How this Hamilton student from school with no football field got a football scholarship

·4 min read
Elijah Sinclair, 19, is a student at Bernie Custis Secondary School in Hamilton. He's the first at the school to get a scholarship. (Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC - image credit)
Elijah Sinclair, 19, is a student at Bernie Custis Secondary School in Hamilton. He's the first at the school to get a scholarship. (Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC - image credit)

Throughout his 19 years, football has been a constant for Hamilton student Elijah Sinclair.

"I can't remember a time when I wasn't throwing around a football out front with my friends or something," he said.

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Sinclair is now the first student in his east end high school, Bernie Custis Secondary School, to be recruited to a post-secondary football team and get a scholarship.

It's an accomplishment he reached despite the fact his school doesn't have a football field, he notes.

Sinclair starts playing with the University of Toronto's team in August. Getting to this point didn't come easy — he said he's had to work twice as hard as kids in other schools to get recruited.

Sinclair wants to use the opportunity to shine a light on what he says is a class divide between inner-city schools and "more wealthy schools" in the city.

School lacking proper sports infrastructure

Bernie Custis opened in 2019, right across from Tim Hortons Field, where the Hamilton Tiger-Cats play.

The school doesn't have a full yard for students. Instead, there's a grassy area with berms (small hills on otherwise flat terrain) between the school and an adjacent community centre, the Bernie Morelli Recreation Centre.

On the day CBC Hamilton visited in late April, the yard was littered with plastic wraps, bags, glass and other garbage. Sinclair said he and other students have gotten cuts and other injuries from glass and needles on the field.

Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC
Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC

Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann said when she first became councillor in 2018, one of her first questions was about the school's yard.

The original plan was to have a roof-top recreation facility with green space, but it wasn't approved by the provincial Ministry of Education, she said.

"Once students were back in post pandemic, it became stark clear that the amount of amenity space that the school sports team needed weren't sufficient," she said.

Nann said the school has 400 allocated hours to use Tim Hortons Field. Sinclair said that translates to use of the stadium one or twice a week — but it's not enough, he said. Sinclair said some of his coaches have sometimes paid out of pocket to rent the field to get more time in.

As for the school yard, Nann said she's working to have the berms removed and is working with the school for a new landscaping design, which could be implemented this year.

She also mentioned the development of nearby Brightside Park, which will include "a large field that can accommodate both soccer and football" and is set to start construction by 2025.

"It's a challenge of timing and staging of infrastructure. And that's having an inequitable impact on the students at Bernie Custis school. I totally see that and acknowledge it," she said.

'Deeper than football'

Sinclair's concerns don't only relate to the school's sports infrastructure. He said many kids around him are already struggling outside of school, and he says a lack of school funding is discouraging kids from engaging with their education.

"This problem runs deeper than football," he said.

"The city and school board needs to show that they care about us and that we matter, that our goals and interests are just as valid and important as those of the youth at Ancaster or Westmount."

Shawn McKillop, manager of communications at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, told CBC Hamilton in an email that Bernie Custis is "among our most supported schools."

"Staff continue to work with City of Hamilton staff to optimize the field access. The partnership is highly valued and solutions to concerns are supported by the facilities manager at the city and school staff," he said.

Headed to Toronto this summer

Sinclair said he saw the gaps between his school and others when putting together highlight reels and writing letters to universities.

"One of the schools we face [in football games] has a drone that flies above each game, and the players get the footage so they can put it in their highlight reel … and me, I just had to sit on my computer for hours learning to edit [my highlight reel]," he said.

Sinclair said he wrote "a couple hundred letters" to university coaches.

He was excited when he received an invite to the Steel City Bowl, which sees the best players from the local public and Catholic school boards compete.

"I trained super hard preparing for it," he said.

Submitted by Elijah Sinclair
Submitted by Elijah Sinclair

"I did great, and so the University of Toronto, Greg Marshall, their head coach noticed me, and he decided that they wanted to recruit me."

Sinclair starts playing with the university in August, where he will also take social sciences in preparation for a law career, which he chose to "actually make a change."

His goal is to play in the Canadian Football League and continue to enjoy the sport he loves so much.

"Having the ball in your hands, running with it, feeling the fear of people running behind you, after you … everything about it just really speaks to me," he said.