Playing the game between the lines and in real life
Don Narcisse was 21 years old before he got to meet a professional athlete.
The man who visited Texas Southern University, which Narcisse attended in Houston, was James Murphy, then a wide receiver for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The interaction ended up changing the course of Narcisse’s career.
“The guy started talking like, ‘I caught a hundred-and-some passes in the CFL. I led the league,’ ” Narcisse said.
“I’m looking at him like, ‘Man, he’s not that tall. I could be just like him.’ ” Today, Narcisse is a Canadian football legend who spent his entire 13-season career playing wide receiver for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 2010, he launched the Don Narcisse All-Star Event, an annual charity youth football camp that brings out current and former players to train kids in the sport, teach them core values and give them some of that inspiration Narcisse got in university at a young age.
“All I’m trying to do is get kids off the sideline and get them into the game. That game could be anything. It’s not about football. I tell all the parents it’s not about football. It’s about the kids having a great attitude, being around other good players and getting the chance to meet their mentors,” Narcisse said.
Though he moved to his home state of Texas after retiring in 1999, his 2010 return to be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame inspired Narcisse to come back to Saskatchewan.
A standing ovation from a legion of 3,200 Green and White fans as he accepted the award made it an easy decision for his family to make the move, but Narcisse wanted to do more for the province that accepted him as one of its own.
“One thing I wanted to do was to give back to this community, and the best way to do that was through the kids.”
In previous years, All-Star Events have helped around 150 young athletes in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw take part in professional-level drills with the players they aspire to be. In Regina, the charity’s home city and host of its yearly gala celebration, Narcisse says that number can reach as high as 400.
For 2016, Narcisse has plans to expand the football camp to another three Saskatchewan cities, including Estevan, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw, as well as beyond the province’s borders to Kelowna, B.C.
Belton Johnson, who played offensive tackle for the Roughriders from 2006-09, has taken part in every football camp for the Don Narcisse All-Star Event and plans to continue that tradition as its scope widens in the coming years.
Growing up in Mississippi, Johnson lived and died for football. He and his brother watched games on TV every Sunday and collected their favourite players’ trading cards. He remembers his mother taking the two boys to their first pro football game, the New York Jets and the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). They didn’t have the best seats and Johnson didn’t get to meet any of the players face-to-face, but the experience was so thrilling that years later he started taking part in All-Star Events to try to inspire others in the same way.
“I do it because I know the kids – especially Rider fans – the kids see the players as something they want to be when they grow up,” Johnson said.