It was the Giants third Provincial title.
Chilliwack won their first Provincial crown in 1996 and would take home many more VCFL championships over their history. However to talk to former players and coaches, none of that matters. Most memories are about joining teammates at Dairy Queen after games, or sliding in four feet snow after losing a Championship game, or the life long friendships forged on the field.
Wayne Bjorge sits at the head of the big long table, getting ready to chair yet another Executive Board meeting. Bjorge’s the last Chilliwack Minor Football O.G., or Original Gangster in hip hop parlance. He’s headed the organization since it’s inception in 1992, but plans to finally step down after the 2016 season. When asked what stands out for him the most during his long and storied tenure, he pretty much sums it up with one word; family. “It’s seeing the kids come back. You coach these kids and they grow up and they have kids or their own and now they’re bringing them back for football. That is really cool to watch.”