The South United-JFHA inter-school hockey tournament Jude Felix put together was a hit. Though his side didn’t do too well, it gathered experience from playing against stronger opponents

A hint of disappointment creeps into Jude Felix’s voice at the mention of last fortnight’s competition. Though the South United-JFHA inter-school hockey tournament he put together was a triumph in many ways, his own team had little luck. The Jude Felix Hockey Academy finished fifth of five teams, losing all of its games. “We haven’t done too well this year,” he admits. “We had a break in the academy ladder because there were a lot of drop-outs in one batch. In any case, the teams we invited were all of a high standard. I could’ve just called a bunch of lesser-known teams, won the tournament and made us look good. But that’s not what we want.”

Felix’s discontent, though, is only fleeting. This edition of the event was, by all accounts, a hit, and his side gathered experience from playing against stronger opponents. But importantly, as he understands only too well, the JFHA’s success is measured in more than just championships.

Functioning out of the compact St. Mary’s Orphanage Grounds in Cooke Town, the JFHA came into existence in 2009 when Felix, after his distinguished playing career for India (spanning two Olympic Games and two World Cups) and his coaching stints, acted on a long-cherished idea. “It had always been my dream to help underprivileged children in some way. The best thing I knew was the sport,” he says. Hockey then became an avenue for Felix and his team to offer help. “We have made them feel wanted when they have been left out otherwise. They come from difficult backgrounds and they forget everything the moment they play hockey.”

Such a coaching assignment, as Felix has realized, is not simple. “It is so different from teaching kids who don’t have to worry about anything. Every day has been a challenge here. One day a boy would say he’s lost his kit, that someone’s stolen it. It’s not something you think of. You have to handle all these problems.”

From a batch of 30 at its inception, the JFHA – a charitable trust – has grown to train close to twice that number today, its recruits all children drawn from the orphanage. “We got an opportunity to start with St. Mary’s,” Felix says. “As we get more manpower, we want to go on to other orphanages.”

Working alongside Felix have been former players P. Shanmugham, Khalid Modi, and Verghese K. John – all voluntarily. “A commercial academy may be a full-time job but everyone here is a volunteer. Not that we’re not using it as an excuse, but with full-time staff we can think of expanding.”

There has been no dearth of goodwill, though. Felix’s teammates and friends from the fraternity – Sabu Varkey, Arjun Halappa, Ashish Ballal, Bipin Fernandez, Len Aiyappa and the current international S.V. Sunil – have all been of support. “They all chip in from time to time,” Felix says. “We had an exhibition match last month and Arjun and Sunil readily agreed to come and play. Tushar (Khandekar) has donated more than 60 sticks – all of the best quality. The manufacturer of the stick I used to play with has given us over 200 pairs of shoes. The biggest motivating factor in all this is that people have realized what we’re doing. They don’t charge us anything.”

For all the emphasis on all-round development, hockey is still the primary business here. One player has broken into the Karnataka Sub-junior team while two more have entered the SAI academy. The JFHA team, despite the recent setback, features in the State ‘C’ division league and nurses hopes of rising up.

Improvement will only come, Felix feels, with more time playing on synthetic turf rather than the uneven mud pitch that exists. Access to an artificial surface, though, is not easy. “We’re not in a country like Holland where you have 1500 turfs around and every kid gets to play,” he says. “There will be nothing like the day when we have our own surface here, but for now we hope to train at the KSHA Stadium. It’s difficult with it being the only one in the city but I’ve asked the DYSS for a slot.” Irrespective of whether any of that comes to fruition, Felix is pleased he is doing what he set out to do. “It has been really satisfying to see a smile on these faces,” he says. “Knowing what’s happening with hockey in India, this is always nice.”