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The CFL season has been cancelled, U Sports football has been pushed back to 2021 at the earliest and the Winnipeg High School Football League recently put the kibosh on its fall campaign.
In short, there’s been plenty of pandemic-related gloom to go around but the plight of local players hasn’t gone ignored.
On Tuesday, Winnipeggers and CFL players Andrew Harris and DJ Lalama announced they have decided to do something to ease the pain.
Harris, an all-star running back with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and Lalama, a linebacker with the Montreal Alouettes, are the co-founders of the Pro Prep Flag Football League, which is set to launch on Sept. 30.
The fledgling 7-on-7 league, conceived in recent weeks and now sanctioned by Football Manitoba, is intended to serve as a serious, fully insured competitive outlet for elite players.
“Just talking to high school coaches and high school kids about the opportunity they were losing, especially guys in Grade 12, kids in junior, university players trying to get looks from the CFL. Just the fact they won’t have any film or any opportunity to get better.” — Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris on starting the league
"I saw a void," said Harris, explaining his motivation for starting the league. "Just talking to high school coaches and high school kids about the opportunity they were losing, especially guys in Grade 12, kids in junior, university players trying to get looks from the CFL. Just the fact they won’t have any film or any opportunity to get better."
Players can choose from a Varsity Division intended for high schoolers or a Pro Division created for CFLers as well as junior- and college-level competitors.
A fee of $165 per player or $2,500 per 15-member team is intended to cover costs only. Games will be played at Murray Field adjacent to Dakota Collegiate and the season is scheduled to extend until championship day on Nov. 13.
Lalama and Harris, who will serve as co-commissioners, won’t play but they are expecting an enthusiastic response. It’s anticipated that high school football programs will enter one or more full squads but the league setup also allows for players to register individually and be placed on a team.
"... using the resources we do have and the great support group that we’ve formed, it’s something we’re super excited to bring to fruition. If you want to be part of it, you’re gonna play.” — DJ Lalama
"We just want to be as professional as possible in the sense of having the highest level of compete," said Lalama, who played for the University of Manitoba Bisons and the Bombers before joining the Alouettes partway through the 2019 season. "And if that’s going to be a fifth-year Bison that maybe was undrafted last year and he’s kind of that pro calibre, so be it. Come out and get better."
Male and female players are welcome to register at djlalama.com, where you can read a detailed explanation of league rules and adherence to provincial health guidelines.
"We wish we could play and it’s hard for us now as professionals to not play," said Lalama.
"It would be 10 times harder if it was our Grade 12 year and we couldn’t play. For us, using the resources we do have and the great support group that we’ve formed, it’s something we’re super excited to bring to fruition. If you want to be part of it, you’re gonna play."
The league’s rule modifications will encourage teams to use the offensive and defensive schemes they run in the tackle version of the game.
"For us, the way our league is structured and how our rules are, you’re able to run your offences and defences as they were," said Harris. "So if a high school coach puts in their playbook, they can run their defences with zone looks, blitz looks and the offences can run their whole offence pretty much."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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