Originally published in AbilitiesBlood, Sweat, Tears and A Big of Luck

Looking at the knocked-knees of the kids around him, the word that comes into Drew Ferguson’s mind is pigeon-toed. In time, he will learn to distinguish between the various types of disabilities – whether on one side of the body or both – but, in 2005, as he rode to coach his first para training camp, terms like hemiplegic and diplegic have not yet become a part of his vocabulary. And as he stared at all the awkward shaped limbs, on that bus, Ferguson wondered whether he truly belonged.

With black, greying hair, blue eyes and a slight-paunch, despite a lifetime of physical exercise, Ferguson is a former national team member who helped Canada qualify for its sole World Cup appearance (Mexico 1986). This experience along with a lengthy playing career that was followed up with coaching experience at the club and provincial level is the reason Canada Soccer tapped him to lead the Para Soccer program.

Today Ferguson, who is 57 and hails from Powell River, BC, is quick to admit his initial ignorance, “I didn’t know what Cerebral Palsy was; I might have it for all I knew. Some of those kids couldn’t walk, let alone play soccer. When they got off that bus, one of them took a nose-dive. He just slipped, covering his training suit in mud.” For Canada’s new Para Soccer coach, this was a memorable introduction to his squad. 

America Cup 2014 Canada Para v Brasil 24 Sept. 2014, Toronto, ON, Canada University of Toronto Pan Am Fields ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl Drew Ferguson
Drew Ferguson ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl

Running the Para Team has given Ferguson a second chance to grace the world’s stage. Despite initial doubts, the kids’ attitude kept him going. “I’ve coached at the highest levels, and I don’t have time for the antics of the modern athlete. Most are spoiled and don’t appreciate what they have. But my guys don’t lie and roll around waiting for the cameras. They have a disability and they get up and get on with it, even after getting hit. I like that.”

But Ferguson also likes winning, and that wasn’t happening. “We were ranked off the map and would often get spanked seven or eight to zero.” Desperate for players Ferguson and his assistant, Doug Lusk, a high school guidance councillor from London, ON, would often chase people with CP on the streets, to see if they were interested in trying out for the national team.

Lusk, chubby with curly, blond hair and blue eyes, is the good cop, to Ferguson’s bad. He’s the shoulder that players cry on. Partially, because of his humour, but also because he takes an active interest in CP—enrolling in courses and learning from his wife, a physiotherapist who works with kids with disabilities.

In the early days, Lusk would travel to CP events carrying a soccer ball, to see if anyone was interested in playing. But neither this nor Ferguson’s outreach attempts produced the desired results.

This led the pair to begin contacting CP athletes involved in other sports. And with the help of these new recruits, the program saw results, winning a bronze at the 2007 Para Pan Am Games. But Ferguson wasn’t satisfied. “That victory was a spark. It was like, ‘yeah, we’re suddenly good, let’s keep at it.’”

But what else could Ferguson do? He was already on the road 100 days a year, going to events and scouting. His squad contained some of the best CP athletes in Canada; and yet their next game was a 5-0 defeat to Argentina. The problem was that Ferguson, in contrast to his competition, was trying to teach his guys a sport that most had, until now, never played.

Ferguson needed to re-think his strategy. What he realized was that “his guys” aren’t part of the disability scene, they’re hiding, either trying to blend in or simply going unnoticed by the able-bodied world. He needed to shift his priorities from training people with disabilities to play soccer, to finding soccer players who happened to have a disability.

“I didn’t know what Cerebral Palsy was; I might have it for all I knew."

So Ferguson began seeking audiences in the able-bodied world. But getting his message out to coaches, clubs and soccer association has not been easy. One of the challenges is that CP can be difficult to detect, especially when coaches are unfamiliar with it. “These coaches are like me, when a player walks funny, they don’t think disability, they think the guy has a bad ankle.”

Plus, many CP players don’t want to be found says Ferguson “especially if doctors or parents are afraid to label them. However, we want to label them, because we’ve got this massive opportunity to come and represent their country.”

With CP affecting one out of every 500 Canadians, Ferguson says, “there has to be at least a couple hundred quality players out there.” As proof, Ferguson points to Samuel Charron who, at 15 years-of-age, is one of his youngest and best players. Although his CP is mild, Charron’s parents kept it quiet. So even though Charron grew-up playing competitive soccer his own coaches weren’t aware of his condition until Ferguson spotted him, by chance, on a field in Ottawa.

America Cup 2014 Canada Para v USA 26 Sept. 2014, Toronto, ON, Canada University of Toronto Pan Am Fields ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl Samuel Charron
Samuel Charron ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl

One of the few tells, says Lusk is the sound of his walk. “You see, an able-bodied person steps heel to toe, but Sammy’s right foot goes toe to heel – as is common with most people with CP- because he can’t lift it properly, so the clunk is different.”

Ferguson estimates it will take 20 years to build the Para program. It can be hard for new players to adjust because most haven’t come up through the competitive ranks. They’re not used to being told to lose those extra pounds or hearing motivational expletives.

Team captain Dustin Hodgson admits Ferguson took some getting used to. “I was playing on teams run by fathers who would say ‘good try, keep it up,’ but Drew doesn’t hold back. If he wants to express something he will and you will hear it—even if you’re on the other side of the field.”

Ferguson, however, offers no apologies, “I don’t treat my guys as people with disabilities; I treat them as soccer players, because that’s what they are. I may crucify them, but I also give them a pat on the back when a job is well done. At the end of the day, it’s about respect and it has to go both ways.”

And while Hodgson admits the first few years were hard, he’s happy he didn’t quit. “Drew is the best coach I’ve ever had. Yes, he’s rough around the edges, but he’s made me a better player and given me coaching that I would never have otherwise received.”

America Cup 2014 Canada Para v Brasil 24 Sept. 2014, Toronto, ON, Canada University of Toronto Pan Am Fields ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl Dustin Hodgson, Lucas Bruno, Trevor Stiles
Dustin Hodgson ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl

But the players aren’t the only ones learning. Following a training session, Ferguson recounts one of his more enlightening experiences. “We were at Chula Vista, San Diego, and one day I grew frustrated and surly. So I pointed to the five perfectly kept fields and said, ‘You guys need to stop picking your noses and work on your shooting.’”

The next morning, Ferguson found three players, sitting on a bench surrounded by balls. After staring for a few minutes, from across the field, he finally approached. “What are you clowns doing?”

“Well coach, you were pretty mad yesterday,” responded one of the players. “So we decided to start training early, but as we sat down we realized we’re screwed.”

“Excuse me,” said Ferguson, following their eyes to their boots, before finally catching on. I had to turn around to keep from laughing. I mean, what do you say when the only three guys, who actually listened can’t tie their cleats because their CP is so bad.”

These are challenges that able-bodied coaches don’t encounter says Lusk. “How do you coach kids that [in some cases] can only strike the ball with the outside of their left foot? Coming-up with drills and strategies to accommodate this can keep you up at night.”

There are also different rules to consider. For one, international CP soccer takes place on a smaller field. As a result, teams consist of seven players, instead of 11. The nets are also smaller, and when the ball goes out of bounds, players, who have difficulty throwing, are allowed to roll it back into play.

“I don’t treat my guys as people with disabilities; I treat them as soccer players, because that’s what they are."

The result is a quick, pass and move style of soccer, requiring a combination of fitness and technical ability. But there is one more fundamental difference with the able-bodied game: CP players are ranked according to the severity of their disability. Those with paralysis in symmetrical body parts are classified as CP5s. Players with milder forms of CP – usually those affected on only side of their body – are classified as either CP6s or CP7s.

And then they’re those who don’t have CP, but because of a stroke or head injury have similar symptoms. They’re classified as CP8s. Currently a maximum of two CP8s are allowed on the field while at least one CP5 must be on at all times [In 2017 this will change to one CP8 and two CP5s]. These rules add an additional strategic element not present in able-bodied soccer.

Ferguson avoids getting close to his player because he needs to see them as investments. With limited resources, he has to choose which ones to support and, should their level drop, which ones to cut.

Players like Charron, who Ferguson believes has the potential to become one of the best CP soccer players in the world, are changing the team’s culture. For the first time, older, more established players must fight for their positions. And while it can be hard to let players go, Ferguson says, the experience remains rewarding for all. “They all end up growing, not just in their abilities, but as people. Listen, these guys travel around the world; it’s not a bad gig.”

But for all his efforts, there are barriers that Ferguson has not overcome. For one, “It costs European nations $2,000 to run a training camp, but [since Canada is a larger country, with only one direct neighbour] it costs us $40,000 just to get all of our guys together for four days, and even more to cross the Atlantic to attend a tournament. It’s hard to prepare the team technically when I can only afford to see the entire group four times a year.”

The second obstacle is even harder to confront. That’s because it’s not tangible like money, but something hidden, woven into the nation’s social fabric.

You can see its reflection in the international rankings. While traditional soccer powers like Brazil and the Netherlands are in the top five, they don’t lead the way. Russia occupies top spot, followed by Ukraine, and in fifth, the biggest surprise, Iran. Why? Because, according to Ferguson “these countries allow their sport programs to access hospital records, so they don’t have any problems identifying players.”

“Can you believe that even now, after 10 years, I have friends who still ask me what I’m doing, like I’ve fallen off the Earth or something?”

The Russians, in particular, says Ferguson, “not only train together, but are required to attend the same school.” As a result, “these guys have a team of 25 Sammy’s, except they’re fully grown.”

The Dutch also send their players to select schools for kids with disabilities. In fact, their coach doesn’t have to scour the country to identify talent, like Ferguson does, because, as a former gym teacher at one of these schools, he already knows the players. It’s a big advantage, says Lusk, “but we would never think of doing this in Canada, because it’s segregation. Our school system is about inclusion; it’s a different mindset. One is not right, one is not wrong it’s just a social difference.”

But it’s a difference that has put Canada at a disadvantage when it comes to Para soccer. Ferguson, however, refuses to concede defeat. He believes that even this disadvantage, can be moderated by raising awareness—his panacea.

And with the Pan Am Games taking place on home-soil in less than a year, Ferguson believes it’s time to seize the spotlight. This tournament (7 to 15 August), held in Toronto, marks the first time the program will play in front of a large home crowed.

“Can you believe that even now, after 10 years, I have friends who still ask me what I’m doing, like I’ve fallen off the Earth or something?” says Ferguson. They all think I’m coaching some kind of specialty soccer? And I always, tell them, ‘look, you clowns, my guys practice against able-bodied teams at the University level.’ Okay, sometimes we come out on top and sometimes we don’t, but there’s not question that these guys can play.”

America Cup 2014 Canada Para v Venezuela 20 Sept. 2014, Toronto, ON, Canada University of Toronto Pan Am Fields ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl Crew Ferguson
Drew Ferguson ©CanadaSoccer / by Martin Bazyl

And if Canada performs well at this tournament, it will go into the 2015 World Championships with confidence, bolstering its chances of securing a place at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. This would be Ferguson’s dream come true, because it would not only mean increased media, but additional federal funding.

Ferguson and Lusk celebrate this possibility with a swig of water as they exit the field. “Yeah, hopefully we can qualify,” says Ferguson finishing his gulp. “Look, I’ve already had my career, I don’t have many ambitions left; my soccer world has been good. But it would be nice to sit back when I’m 80 – heck, I don’t want to live that long – and know that we’ve left a legacy.”

© Ignacio Estefanell 2014

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