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Learning football by the glow of a TV screen

September 6, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

It’s not uncommon for newcomers in a foreign land to turn to television to acclimate to the language of their new home. That’s what Yann Dika-Bilotoken did in July, 2007, when his family arrived in Toronto from France.

Naturally, the 14-year-old Yann, eager to fit in at his new high school, sought cultural programming that would allow him to be one of the boys when he got there.

“I had all August to spend time discovering the country and figuring out things that were going on,” he said.

CBC? MuchMusic? TVO?

“I was watching a lot (of) the NFL Network,” he said.

Evidently, North American-style football was something he’d heard stories about back home, and he was anxious to learn more about it.

“I did not know football at all,” he said.

Seems this newly transplanted Don Mills francophone was seeking a challenge.

“I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t understand it, but I committed myself to understand the sport,” he said. “Once I understood it I realized that this is going to be fun.”

It seldom will be as much fun as it was for Dika-Balotoken last Monday, when he not only intercepted two passes, but returned them both for touchdowns of 99 and 70 yards, a pair of scores that proved vital for the Queen’s Golden Gaels in their 31-24 win over the McMaster Marauders.

It was an unlikely outcome for an eager neophyte who arrived at high school that September only to learn it did not have a football team. The setback didn’t deter him from seeking the opportunity to play, however. Anybody who could decipher nickelbacks, touchbacks and tailbacks from TV commentators two languages removed — English, then jargonese — was not about to be discouraged that easily.

“Going to a school that didn’t have football, we talked about it a lot,” Dika-Balotoken recalled. “We were complaining, actually, about the fact that we didn’t have a football team.

“I said, ‘You guys know anywhere we can play?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we play for a private club. Come along with us in February and we’ll show you and you can get started if you’re interested.’ I went with them, tagged along, got started and never looked back.”

That club was the Toronto Thunder of the Ontario Varsity Football League.

“I really enjoyed the sport, the team spirit, the way things are done, the strategy,” Dika-Balotoken said. “I had fun out there.”

Dika-Balotoken chose Queen’s over recruiting overtures from Toronto and York, largely, he said, because of the impression made on him by the coaches.

“(They) seemed to be the most sincere, in terms of my role during my first couple of years,” he said, “that I probably wouldn’t start because first-years don’t usually start, that I would have a minimal role at the start of my career. I really liked the fact that they were straightforward about it.”

True to their word, Dika-Balotoken didn’t play a lot but in his rookie season, he did intercept a pass late in a game against York and — surprise, surprise — he returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s three intercollegiate interceptions, all returned for TDs, for a total of 219 yards.

Top that, NFL Network.

Dika-Balotoken has found a home at the corner of the Queen’s defence this year, and he hopes to be that comfortable, as well, in the classroom. He said Thursday his first two years of kinesiology study “were a little rough.”

“I’m guessing it’s what most college students go through, getting to know yourself, how you work, how you study,” he said. “It was kind of a discovery stage so my grades took a hit but I’m hoping I’ve learned how I am and I’ve got it right about myself.

“I’m looking forward to this year because academically I should be able to upgrade my grades a little bit.”

Did a relative newcomer ever consider abandoning his sport in the name of creating more time to study? Turns out, that was perhaps the most interesting revelation of all.

“Actually, my grades didn’t get better when football stopped,” Dika-Balotoken said. “If my grades were to improve every time football season ended, maybe that would have come into question but I realized that I had a better schedule throughout my day when football was on. I knew my time was limited so I made sure that every minute was very efficient.

“Football didn’t affect my academic results, so it was just about me, being able to study, being able to sit down and get my academic work done, and I should be able to do that this year.”

It’s actually a fairly common phenomenon with varsity athletes of all stripes that time management slides when it is no longer required.

“When football’s not on, it’s almost like there’s too much time on your hands and you just end up doing not as much,” Dika-Balotoken confirmed. “The efficiency is maybe 20 per cent, rather than being 80 per cent when you’re in season.”

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