To say that football in Sudbury had humble beginnings would be an understatement.
The first football game in Northern Ontario was played in Sudbury in 1921. By 1924, football was incorporated into the high school physical education curriculum making it a mainstay in local varsity sports. In time, those passionate about the sport took it to the next level, inter-city senior football. The first tentative step towards senior football was taken in 1929 when a team called the Sudbury Orphan hosted and defeated a team from rival North Bay.
By 1934, the Sudbury Canoe Club sponsored a local football team and helped establish the Northern Ontario Rugby Football Union (NORFU) consisting of teams from Sudbury and North Bay with an affiliation to the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU). The following year, Sudbury won the NORFU title and played against Camp Bordan for the provincial title losing by three points. When North Bay did not field a team in 1936, NORFU and senior football in Sudbury faded.
Sixteen years later, a new local senior team was born in the form of the Sudbury Hardrocks. The team’s opening campaign was modest by any measure - two exhibition games against the only other northern team prepared to play senior football at the time, New Liskeard. By 1954, the Hardrocks were joined by North Bay, the Tri-Towns, and Kirkland Lake in a revived NORFU.
On Labour Day 1954, the first NORFU football game of the modern era was held at Queen's Athletic Field in front of 3,000 fans. North Bay won the encounter with Sudbury by two points. The Hardrocks went undefeated the rest of season winning the inaugural league championship and the Donald Plaunt Memorial Trophy donated by local businessman W.B. Plaunt to commemorate a brother killed in World War II.
The following year, NORFU rejoined the ORFU and competed for the first time provincially against the Port Colborne Lakers. While the Sudbury Hardrocks lost, NORFU took pride in the fact that senior football had begun to flourish in the North. Throughout the late 1950's and the 1960's, amateur senior football thrived in the North. Local players stocked teams. Local club executives worked tirelessly to build teams.
A significant change took place in Sudbury in 1967 when Head Coach Sid Forster renamed the team “Spartans.” The name was new but not the will to win. After a slow start, the Spartans rallied to win the league championship against hitherto undefeated North Bay. Sudbury competed for the first time in the Canadian Amateur Football Association (CAFA) eastern semi-final against the Chateauguay Ramblers in Montreal.
In 1968, NORFU became the Northern Football Conference (NFC). The Spartans once again prevailed as champions. Sudbury made history by participating in the national championships against the Winnipeg’s St. Vital Bulldogs.
Five years later, the NFC found itself to be the last remaining senior football league in Ontario. Over the years many teams have come and gone. They include: Sturgeon Falls Bombers, Rouyn-Noranda Fantassins, North Renfrew Rams, North Bay Ti-Cats, Val D'Or Jets, Timmins Falcons, Kirkland Lake Kougars, Sault Ste. Marie Steelers, Laurentian University Voyageurs, Bramalea Satellites, Orillia Silver Bombers, Etobicoke Argonauts, Stoney Creek Patriots, North Bay Northmen, Hamilton Wildcats, Bramalea Satellites, Brampton Bears, Brampton Bulldogs, Scarborough Crimson Tide, Toronto Eagles, Peterborough Packers and Mississauga Wolverines.
League expansion into southern Ontario stirred much excitement and some trepidation among local gridiron fans. One journalist at the time predicted that Sudbury would never win another title with the arrival of southern teams. The Spartans proved him wrong over and over again.
Through it all, the Spartans set new standards in football excellence and achievement. The team won 18 league championships, a mark unrivalled by any other NFC team. Many of its players are members of the NFC Hall of Fame.
Until 2006, Sudbury was the common thread stretching back to the league’s inaugural days. That year the Spartans suspended operations due to a lack of players. But football’s roots are deep in Sudbury thanks in large measure to former Spartans players and coaches actively developing and promoting the sport at the minor, junior and high school levels. With the support of a thriving football scene, the club has returned to the NFC with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and the determination to build on its glorious past.
Much like a broken field run, football in the region has had its share of stops and starts and stutters and shakes. Each and every step, however, has laid the foundation for the flourishing sport that football has become in Sudbury.
- Frank Pagnucco