TORONTO â€” As a middle linebacker, Anthony Cannon lived for the big hit. Now, he’s showing young football players how to get better without their pads.
The former Toronto Argonaut is the founder of the International Development Fast Football League, a seven-on-seven program Cannon says allows players to learn the fundamentals while decreasing the threat of head injuries. Cannon, who also spent three seasons with the NFL’s Detroit Lions, said it also helps bridge the gap between individuals playing high school football and those taking up the game for the first time.
“I found kids were playing summer football then going right to high school and from there to winter camps,” Cannon said. “There never seemed to be time for development so we decided to establish a platform for kids to take the pads off and still get quality reps.
“There had to be a different way so that was really where my motivation came from to start something like this.”
That was five years ago. Now, the IDFFL consists of the Under Armour Under The Lights co-ed youth flag league for players between kindergarten and Grade 8, while the seven-on-seven program is for those between the ages of 14 to 19.
Cannon also serves as a coach, along with former Argos Jordan Younger and Damon Allen. All three said they’re anxious to pass on the benefit of their experiences to younger players.
“When you think about all we’ve done in the game of football, I feel it would be a shame not to share that information,” said Allen, 53, a four-time Grey Cup-winning quarterback who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2012. “Now kids can actually develop and learn without having contact.
“With that, when you’re going to change the sport to make it safer, then you need seven-on-seven, you need flag football.”
Younger, 39, spent eight of his nine CFL seasons with the Argos, winning two Grey Cups and earning three league all-star nominations. He also served as Toronto’s defensive backs coach in 2015-16 and knows first-hand the concerns some parents have about their kids playing football.
“My mother wouldn’t let me play football until I was about 15 years old,” he said. “If I would’ve had another way, I might’ve been able to compromise with her if it wasn’t about the contact.
“The most important thing about understanding how football works is being ready for whatever opportunity comes. If you waste reps or allow someone else to take those reps and advance their football understanding beyond yours, then you’re behind when you’re trying to make the team.”
The seven-on-seven circuit is a roughly eight-week program that started in February. The nine teams play two games bi-weekly and all contests are recorded for review or compilation of highlight tapes.
Players also go through performance training and film review. Teams carry a maximum of 24 players on their roster.
IDFFL players can also participate in seven-on-seven tournaments south of the border. Cannon said that gives Canadian players an indication of how they stack up against American competition while providing potential NCAA exposure.
It seems some Ontario-based summer tackle programs have taken notice. Younger saying the Essex Ravens, Mississauga Warriors and Waterloo Region Minor Football all have IDFFL squads and flag programs.
The Scarborough Thunder is planning to come board as early as this fall.
“With a limited number of games in tackle football, you don’t always see some of the best players go against each other,” Younger said. “What seven-on-seven does is it gives you a platform to put all of the best talent together and you get to see everybody.
“When you see the light bulb go off, ‘I can do this, I’m capable of this,’ you’ll see an affect at the university level and in turn at the CFL level.”
Cannon said the flag initiative is being offered in 10 regions across Ontario. Play is scheduled to begin in some centres next month with plans to start in others this fall.
The emphasis on the flag league is skill development and fun and to serve as a feeder to the seven-on-seven program.
Younger said there’s plenty of room for both programs to expand.
“We’re building it to where eventually we can have a national championship in Canada,” he said. “With the growth the way it is, it could easily happen in two, three years.
“If you want to learn about football and have fun, come to us. If you’re serious about football and your dream is to play for your high school team or at the university level, come to us. What we want to do is provide one-stop shopping.”
On the web: http://www.uaflag.com/
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press