High school football team honours slain player after 'memorable and historic' championship win

The St. John's Tigers ended a 38-year championship drought and then capped it off with an emotional tribute to a former player.

Team lays down jersey of former quarterback Jordan Thomas for championship photo

A player from the Elmwood Giants, in green, walks past the pack of St. John’s Tigers as they hoist their championship trophy. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The St. John's Tigers ended a 38-year championship drought and then capped it off with an emotional tribute to a former player.

The high school football team from Winnipeg's North End edged the Elmwood Giants 13-10 on a snowy Investors Group Field on Thursday evening to claim their first city title since 1980.

"It's still a little surreal. I don't know what a championship is supposed to feel like," said head coach Grant McMillan.

"It was definitely a memorable and historic moment. I think the excitement in the school and the community is going to be pretty overwhelming."

The victory was both payback and closure.

Jordan Thomas, who played on St. John's High School's rugby and basketball teams and was a star quarterback for the football team in 2016, was considered a leader in the community with a bright future. (Facebook)

The Giants and Tigers both finished the regular season with identical 6-1 records, with the Tigers' only loss coming at the hands of Elmwood.

The closure part came soon after Thursday's big win.

As the team posed for a photo with the championship banner, McMillan laid down — front and centre — the No. 7 jersey of former quarterback Jordan Thomas.

Thomas took the Tigers to their last championship game just two years ago, but the team fell short against the Kildonan East Rivers in a 35-32 final.

The 18-year-old was murdered the following year, stabbed to death in a North End schoolyard while walking with his brother.

"This was the first season without him in our presence, so we thought it was very important to see his memory was part of this journey that we had been on," said McMillan, pausing at times to swallow tears.

"For Jordan, football was the most important thing in his life. When he was buried, he was buried in a St. John's Tigers jersey."

The jersey also represented all the players that came before the current championship squad, McMillan said.

"At 38 years [of a title drought], a lot of players have put in a lot of time, a lot of hours, a lot of energy. Every St. John's football player that's ever walked that field, for us, was part of this celebration," he said.

But Thomas was the presence that loomed largest.

"His family was there last night and supported the team the entire way. It was very emotional," McMillan said, noting the team held a remembrance for Thomas earlier in the season on St. John's home field.

"This game was bigger than us."

Team lays down jersey of former quarterback Jordan Thomas for championship photo. 2:56

Thomas, who also played on the school's rugby and basketball teams, was considered a leader in the community with a bright future.

"He was a tremendous individual," McMillan said.

A 17-year-old was sentenced to seven years in prison for second-degree murder in Thomas's death and three years for the attempted murder of 21-year-old Brandon Thomas, who was also stabbed that night.

Players from the Elmwood Giants and St. John’s Tigers shake hands at centre field after the Winnipeg High School Football League's Division 3 championship. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

McMillan hopes the championship shines a positive light on a community that often gets too much negative attention.

"Are there problems? Is there crime? Yeah, but I've spent 19 years teaching in the North End, at William Whyte, R.B. Russell and St. John's, and the people are just phenomenal. The negativity often masks how many exceptional people do exist," he said.

"The students that I work with, I'm inspired daily by what they do and who they are."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson

Watch highlights from 1980's St. John's victory:

Highlights of the last time the St. John's Tigers won the city championship, back in 1980. 0:31

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca