Former CFL player pays it forward through coaching and mentoring youth
Karim Grant's non-profit organization Make It Happen provides mentorship, counselling and training opportunities.
Friday, December 22, 2023
Former CFL player Karim Grant coaches and mentors young people from underprivileged communities across the GTA.
Giovanni Capriotti / Special to the Star
For former CFL player Karim Grant, the seed to get involved in community transformation was planted at an early age.
When he was 15, his uncle got him a part-time job at the playgrounds in Regent Park, a public housing neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Grant witnessed a lot of crack cocaine use among young people. Shootings and robberies were rampant.
Grant didn't like what he was seeing, and made a silent commitment to be better and set an example for others.
“I knew that my surroundings didn’t really (have to) dictate who I was,” Grant said. “I was able to see life differently and understand that not everybody has it as easy as other people. I wanted to be able to rise above the things I was seeing and be there for those who didn’t have anyone to look up to.”
Part of that drive was a product of Grant’s upbringing. Growing up in a single-parent home in North York and later Scarborough, he saw how his mother struggled to keep the household in order. In school, he fell in love with sports — first soccer, then basketball and football.
After earning a partial scholarship to play football at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., Grant was selected in the second round of the 2001 CFL draft by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He played two seasons with them and one with the Montreal Alouettes.
But he felt sports was just a vehicle to his true calling: helping young people — many of them high school or college dropouts — in underprivileged communities across the GTA strive for a better life. For nearly two decades, he has dedicated time as a volunteer basketball and football coach. A number of kids under his tutelage have gone on to study and play in Canada and the U.S. on scholarships. Grant calls the knowledge he passes along “a cheat code.”
“Imagine if I can show somebody how they can win at life without having to go through the hardships and pitfalls that other people may have gone through, the success they can achieve by following certain paths,” he said.
One of his motivations was the birth of son Kaion Julien-Grant, when Grant was 20 and just finishing high school. He would write “Play like Kaion is watching” on his wrist before every game.
“His birth meant that I had something to live for, a legacy that I had to fulfil. He’s also the reason why I left the game early as I wanted to make sure I was there for him in every aspect of his development,” Grant said of his son, who has played with the Montreal Alouettes for the last four seasons.
“That’s how I became a coach as I loved to be able to change children’s lives at a very formative part of their lives, so that they can see where they want to go. Sports is not the answer, it’s just a vessel they can use to achieve success.”