As sporting experiences go, a weekend football camp in Ottawa couldn't have been more diverse: An ex-NFL lineman from Panama came to Ottawa to help coach a group of Cree teenagers from Northern Quebec under a dome named for a Métis leader.
Odder still, perhaps, was the message former Miami Dolphin offensive guard Alvin Powell brought to the boys from a community that has long struggled with substance abuse: "Drugs are great, and anyone who tells you anything different is ill-informed," he said, as he lay icing an old knee injury between drills.
But, drawing from the cautionary tale of addiction that nearly ended his life, he adds, "another truth is that they will devastate your life and kill you in the end."
Powell, now 49, runs the Saving Station Foundation, a non-profit group that educates young people about drugs. It's based in Montreal, the city where he says he once came to die after freebase cocaine ended his pro-football career.
Powell had chosen Montreal to spend his final days because people there had been so kind to him when, on a trip with his World League of American Football team, he got into a bar fight with former NHL enforcer Shayne Corson.
"When I got out of jail the next morning, half the city was outside waiting to thank me. I said, these Canadian people sure know how to treat a brother. I'll be back."
Powell eventually beat his substance abuse problems in Montreal and turned to helping children learn about drugs. Powell's pro-football experience makes him an inspiring figure to the teenagers who came to camp from Chisasabi, Que., near James Bay.
Powell visited the northern community earlier this year and met former Ottawa Gee-Gees football player Trevor Monaghan, who was trying to launch a football program.
Monaghan, whose mother is Cree, moved to the community after finishing school and now works as a fitness trainer. He suggested Powell come to this weekend's Ottawa Gridiron Football Camp at the Louis Riel Dome in Blackburn Hamlet.
This is the second year Monaghan has brought kids from Chisasabi. Last year, 17 came made the two-day bus ride. This year, 25 have achieved the school attendance level required to come to camp.
Monaghan is planning to start a summer six-on-six tackle program in Chisasabi, a community that doesn't yet have a dedicated football field.
The camp in Ottawa is spring training for players, whom he hopes will bring their new enthusiasm back to other teens in Chisasabi.
Under the dome, Monaghan and Powell ran them through drills along with area teen players.
Among them was Damien Spencer, a tall and quick 16-year-old, who
ran patterns and caught passes. Since last year's camp, Spencer has moved from Chisasabi to Ottawa and now plays with the Nepean Redskins.
Although organized hockey still dominates, football is starting to take hold in Chisasabi, he says.
"Whenever I hang around with my friends up north, we say, 'Let's go play football'," says Spencer. "Sometimes we like to play rough. Full tackle, with no pads."
Across the artificial turf, Curtis Bearskin was running through drills with a group of linebackers. To Bearskin, a soft-spoken 17-year-old who works as a waiter in Chisasabi, the best part of the game is hitting.
Football is a valuable tool in teaching teens to avoid drugs, says Powell. Through the game, they learn leadership and teamwork and bring these qualities back with them to their community.
"They're a group of kids who set the tone for the rest of the kids. You need that nucleus of kids that are saying no to drugs and saying sports and education is the way," Powell says.
"And all these kids are clean, which is amazing."