A higher calling: University of Ottawa Gee-Gees all-star pivot Josh Sacobie spoke with youth recently in the senate chamber on parliament hill during National Children's day. Sacobie, a Maliseet from St. Mary's First Nation, has spent the past two summers working with aboriginal youth in northern Quebec as a counsellor and recreation co-ordinator.

More to former CAMFA player Josh Sacobie than football

Quarterback now giving back | Gee Gees star gets greater rewards off the gridiron


OTTAWA - Deep in the heart of north-central Quebec, a light-skinned football player from St. Mary's First Nation near Fredericton is trying to convince a group of 70 darker-skinned gridiron hopefuls that he is, in fact, one of them.

"When I came in, they thought I was non-native," said University of Ottawa Gee-Gee's all-star quarterback Josh Sacobie. "I felt like I had to keep reminding them that, 'Hey, I'm a Maliseet from New Brunswick.' I had to build their trust. I was concerned about whether they would take me seriously."

Sacobie had reasons to be concerned. He doesn't speak Cree or share the same priorities.

He's trying to change the latter.

The standout pivot's resumé is impressive. He was dubbed a veritable can't-miss prospect out of Leo Hayes High School, thrown into the fire during his third game at the university level.

"I never looked back," he said.

Now on the verge of his fifth campaign behind centre, he's the Gee-Gees all-time leader in touchdown passes and career yards.

He was selected the 2007 MVP of Ontario University Athletics after leading Ottawa to an 8-0 finish in the regular season. He was also a candidate for the Hec Crighton Trophy, awarded to Canada's top university football player.

But Sacobie said adding to his off-field résumé is what affords him his greatest rewards.

"My priorities have switched," he said. "School is now No. 1 and football comes second. I never thought I would ever go to university. High school graduation was a big thing for me in my community. I was a simple-minded jock."

The Mistissini Cree First Nation is an arduous 14-hour drive north of Ottawa, and a long way from the bright lights of Frank Clair Stadium.

For the past two summers, Sacobie has travelled to the remote community to teach football, counsel kids and listen to firsthand accounts about the challenges facing aboriginal youth in the region.

Sacobie, who's pursuing a degree in social sciences, knew he had replace idle time - where mind and spirit often wander to negative thoughts - with positive activities. To help remedy the situation, he helped introduce a tackle football program in the community to youth ages six to 16.

With pads and helmets in tow, and one hour a day to teach the kids the fundamentals of the game, Sacobie said his bond with the would-be football players began to blossom.

Following weeks of practice, he organized an exhibition game against a club team from Chibougamau, Que., three hours south of Mistissini.

He said the teams didn't keep score, but he's proud of what his players accomplished.

"Our older group scored two touchdowns to their one," he said. "Our team had never played the sport before and we played against an organized team. We did really well. It's all about the kids smiling and enjoying themselves."

It's when Sacobie talks about his work as a youth counsellor that his voice beams most with pride, despite knowing all too well the struggles First Nation youth face in Canada.

"The problems in their community are the same as the problems in mine," he said. "The youth are very troubled like the youth I grew up with. I know what I went through and what I saw my friends go through when I was younger. I got out, but many of my friends didn't. I feel like the lucky one. The statistics don't lie."

Statistics Canada data shows First Nation youth are three times more likely than non-aboriginals to experience violence.

Suicide occurs about five to six times more often among First Nations youth than non-aboriginal youth in Canada, with men between the ages of 15 and 24 experiencing 126 suicides per 100,000, compared to 24 per 100,000 for Canadian men of the same age group. Young aboriginal women registered a rate of 35 per 100,000 versus five per 100,000 for Canadian women.

They also suffer from higher rates of alcohol, drug and solvent abuse, and lower high school and university graduation rates.

Sacobie said listening to 10-year-old children discuss suicide is gut wrenching.

"But you have to be all ears," he said. "Then you try to provide some guidance."

Gee-Gees head coach Denis Piché said he's seen Sacobie's metamorphosis from rookie quarterback to well-rounded young man.

"I've watched him come out of his cocoon over the past few years," he said. "His work last summer on the reservation took him to a different place. He realizes the challenges that his people are facing more than ever. He realizes that he can make a difference in these people's lives."

Sacobie said he hopes to continue working with First Nation youth this summer.

But with the CFL draft in April, he's unsure if his summer will be spent between the hash marks working out with a professional club or with his rag-tag team of First Nation football players in Quebec.

Piché said regardless of what happens, he expects his all-star signal caller to continue his work counselling First Nation youth.

"He doesn't define himself only as a football player anymore," he said. "I think if he makes the CFL, even more (outreach) opportunities will open up for him. It would be a springboard to great things."

Sacobie said he continues to stay in touch with some of the players from Mistissini through e-mail.

He said he can't help but worry about what the future holds for the kids in northern Quebec because his memory is still fresh, haunted by the demons he chased as a youth.

Sacobie said he hopes the trust he built and the advice he shared with his adopted tribe creates a foundation that will help aboriginal youth in the region make the right choices.

"You're measured on how you react to adversity," he said. "It's up to you to decide whether to react positively or negatively."

Below: 1998 Northside Posse-Josh Sacobie #80 in back row, far left