uOttawa Gee-Gees football with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013
By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
Wednesday morning, the reality of our entire country changed. Pictures emanating from TV screens hardly seemed real. Not within our borders. This new, harsh reality will be felt in every facet of our fabric. Our interuniversity sports are not exempt.
At times like this, we have more questions than answers. Should we be scared? Angry? Disenfranchised? Is there any way to make sense of a senseless tragedy? With the CIS headquarters on the University of Ottawa campus not far from where Wednesday’s chaos ensued, I wondered about the safety of colleagues at the league office and wondered how the CIS world might now change.
One thing I know is that the way we talk about athletes, and in my case CIS athletes, has to change. The descriptors we so often use are now so clearly inept. I love the fact that the Saskatchewan Huskies support the troops and raise money for them and I believe more coaches should be like Guelph’s Stu Lang and engage their university by having camouflage jerseys as a way to honour our armed forces. Yet as I streamed CIS contests on the weekend, I heard so many commentators refer to CIS football players as “soldiers”. That, they are not. They are not waging war. Defences are not “fortresses”. Receiving groups are not “platoons”. The player of the game isn’t suddenly a hero. Cpl., Nathan Cirillo, 24, of Hamilton’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was a soldier. Kevin Vickers, the House of Commons’ Sergeant-at-Arms and a 29-year RCMP veteran, the man who shot the gunman within Parliament – he is a hero.
This isn’t meant to lay blame at the feet of the many commentators who lend their time, energy and voices to amplify our game. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. My segment of hits from the sidelines when I was a reporter on CIS telecasts at The Score was branded “in the trenches with DJ Bennett,” when it’s clear that breaking down strategy and injury news from field level is not at all being “in the trenches.”
Parliament Hill is known to symbolize an open, accessible, approachable government that parallels the democracy we wear so proudly. I’ve done interviews in this space with former Hec Crighton Trophy winner and current Calgary Stampeder Brad Sinopoli – the Parliament’s towers acting as our backdrop. Gee-Gees players would routinely go and throw the football around on the green space surrounding Parliament, something their Ravens counterparts could do if they wanted to make the trek across the city. Attending school a short walk away from the most prestigious block of buildings in our country was always seen as a draw in recruiting for the Gee-Gees. That perception may have quickly changed given this new reality.
That accessibility trickled down to the leader of the nation. The Prime Minister was liberally walking around the stands with fans when he attended the inaugural game at Gee-Gees Field last year. The Prime Minister not only addressed the team in the locker room, he stuck around and watched the game in its entirety from the stands.
His attendance reinforced the fact that football in the nation’s capital is back. Its reemergence includes the reintroduction of a CFL franchise, the Redblacks, and revitalization of TD Place. It was the scene of arguably the most thrilling Canadian football game this year — the Panda Game — a match that showcased the best the Gee-Gees and rebranded Ravens had to offer. In fact, both teams have the chance to make it into the playoffs with a win in their respective final home games this weekend.
Which brings us back to the residual effects of this tragedy. How do you rationalize getting ready for a football game that suddenly seems so inconsequential?
In times like these the counsel of a football team is more important than the competition. The bulk of the Ravens’ football program is not yet 20 years old, so yesterday head coach Steve Sumarah played the role of substitute father, instructing his team “to come together at this time as teammates and appreciate the experience [they] are privileged to be going through together as brothers and to find peace in the sanctuary of the locker room and within the team.” Gee-Gees’ head coach Jamie Barresi addressed his young team at the end of practice, asking them to “gather together and take a moment to remember the young man who was killed.” He told them to “use the moment in their own little way, whether that was religious or not, to think about that sacrifice.” It was a practice that ended after 10:30 pm as their normal daily itinerary was delayed by the lockdown that wasn’t lifted on campus until 4 pm.
The football program wasn’t the only team impacted, as Ottawa’s men’s basketball coach James Derouin had his on-court session broken up and was then locked in his office as precautionary measures were put in place to keep everyone on campus safe.
Can you get emotionally psyched up to play for your playoff lives when psychologically you’re considering a life that was lost? The phrase “do-or-die” just doesn’t seem fitting.
The visitors are surely feeling the same awkwardness about the weekend’s games in Ottawa. I’m not sure how the McMaster contingent will feel about getting on a bus Friday and playing in a football game that means nothing to them as far as playoff standings. I wonder if they’d rather be in Hamilton, the hometown of Nathan Cirillo. I wonder if their contingent of fans will feel like making the trip to Ottawa under the circumstances. Similarly, it would be understandable if Queen’s, which has a strong military presence in town in Kingston, felt indifferent towards proceeding to the nation’s capital to face the Ravens.
There’s no doubt people will urge the players to carry on. In the immediate coverage I heard plenty of newscasters utter phrases about “not letting terrorists win”, which I never understood because I don’t think anyone “wins” in a situation like this. Playing on Saturday doesn’t mean it’s business as usual. It’s an attempt to return to normalcy.
Sports often return to cities affected by tragedy long before reality does, but when the Redblacks and Senators return to play I suspect it won’t feel the same for those in attendance as the dual OUA games in Ottawa Saturday. We can’t relate to millionaire NHL players or, to a lesser extent, CFL players, half of whom are only in Canada for a short time. But we can relate to Nathan Cirillo – any one of the players in Saturday’s games could have been him. The seniors possibly playing their last CIS game will most likely be the same age as him.
CIS sports might just be the perfect anecdote after our nation’s tragedy. A university team is one of the few things that represent an entire city and each of its citizens regardless of race, age, gender, political views or socioeconomic status.
The Canadian national anthem will hold that much more significance on Saturday. The Ottawa and Carleton anthem singers will be Regy de la Cruz-Abraham and Ariel Norman respectively -both students who sing the majority of the team’s home anthems. I hope all in attendance, including the players, sing that anthem loudly and take seriously the accompanying moment of silence.
What those players can do is go out and play the game of their lives. Lives that are free and able to pursue an education due to the sacrifices of soldiers from generations gone by – soldiers that went to Ottawa and Carleton and institutions all over this country. There are gaps in the CIS’ championship records because men their age went to war to protect the freedom they now enjoy. The enrollment wasn’t voluntary. The sacrifice isn’t quantifiable.
One of the best memories I have as a CIS athlete is playing deep enough into November to play on Remembrance Day – hearing the bugle play in conjunction with a moment of silence and wearing a commemorative crest. It puts into perspective words like sacrifice and dedication. Words that we in football ascribe to lifting weights and watching film. Words that we put up in locker rooms and meeting rooms. Words that we in the football world need to strongly reconsider.
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett