Sunday, November 29, 2009
Bleeding Tricolour: The Gaels are Golden
Christmas came four weeks early.
No Queen's football team has ever sealed the deal like these guys. A team should not keep winning close ones week after week, but the Queen's Golden Gaels, my Queen's Golden Gaels, did it this fall. On Saturday, quarterback Dan Brannagan, the darting Marty Gordon, D-line dynamos Shomari Williams and Osie Ukwuoma and Jim-my All-in! finished the job in the same fantastic manner they did all season. They ran off 26 consecutive points in the second half, including two fourth-quarter touchdown drives going against a stiff wind, to beat the Calgary Dinos 33-31 for the Vanier Cup. It was friggin' storybook, all in front of 18,628 fans at Université Laval who, even if they begrudged Queen's knocking out their beloveds the week before, have to admit the Big Yellow Guys could play.
The reaction just kept unfurling. It started to build once Queen's went ahead for good and blew wide-open after the final gun, when anyone standing on the field heard this roar and thumping of feet as several hundred students and the band storming the field.
Canada's university football championship might not even be a blip on your sports radar screen. For 20 years, the Golden Gaels have been the magnet and, well, I am steel. Following them explains me like cheering for the TCU Horned Frogs explains Dan Jenkins.
Queen's football is a part of sport whose story is often untold or only treated superficially in Canada. People seldom fully understand how driven most CIS athletes are. They think the only driven athletes are in the pros. University athletes in Canada care as much and work as hard as the most gifted and talented sportspeople. They also embody that quality of only being tough in the face of a tough job. Other university teams reflect this, but I found the Gaels first.
No Queen's team has ever had a tougher job than Pat Sheahan's charges. All Brannagan and the boys had to do was take out three teams whose quarterback was a finalist for the Hec Crighton Trophy (Canada's Heisman). Two weeks ago, they beat Michael Faulds and the Western Mustangs by four in the Yates Cup. Next they upset Laval, the New York Yankees of CIS football, and Benoit Groulx by three in the semifinal and then, finally, beat Calgary and Erik Glavic by two on Saturday.
It seems so straightforward ... now. It was come-in-off-the-ledge by times, especially Saturday. Queen's, every coach and player, might have never betrayed a moment of self-doubt when they were winning all those white-knucklers (six wins this season by four points or less). When you're a spectator, stuck with going on the stats and cursed with a fatalistic streak, you start to fret like the worst helicopter parent. Everyone was fully aware of the demons of the past two seasons, when the Gaels were the OUA's most successful also-rans. Both seasons they put up solid regular seasons and lost at home in the first playoff game. Defenders could point to their .627 overall winning percentage since 2001 knowing full well the inevitable retort, what about championships? Queen's had not raised a conference championship trophy since 1992, also the last year they won the Vanier Cup.
Put another way, we fans were hankering for some eff-you cred. It's like being the pre-2004 Red Sox and having to put up with Yankees fan. Beating Western and Laval, stealing their swagger, filled in most of the void.
Then Calgary shot out to a 25-7 lead by virtue of playing the entire second quarter in Queen's zone. Perhaps the magic had worn off. The sellout crowd seemed to have adopted the Dinos and the breaks were going against Queen's (for instance, an 87-yard kickoff return by Jim-my All-in was brought all the way back to the 5-yard line by a penalty). For pity's sake, Brannagan's best play in that second frame might have come when he dragged down 320-pound bullhunkus Linden Gaydosh as he rumbled downfield with the ball after intercepting a tipped pass. No team had ever come back to win in a Vanier Cup after trailing by more than 15 points through 30 minutes.
Well, there had to be a first time. Brannagan arced a 60-yard touchdown pass to Devan Sheahan just 1:08 into the third quarter to put Queen's back in business, and for the most part it all flowed like water across smooth rocks. Not all at once, mind you. Calgary is too big and fast for that, even if it had a harder time keeping its composure than Frank The Tank in Old School.
The Dinos, God love 'em, started to make tiny mistakes. Their kick returner slipped down fielding a kickoff to pin his deep inside its own 15-yard line. They burned their last timeout barely five minutes into the second half. Two Dinos scoring opportunities went sliding down the river in the third, first a blocked field goal and then an end-zone interception by Glavic, who tried to challenge the wind and Queen's safety Matt Vickers and lost on each count.
Pat Sheahan, across this stretch drive, has left nothing to chance. Against Western in October, he called a timeout with 90 seconds left and the Mustangs trying to use up as much time as possible before scoring the winning points. Western's Nathan Riva went over for a go-ahead TD on the next play and Brannagan was left with enough time to author an 84-yard victory drive for a 27-26 win. In the Western and Laval playoff games, they were able to get in range for Dan Village to kick field goals on the last play of the first half, which loomed large.
This is probably too much attention to give to a minor coaching move. Regardless, when Sheahan used a timeout so Calgary would have to punt into the wind at the end of the third quarter (instead of getting to punt with it at their kicker's back to start the fourth), then it became clear Queen's would find a way to win.
Sure enough, they used the short field for a quick, 51-yard drive, with Brannagan getting away from the hot hot heat of Calgary's Geoff Paiement to throw a 17-yard TD to fifth-year senior Scott Valberg, one of the Kingston-born Gaels who is just old enough to remember watching that 1992 Vanier Cup game. Now up 26-25, Ukwuoma sacked Glavic after Calgary had driven to midfield to bring up a punt and Brannagan went right back to work: In five plays and 74 yards, they drove for another score, with one graduate of a Kingston high school program, Marty Gordon (La Salle), running off the flank of another, right tackle Derek Morris (Napanee District, oh the irony) for the 15-yard TD and an eight-point lead, 33-25, with a little more than eight minutes left.
Remarkably, after completing just 11-of-26 passes despite having the wind in two of the first three quarters, Brannagan ended up 6-of-7 passing going against it in the fourth (two long gainers to Blaise Morrison and Chris Ioannides set up the Gordon TD run, plus Valberg had a sideline catch with two minutes to play to help ice the game). That stat really serves to indicate how these Gaels bucked the odds. No wonder Pat Sheahan felt so assured in calling all those third-down gambles.
There was more. There is always more. Calgary came back with a touchdown and missed a game-tying two-point convert attempt, then Queen's defence came up with a fumble recovery with 3:01 remaining before it ran out the clock (when Calgary could have sorely used a timeout). Even as the clock wound to less than two minutes with Calgary unable to stop it and Gordon grinding out a vital first down, there was still an is-this-happening vibe, until the final gun sounded.
Football at Queen's always has this out-of-timeness about it. Richardson Stadium does not stand on its original on-campus site. Students have so many demands on their time and so many entertainment options, so campus life can't always revolve around The Game like it did in the days of Ronnie Stewart or Heino Lilles. Which is fine. The true believer — and maybe you have to have an old soul, too — can see the Gaels run out in those gold uniforms to the accompaniment of pipers and drummers and think, this is just how it was, in 1949, '69, '79 or '89, and this how it will always be.
The rub is that when a team goes nigh on two decades without winning, you start to worry if you're starting to veer into Mr. Delusional Irrational Notre Dame Football Fan territory ("you brag of championships won 20 years before you were born."). You wonder if you're living in the past. That feeling is gone, along with 17 years of personal angst mixed up in the fortunes of a football team.
It belongs to it first, foremost and forever, the players and the coaching staff who got the better of Calgary's Blake Nill, Laval's Glen Constantin and Western's Greg Marshall, the three best-known coaches in CIS football. Everyone else can share it, especially all those alumni who were wearing those gold letter jackets, symbolic of the time they put in as undergrads before getting on with the business of life. It was pretty sweet to see them on the field shaking hands, the '92 guys such as Mike Boone; Bob Wright, the Kingstonian who quarterbacked the '83 team to a Vanier berth; the late '90s players such as Andy Miners and Barrett Preuter.
Thanks to this team, Queen's present is fused to its past, which has been pretty damn glorious.
So, it was worth catching a 2:30 a.m. bus from Ottawa and getting to Ste-Foy, Que., on a nominal amount of sleep to liveblog at cisblog.ca, with help from Red Bull, Andrew, Rob, Mike and Greg and many, many others. Like a friend said on MSN, "you're not gonna ever forget that you went and the effort you made to get there."
More like never forget the Gaels' effort. They weren't perfect, yet the moment was. That is about a good a gift as you can get as a sports fan.
(Photo by Greg Black, Queen's University)
The final seconds vs. Laval. My brother Shawn is somewhere out on that field:
And the Oil Thigh following the game-winning touchdown vs. Western.
Queen's wins the 2009 Vanier Cup (Salt Water Music)
Exorcising the ghost of Chris Napoli (Stuff and Nonsense)