Almost from the day he was born, Jim Monico’s destiny was bound to include a brown pigskin football, a whistle in his mouth and an unyielding love for family and friends.
He really had no choice in the matter. Born to one of Sault Ste. Marie’s most legendary football coaches, Len Monico, Jim learned at an early age what ‘first-and-10’ meant and he’s spent the better part of the last 31 years teaching other kids in this city the ins and outs of the game of football.
Not only is he the president of the Sault Minor Football League, but Monico is also the head coach of the St. Mary’s Knights senior boys football squad and the head coach of the Sault Sabercats junior varsity team.
That’s a lot of hours spent on the gridiron, but if you talk to Monico long enough, you learn rather quickly that there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. The sport has been a part of his life since the day he was born and despite the current workload and enormous time commitment, Monico would have it no other way.
“I grew up a football kid,” said Monico, who was a bruising fullback during his high school days with the St. Mary’s Knights, where he also played a bit of tight end and linebacker. “My dad used to bring me to (Sault Steelers) practice with him so I’ve been around the sport ever since I was a baby. When I was three or four years old, we’d watch football together on TV so it’s been a huge part of our family.”
To those that don’t know him, Monico comes across as shy and quiet, but he has a unique sense of humour and there’s no questioning where his heart is. His involvement in the SMFL is a perfect illustration of how important it is to him to develop kids at a young age. Instead of relaxing and soaking up the rays, Monico’s summers are spent coaching the Sabercats and making sure the younger generation enjoys their experiences with the Sault minor program.
“I think my favourite thing about football is that it really is a sport for everyone,” Monico said. “There’s a place on the field for all kinds of athletes. If you’re a bigger kid, you can play on the line. If you’re a smart player, there’s a certain spot for you and if you’re fast, there’s a different position for you.
“It really is all inclusive and to me it’s the ultimate team sport. Everybody has to do their job. One guy can’t just win the game for you. It’s a team game and everyone has to pitch in.”
While he has spent so much time working with other parents’ kids, Monico has also been heavily involved with his own. His son, Dylan, 18, was a dominant lineman on the Knights roster last year and won the lineman of the year award. His daughter, Mackenzie, 21, was a talented wrestler in high school and at Lakehead University before switching over to Algoma University, where she played soccer. She also played hockey for the lady Cougars at Sault College.
While 52 and mature enough to understand that he doesn’t know it all, Monico prides himself on bringing in younger coaches and letting them do their job. He delegates roles, but, at crucial times will pull rank and still make some of those critical game decisions. What makes him so well liked and so effective is his ability to put his ego aside and build up those around him. He was also sure to point to the role Trevor Zachary and Ryan Lillington played in the formation and success of the SMFL.
“I just love the game,” he said. “As I get older, I’m not as intense as I once was. I like to have good people around me to coach and I let them do more and more. I’m more of an overseer now. The young guys keep the game fresh and the guys I coach with are all excellent coaches.”
But at the end of the day, Monico talks about the kids. He said they are the fuel that keeps him going. He loves the interaction and the life lessons the sport teaches. He also gets great satisfaction knowing that maybe he played a minor role in a kid’s development.
“I’ve coached so many great guys over the years and it’s so fulfilling to see some of them grow up and become tremendous individuals,” Monico said. “You see them around town and it makes you feel good to know that maybe you contributed a little bit in them becoming who they are.”
Ask Monico about some of his most indelible memories and they’re not about the wins or his bruising runs as a player. They are about the gut-wrenching losses, the missed championships and the so-called second-guessing.
“You always talk about the games you lost,” he said, referring mainly to his days as the head coach of the St. Basil Saints, where he played in close to seven league championships, losing all of them. “I lost a lot of important games over the years so we often reminisce about the things we could have done differently. You reflect more on those things than anything else.”
Ask him about the role concussions have played in the game and Monico’s mood shifts to a more serious state. He understands the trepidation some parents have about letting their kids play football, but he insists the players are taught the proper form of tacking and the equipment has evolved a lot since his days.
“That’s a big fight in the football world, concussions,” he said. “It has that stigma attached to it but the technology is getting better, the equipment is refurbished all the time and the coaches are trained with the latest tackling techniques. Tom Annett helps out and really teaches them about keeping their head up and stuff like that.”
Now, with another SMFL season looming just around the corner, not to mention the Sabercats, Monico doesn’t know what the future holds in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We usually start around the long weekend in May so we’re still OK in that regard but it’s hard now to try and get the word out,” he said. “This is when we usually send stuff to the schools or we go into the schools but everyone is a little leery to sign up for stuff right now, but we still plan to go ahead.”