The method Fred Van Dongen used to get into coaching youth soccer 50 years ago is not something he’d recommend in this day and age.
"I would go with my car around to different neighbourhoods and I’d pick up kids if they had nothing else to do," recalled the south St. Vital resident who came to Canada with his parents from the Netherlands when he was 15.
"I would see boys who were just getting into trouble in Fort Rouge… so I would pick them up and show them how to play soccer."
While that sort of behaviour might land a person in a police station today, Van Dongen was able to put together the first Fort Rouge Soccer Club team in 1961 and has never stopped teaching kids the game he loves.
On July 28, Van Dongen celebrated his 75th birthday — and 50 years of coaching — with many of the players from that first team, which he guided up through the ranks for a dozen years, from the time the kids were nine years old until they were playing senior soccer.
"They were basically just Canadian boys," Van Dongen said, "who were able to compete with people who came from Europe, which was quite an achievement for a group out of Fort Rouge."
As much a father figure as a coach — he recalls giving dating advice and teaching more than a few players how to tie a tie — Van Dongen has stayed in contact with many of those players for half a century.
"When you start coaching with young fellas and bring them up, you become not only a coach, but you become someone to give them advice," he said.
Before he got into coaching, Van Dongen was an accomplished player. He was invited to try out for professional teams in his native Holland and in Sweden, but decided to stay in Canada with his family. He was a member of several senior teams in the city until injuring his knee in 1960.
Over the years, Van Dongen has played a part in the development of thousands of soccer players. He’s coached boys, girls, men and women, and in recent years has been taking on a broader "training" role with the Bonivital Flames, working with new coaches as well as players.
"Because most of the parents have never played before, I talk to them and teach them that winning isn’t everything, that everybody should be playing, and how to run practices," he said. "I’m having a lot of fun with it."
And that probably explains why coaching has been an integral part of Van Dongen’s life for so long, and why he shows no signs of slowing down.
"I stay active," he said. "You can’t help looking old, but I can hold my own with most of the players. I’m lucky that way."