Bennett’s Breakdown: Homecoming

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Wilfrid Laurier University fans - photo credit Adam Gagnon

Wilfrid Laurier University fans – photo credit Adam Gagnon

By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality

Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett

Last week marked the beginning of a run of homecomings over the next couple of weeks, all over the country.

If the season openers in CIS are analogous to New Year’s Eve and the fresh slate that it brings, and the year-end championships feel a bit like Christmas, homecoming is the equivalent of Thanksgiving – a good, wholesome time. Everyone gets together to appreciate what it is that they have and to give thanks for the experiences they have been given.

But just what homecoming looks like varies dramatically depending on what campus you’re on.

Laval has the championship belt of in-game experiences. Even the best homecomings around the country can’t compare to what the atmosphere is like – even for exhibition football – at TELUS-UL Stadium. Tailgating starts hours before the game and continues hours afterwards. Bus tours from neighbouring towns pull into Quebec City to soak in Canada’s version of Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor.

Truth be told, though, Laval’s homecoming experience isn’t significantly better than that of their other three regular season home games. When you consider the average Laval season ticket holder is fully expecting to be seated in the stands at kickoff for the Dunsmore Cup every year, a Bowl game every other year, and more often than not the Vanier Cup, a pair of homecoming tickets is not anything worth getting overly excited about. The fact that Laval’s alumni relations department has a few installations at the side of the field for homecoming doesn’t exactly move the needle. Bishop’s is not going to be any more intimidated when they are the visitors at Laval’s homecoming this year on October 19th.

I guess I change my mind. Laval isn’t the best place to watch a homecoming game. It’s the best place to watch a Canadian university football game, period.

At Western, homecoming starts with the parade down Richmond Street and ends with the parties on Richmond row, but the pinnacle is the football game. You are just as likely to see naked streakers cross the playing surface as you are to have an airplane fly over before the game announcing that it’s time to play ball.

At Guelph, it’s widely known that the two-man acoustic band “Toast and Jam” will be playing hours before the contest, whipping the fans into a frenzy. Western had the conch for best homecoming atmosphere in the country for a while but Guelph has closed the gap and is now the bucket list homecoming destination. Pre-game, Guelph football alumni partake in the “glory bowl” – they see if they still have it in a friendly game of touch football. During the real game, the majority of the student body wears signature t-shirts making fun of the opposition. Those in the front of the Alumni Stadium grandstand take part in a four-hour long dance party, while those at the back remain substantially more civilized. If you dare watch from the hill you are just as likely to see a mosh pit as you are a standing ovation.

Out west, at the University of Alberta, you’ll find some of the best tailgating in the country. You can smell the Alberta meat as you approach Foote Field. Arrive on an empty stomach as the Bears faithful are as hungry for wings as they are for wins.

Before sections of the Richardson Stadium stands were condemned, Queen’s had some of the largest student populations out at their homecoming. The halftime ritual of the engineering students beating their jackets against the grass while the band plays at Queen’s is a sight to behold. At the best of times, rickety Richardson becomes standing room only – fans peering in through the surrounding wire fence to get a glimpse of the action. Long before the Aberdeen Street riots caused Queen’s homecoming to be shut down, from 1 to 4 p.m. Kingston was virtually shut down with the entire population (it seemed) at the main event in town: the football game.

Donnovan and his grandfather at a Laurier football game

At StFX, alumni connection is woven into the school’s cultural fabric. It’s apparent every day with X grads wearing their alumni rings with the same high regard as they would a wedding band. Those alums flock back to Antigonish, N.S., for homecoming religiously. The pilgrimage is not just about the school, it’s about the entire university using Oland Stadium as a sanctuary in which to congregate. The game is of great importance but realistically it becomes the backdrop to the Maritimes’ largest networking mixer. StFX grads young and old trade hugs and handshakes, re-connecting with others who sport that sacred ring.

My Sportsnet colleague Arash Madani has boasted about his fond memories of attending Bishop’s homecomings both as a student and a grad. For a seasoned journalist who’s been to the best sporting events in the world, Wimbledon and the Olympics among them, it speaks volumes that he still cherishes his time watching football in Lennoxville, Que. Says Madani, “This much is for certain: the parking lot next the Coulter Field gets going mid-morning and EVERYONE is in purple. Very few of the cars leave the parking lot post-game. And rightfully so”.

Homecoming is also a time to recognize great players from the past. Highlighting championship teams before the opening kickoff is a respectful gesture to honour the past and inspire the future right before a big game. It’s also a moment to single out key individuals. Eric Lapointe’s number 5 jersey being retired at Mount Allison last year was not just seen internally as a reason to look up to the program’s standard bearer, it allowed the 2013 players to ask themselves, “why not me”? After that day the team turned their season around and ended up back on McAuley Field as AUS champions hosting the Uteck Bowl.

Because we border one of the most dominant countries in the free world, we often adhere to the perception that our product is secondary or inferior. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you compare our intercollegiate athletic experience with the rest of the world both in terms of level of play and level of community engagement, it’s clear that what we have is exceptional and worth taking pride in. There’s no question that we have a long way to go to maximize the CIS experience for all parties, but homecoming is an example of what CIS is, can be, and should be at its best.

CIS homecomings resonate with people, even those who weren’t raised in a distinctly football culture.

I remember when my grandparents attended the first homecoming game I played in. To hear my name announced in front of an adoring crowd was, to them, an out-of-body experience. They read and reread my bio in the program and kept multiple copies as keepsakes. The fact that over 12,000 other people were there to see something I was involved in was astounding to them. In fact, just being on a university campus was a dream come true. They were first generation Jamaican immigrants who came to Canada with a grade 4 education and no illusions of a better life for themselves. Watching their grandson compete just 40 years later at a massive homecoming football game was confirmation that they’d made a wise choice. And that football game was a way for them to assimilate into the Canadian sport community. With the amount of new Canadians continuing to soar year after year, I’m certain this experience is not unique to me or them.

Whatever your relationship to the homecoming game, enjoy it. Revel in it.

If you’re a player, remember you’ll only have so many. Good or bad, it’s going to be an experience you’ll never forget.

If you’re a returning alumnus, applaud the work of the generation coming after you. Provide counsel and advice but more than anything show support.

If you’re a student, take pride in it. Show off your campus, your university, your colours. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back, joyfully (and wistfully) re-living the memories.

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