It’s happened very seldom in a career of more than 40 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times when I was covering an event and was struck by the thought that I didn’t want to be there—not there, as in at the event; but there, as in a press box, working as a reporter.
It happened twice on Saturday, Nov. 21, 1992.
That was the day the Queen’s Golden Gaels won the Vanier Cup.
Of the myriad memories that remain vivid of that day—of my son, working the sideline as the road-game assistant; of walking through Union Station, along the walkway to SkyDome, surrounded by Queen’s types, students and alumni in jackets at every pub, restaurant and coffee stand in sight. Surely, of the 27,000 or so people reported to be on hand that day, it seemed like about 17 were rooting for Saint Mary’s.
Memorable are the comments after the game, from coach Larry Uteck of Saint Mary’s, who, after his favoured team was defeated 31-0, conceded that everyone was right: the Gaels were better than they look, a nod to the collective play of a group of athletes who individually were smaller and slower than their opponents all year.
Queen’s coach, Doug Hargreaves, said he had never seen a team on a day where every single member played to the maximum of his ability. Bob Mullen, the defensive co-ordinator chuckled at the memory of his mentor, John Thomson, who was the DC when Mullen played in the Vanier Cup game of 1978, and Queen’s had allowed UBC to score just three points, fewest in the history of the game. After he retired, Thomson was famous for watching Vanier Cup games on TV just to the point where both teams had scored more than three points, leaving the achievement intact. “We made him watch the whole game,” Mullen said.
There were two moments in that game where the fan in me, like the devil Fred Flintstone, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ and join the crowd. The first came when a young man named Brian Alford made the play of his life.
Alford was a terrific track athlete in high school, but the schools he attended didn’t have football teams. When he got to Queen’s, he desperately wanted to play football, and he hung in with the team for four years. A quiet fellow, Alford tried so hard, and could beat defenders at will, but he had difficulty holding onto the football. Nonetheless, his heart and athleticism made it difficult to take him out of the lineup. Coaches couldn’t resist the thought that one day he would do something special.
On this day, he did.
It was early in the second quarter. Queen’s led the game 7-0, and Saint Mary’s, near midfield, shanked a punt out of bounds near the Queen’s 25-yard line. It was second-and-long and Alford took off down the sideline to the left of quarterback Tim Pendergast, who dropped back to pass.
It was a perfect throw—and Alford caught it. In full stride he caught it, barely looking up only to find the ball. Nobody in the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union was going to catch Brian Alford in full flight, and it was magical. His path to the end zone took him past the Queen’s bench, where his teammates and coaches were celebrating beyond the degree of a mere impending score, more than you’d even associate with a score in a national championship game, but to the level of those two things multiplied by the delight of watching a teammate who persevered have his moment in the sun.
At that moment, the fan of the underdog in me wanted to slip down the elevator and anonymously join the crowd, and share, however vicariously, in the thrill it was collectively experiencing.
Just before the first half was finished, Steve Yovetich returned a punt to around the Saint Mary’s 30-yard line. The clock was ticking down to halftime and the safe play was a handoff to Brad Elberg, who, unlike Alford, had had many moments in the sun that year. He took off around left end, with a Saint Mary’s defender dashing to cut him off. If two splendid athletes running to the same spot were equal in all respects, the play would have ended with a tackle five or six yards downfield, but Elberg’s will and determination on this day were the tie-breakers in this athletic saw-off, and given the elevated vantage point of the press box I could tell he was going to get to the corner first and had a clear path to the end zone after that.
I felt like I was the first person in the building to know that was going to be a touchdown, and I was dying to share it. Again, the devil Fred Flintstone popped over my shoulder: ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’ As Elberg crossed the goal line, the haloed Fred Flintstone over the other shoulder got the best of me. I sighed and took some notes.
The Queen’s football beat has long been regarded as the plum of sports assignments at the hometown newspaper, and I was not part of that in 1978. As the junior guy, I was on the trail of the Royal Military College Redmen at the time, but enough of a football guy not to say no when the offer to write what is known as a colour piece from the big game was put in front of me.
My memories of that game are more peripheral, of the big party at St. Lawrence Market on the night before the game, the Queen’s rally in Nathan Phillips Square, sitting in the stands at Varsity Stadium, where so many Canadian championships had been decided, trying in vain to crash the team’s party in the hotel that night. My role was wading among the fans after the game to get Queen’s boosters to share their thoughts of their team’s victory in what was then known as the College Bowl.
By 1983 I had migrated to the auxiliary press box at Varsity, for Queen’s game with Calgary. I was the sidekick in coverage that day, charged with doing the colour piece from the losers’ dressing room. On this day, despite a valiant second-half comeback, that turned out to be Queen’s.
I don’t remember much about the story I wrote that day, but I do remember that afternoon in the context of something that happened two years later, when I had the good fortune to be assigned to cover the Toronto Blue Jays’ first appearance in the American League baseball playoffs.
When the Blue Jays were eliminated at home in 1985, the scene in the dressing room was both predictable—subdued, sombre, even—and startling. All but a handful of players had taken refuge in the trainer’s room, which is off-limits to reporters.
I was about 30 years old at the time, still with aspirations of moving on to a bigger paper in a bigger market, and I was shocked at the thought of professional athletes not having the courage or decency to face people duly charged with telling their side of the story to the fans who ultimately pay their salaries.
My mind instantly went back to that dreary day in 1983 when the Queen’s athletes, some of them fighting back tears, many of whom knowing they would never play football again, mustered the wherewithal to talk about it with a relative stranger, collecting themselves, gathering their thoughts, in spite of bitter, abject disappointment.
I never aspired to write about "professional" sport again.
Such memories are at the heart of tradition. Every person who attended or played in any of those games has a recollection that is both deeply personal and yet powerful as part of the collective retrospection. These reminisces bind people of divergent backgrounds, walks of life and experience in a joyful moment in time.
That’s how we should celebrate Hall of Fame weekend at Queen’s this week: sharing thoughts of fabulous achievement, reflecting on a once-in-a-lifetime episode, however we were part of it—as members of the team, fans or privileged members of the fifth estate.
It should not be commemorated as Queen’s did Friday night, in an bald-faced display of greed that denigrated not only the members of those three championship teams—and the individuals who were inducted into the Queen’s Football Hall of Fame with them—but embarrassed any right-thinking person with an affiliation to the university.
Those in the Office of Advancement who oversaw a gala purportedly designed to honour these men and women made them all pay $70 for the privilege of doing so; not just the friends and family of the inductees, but the inductees themselves—and doing so at a facility with a cash bar, no less.
What was supposed to be a celebration of the tradition of Queen’s football turned into a blatant cash-grabbing fundraising event, and there wasn’t even an attempt to put a thin veil over it. As coach Pat Sheahan put it Thursday: “I believe it’s every institution’s responsibility to bring pride and honour upon itself.” He’s absolutely right, and it’s too bad the organizers of the weekend couldn’t have shared the sentiment. Instead, the pride upon which organizers drew was bought and paid for with the money of the very people the school claimed to be honouring.
And what of inducting three teams all at once? What’s the hurry? Induct one every five years, as per the custom, and make each group feel special. Or, we could ‘honour’ all of them at once, and really make the cash register sing.
It’s beyond shameful. Had the folks in advancement allowed the honoured members to be guests, and respectfully asked for a donation at some point during the weekend, it’s difficult to imagine any of these people being less than generous. At this point, one wonders if they won’t instead keep their money to buy mouthwash to rinse out the bad taste.
Queen’s used to get such things right. They named facilities for people who made important contributions to campus life; they didn’t wait with nameless buildings or gymnasia until a corporate sugar daddy could be found with a wish to affix his or her company’s brand. Rolf Lund Hall, for instance, or Athletics and Recreation Centre?
See what I mean?
No folks, Queen’s ain’t Queen’s anymore, and it’s too bad. Two of the remaining constants, however, are the dedication of its athletes, and the support of its football fans. How about letting those things come together today, rain or shine, when the people who brought us such terrific memories come back for the game.
Let’s show the inductees that at least one part of the community is still grateful for the memories they gave us, and we can appreciate their part of what Sheahan so poignantly calls the mosaic of Queen’s football without having our hands out.