Originally published in Abilities:Â Blood, Sweat, Tears and A Big of Luck
Looking at the knocked-knees of the kids around him, the word that comes into Drew Fergusonâs mind is pigeon-toed. In time, he will learn to distinguish between the various types of disabilities â whether on one side of the body or both â 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, âI didnât know what Cerebral Palsy was; I might have it for all I knew. Some of those kids couldnât 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.â For Canadaâs new Para Soccer coach, this was a memorable introduction to his squad.Â
Running the Para Team has given Ferguson a second chance to grace the worldâs stage. Despite initial doubts, the kidsâ attitude kept him going. âIâve coached at the highest levels, and I donât have time for the antics of the modern athlete. Most are spoiled and donât appreciate what they have. But my guys donât 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.â
But Ferguson also likes winning, and that wasnât happening. âWe were ranked off the map and would often get spanked seven or eight to zero.â 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 Fergusonâs bad. Heâs the shoulder that players cry on. Partially, because of his humour, but also because he takes an active interest in CPâenrolling 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 Fergusonâs 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 wasnât satisfied. âThat victory was a spark. It was like, âyeah, weâre suddenly good, letâs keep at it.ââ
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 âhis guysâ arenât part of the disability scene, theyâre 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.
âI didnât 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. âThese coaches are like me, when a player walks funny, they donât think disability, they think the guy has a bad ankle.â
Plus, many CP players donât want to be found says Ferguson âespecially if doctors or parents are afraid to label them. However, we want to label them, because weâve got this massive opportunity to come and represent their country.â
With CP affecting one out of every 500 Canadians, Ferguson says, âthere has to be at least a couple hundred quality players out there.â 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, Charronâs parents kept it quiet. So even though Charron grew-up playing competitive soccer his own coaches werenât aware of his condition until Ferguson spotted him, by chance, on a field in Ottawa.
One of the few tells, says Lusk is the sound of his walk. âYou see, an able-bodied person steps heel to toe, but Sammyâs right foot goes toe to heel â as is common with most people with CP- because he canât lift it properly, so the clunk is different.â
Ferguson estimates it will take 20 years to build the Para program. It can be hard for new players to adjust because most havenât come up through the competitive ranks. Theyâre 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. âI was playing on teams run by fathers who would say âgood try, keep it up,â but Drew doesnât hold back. If he wants to express something he will and you will hear itâeven if youâre on the other side of the field.â
Ferguson, however, offers no apologies, âI donât treat my guys as people with disabilities; I treat them as soccer players, because thatâs 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, itâs about respect and it has to go both ways.â
And while Hodgson admits the first few years were hard, heâs happy he didnât quit. âDrew is the best coach Iâve ever had. Yes, heâs rough around the edges, but heâs made me a better player and given me coaching that I would never have otherwise received.â
But the players arenât the only ones learning. Following a training session, Ferguson recounts one of his more enlightening experiences. âWe 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, âYou guys need to stop picking your noses and work on your shooting.ââ
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. âWhat are you clowns doing?â
âWell coach, you were pretty mad yesterday,â responded one of the players. âSo we decided to start training early, but as we sat down we realized weâre screwed.â
âExcuse me,â said Ferguson, following their eyes to their boots, before finally catching on. âI had to turn around to keep from laughing. I mean, what do you say when the only three guys, who actually listened canât tie their cleats because their CP is so bad.â
These are challenges that able-bodied coaches donât encounter says Lusk. âHow 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.â
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.
âI donât treat my guys as people with disabilities; I treat them as soccer players, because thatâs 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 â usually those affected on only side of their body â are classified as either CP6s or CP7s.
And then theyâre those who donât have CP, but because of a stroke or head injury have similar symptoms. Theyâre 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 teamâs 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. âThey all end up growing, not just in their abilities, but as people. Listen, these guys travel around the world; itâs not a bad gig.â
But for all his efforts, there are barriers that Ferguson has not overcome. For one, âIt 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. Itâs hard to prepare the team technically when I can only afford to see the entire group four times a year.â
The second obstacle is even harder to confront. Thatâs because itâs not tangible like money, but something hidden, woven into the nationâs 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 donât lead the way. Russia occupies top spot, followed by Ukraine, and in fifth, the biggest surprise, Iran. Why? Because, according to Ferguson âthese countries allow their sport programs to access hospital records, so they donât have any problems identifying players.â
âCan you believe that even now, after 10 years, I have friends who still ask me what Iâm doing, like Iâve fallen off the Earth or something?â
The Russians, in particular, says Ferguson, ânot only train together, but are required to attend the same school.â As a result, âthese guys have a team of 25 Sammyâs, except theyâre fully grown.â
The Dutch also send their players to select schools for kids with disabilities. In fact, their coach doesnât 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. Itâs a big advantage, says Lusk, âbut we would never think of doing this in Canada, because itâs segregation. Our school system is about inclusion; itâs a different mindset. One is not right, one is not wrong itâs just a social difference.â
But itâs 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 awarenessâhis panacea.
And with the Pan Am Games taking place on home-soil in less than a year, Ferguson believes itâs 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.
âCan you believe that even now, after 10 years, I have friends who still ask me what Iâm doing, like Iâve fallen off the Earth or something?â says Ferguson. They all think Iâm coaching some kind of specialty soccer? And I always, tell them, âlook, you clowns, my guys practice against able-bodied teams at the University level.â Okay, sometimes we come out on top and sometimes we donât, but thereâs not question that these guys can play.â
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 Fergusonâs 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. âYeah, hopefully we can qualify,â says Ferguson finishing his gulp. âLook, Iâve already had my career, I donât have many ambitions left; my soccer world has been good. But it would be nice to sit back when Iâm 80 â heck, I donât want to live that long â and know that weâve left a legacy.â
Â© Ignacio Estefanell 2014