Sandy Campbell was stunned.
It was October 1977, and her husband, a PhD candidate at Carleton University, had taken her to Ravens Field in Ottawa to see the Carleton football team face his alma mater. Though he preferred basketball to football, Duncan McDowall developed an affinity for the gridiron game during his undergraduate days at Queen’s. He’d jumped at the chance to see the powerful Golden Gaels in action.
McDowall and his wife sat among 25 or so spectators on the Carleton side of the stadium, watching the team stumble to a
Still, the lopsided loss was secondary that day. Ravens Field had transformed from its titular purpose to the furthest thing from home-field advantage.
“The Queen’s side was packed,” said McDowall, ArtSci ’72, recalling the busloads of students and faculty that had arrived en masse from Kingston. “My wife, who didn’t go to Queen’s, couldn’t believe this. She said, ‘what’s going on here? This isn’t much of a football game, yet these people are going mad on the other side.’”
Though he didn’t become Queen’s official Historian until 2011 – a position he holds today – McDowall’s reply showed an essential grasp of the school’s fixation on football.
“This is the Queen’s tradition,” he said.
One of a few key traditions, at least, for the Carleton game was a microcosm of Queen’s biggest ritual: the annual convergence of players, students and alumni at Richardson Stadium, toasting the latter’s return to campus and its natural intersection with
“I didn’t say this at the time,” McDowall said, “but it’s the same thing you would see at a reunion weekend – the same kind of exuberant behavior.”
After a four-year hiatus, Homecoming will officially return to Queen’s this weekend. For a school that derives so much pride from its history, it’s a reconciliation of an illustrious past and an inconvenient present. Until now, an entire student body has never experienced Queen’s most significant piece of history – while the class of 2013 missed it entirely.
History begets tradition, nostalgia and, inevitably, reunion. Homecoming has existed at Queen’s in some form since 1926, organized to bring the school’s generations of graduates together for one autumn weekend.
Just as inevitably, these weekends always coincided with a home football game. The ’26 contest saw Queen’s top the Toronto Varsity Blues by a score of 3-1. While Homecoming and Gaels football have undergone radical changes since, their intersection has
“Football is the defining cultural value of Queen’s,” Duncan McDowall said. “If you want one abiding theme around which Queen’s students have organized their feelings about Queen’s,
Established in 1882, Queen’s football predates almost all forms of student expression at the University. In the late 19th century, McDowall said, graduates began organizing informal weekend trips to Kingston – reunions based on more than football, but always scheduled around it.
“The idea was that the alumni came home to the University on a weekend where there was a premier game to be shown,” he said.
It’s no surprise that coming home turned into Homecoming during the 1920s, when Queen’s football program was the best in the country. The squad won three straight Grey Cups from 1922-24, losing just one game in the process.
Eight decades after its inception, the University had built an ideal gathering place for a burgeoning alumni base.
“In the 1920s, that would be about the first time that [Queen’s] had sizeable enough alumni that people would think about coming back,” said Merv Daub, author of Gael Force: A Century of Football at Queen’s. “There was a kind of nostalgia for a collective something-or-other in the ‘20s.
“Plus, Queen’s had a really good football team,” he added.
A defensive standout for the Golden Gaels in the early 1960s, Daub published his comprehensive history of Queen’s football in 1994. He chronicles the early fervour surrounding the team and the program, which remained high throughout his playing days and then began to taper off.
Several things changed in the years after Daub graduated. Admission requirements rose, while the soccer, rugby and basketball teams began to siphon athletic talent away from football. As post-war baby boomers entered university, Daub said, there was a desire to disregard Queen’s cultural traditions. To incoming students, organized sports – and football in particular – were suddenly less important.
In some circles, at least, Homecoming has never been quite
“The link between [Homecoming] and football is more tenuous than it has been, partly because there are generations of students that have grown up that don’t necessarily associate Queen’s and football to the same degree,” Daub said.
Because Queen’s alumni presence remains so vital to the University, that connection has never worn out entirely. Strong links between Homecoming and football persist; they’re maintained by alumni like Daub and his teammates from 1964, who plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an undefeated season at next year’s reunion.
“There’s still a whole generation of alumni like me, and to the extent that the boomers are going to be older longer, then those memories of Homecoming will drive this thing,” Daub said. “There’s at least another 10 years to run on this kind of stuff.”
Queen’s Athletics is hoping alumni interest can sustain Homecoming after its abrupt suspension and reinstatement.
Last December, Principal Daniel Woolf announced that the official reunion would return in 2013, spread over two October
weekends – each featuring a home football game. The Ontario University Athletics (OUA) football schedule had been released a week prior to Woolf’s declaration.
“I think our game is recognized around the province as one of the more significant games in terms of its role within Homecoming,” said Queen’s Athletics Director Leslie Dal Cin. “I think it’s a coming together of our community that a lot of other events on campus don’t [have].”
Dal Cin acknowledged that the loss of four Homecoming games hurt the football program financially. This year’s reunion tilts could help recoup some of that lost revenue – and restore the
full-scale alumni presence that has permeated Homecoming throughout its history.
“We know Homecoming games are going to be sellout crowds, and that’s going to be financially profitable for us,” Dal Cin said.
“I think it’s one of those things where everybody was impacted in different ways, just as everybody will be impacted in positive ways by the return of it.”
Last September, the Western Mustangs traveled to Kingston for one of the biggest games of the OUA football season. It was a crisp fall afternoon, three months before Queen’s Homecoming was officially reinstated, and a sellout crowd was expected at Richardson Stadium.
True to form, both sets of tricolour bleachers were filled to the brim on game day, students in the east and alumni to the west. In the absence of a formal reunion weekend, a midseason game against a marquee opponent would suffice. It was Fauxcoming, circa 2012.
It had all the makings of a classic rivalry match. The game was broadcast to a nationwide audience on The Score. At the halftime whistle, engineering students stormed the field and slammed their jackets in unison. Queen’s won 18-11, stifling Western’s run game and scoring late to claim the lead for good.
Still, it wasn’t Homecoming.
“A great football game is always sort of a nice bonus on Homecoming weekend, but I don’t think a stand-alone game like that will ever be able to take the place of Homecoming,” said Brad Elberg, a former Queen’s football player. “It’s an environment where Queen’s school spirit is on display like no other time during the year.”
Elberg suited up for the Golden Gaels from 1989-1993 and won the Vanier Cup in his final season. Now a Toronto-based lawyer who attends as many games as possible, he understands the appeal of Homecoming football lies beyond the game itself.
“Even if an alumnus happens to be someone who’s not particularly interested in the football game, the Homecoming weekend will still facilitate or strengthen the relationship that alumnus has with Queen’s,” Elberg said.
“Homecoming weekend is focused around the football game, but it’s much more than the football game.”
In a nutshell, that’s the paradox of fall Homecoming. Football is the subject of more attention than ever, but to the thousands in attendance, the nuances of the game have never mattered less.
Claude Scilley has been a fixture at Richardson Stadium since the mid-1980s, when he started covering Golden Gaels football for the Kingston Whig-Standard. Now working as an independent sports blogger, he’s the preeminent voice on Queen’s preeminent
sport – and a believer that Homecoming football isn’t especially predicated on the latter.
“Whether the team is good or bad, whether it’s going to be a good game, [Homecoming’s] going to be there,” Scilley said. “It’s one of those events where you have to be there.”
Ability and animosity change by the season, but certain elements remain constant. For Scilley, Comm ’78, the alumni’s halftime lap around the Richardson track is a perennial highlight.
“To hear the roar from the student side when those alumni parade by, it brings a chill to your spine,” he said. “The same things happen over and over and over, and they’re still electrifying when
To some, the absence of the alumni parade has been the most glaring omission at Fauxcoming games the past several seasons. A noticeable lack of organization is what separates regular season games from the Homecoming spectacle.
“Fauxcoming – it’s obviously implicit in the name, but it didn’t have that authentic feel,” said Chris Lund, ArtSci ’11, who experienced both types of reunion games as a Queen’s student.
“Because it was so grassroots and impromptu, you didn’t get the same turnout you would for a formal Homecoming. When it’s one single date the school rallies behind, it’s concision.”
Lund interned with Queen’s Athletics and broadcasted football games for CFRC during his time at Queen’s. Of all the home games he attended as a student, Homecoming produced a palpable sense of competitive advantage.
“It’s pretty much impossible to come
into Queen’s and win a Homecoming
game, because you’re up against it so
hard,” he said. “During my time at least,
if Richardson was hostile, it was the
worst place to play in the province, bar
none. I think that’s really turned up to 11
That sentiment is shared by several former players, including quarterback Wally Mellor, a Golden Gael from 1951-54.
Whether Homecoming football is focused on the game or the overall display, it always triggered raw exuberance – a feeling that resonated from the stands to the sideline.
“[Homecoming] meant the stadium was packed. Standing room only, and there was excitement in the stadium,” Mellor said. “It trickles down to the players. They meet Gaels from years gone by, and those people have gone through it.”
As an undergraduate student, Marty Clark never went to a Manitoba Bisons football game. There was no emphasis on the team, he said, and certainly no reverence of an overall football culture like there is at Queen’s.
It’s that devotion to football and the Gaels that’s troublesome to Clark, PhD ’13. He’s the instructor of “Socio-Cultural Dimensions of Sport and Physical Activity,” a physical education and kinesiology course that investigates the place of sports in Canadian society.
Clark’s concerns are twofold – the gender equity issues that emerge from prioritizing a male-exclusive sport and the safety setbacks that have plagued football this decade.
“As a sociology of sports scholar, I would question why [the Homecoming game] is important – what values it reproduces in the Queen’s community,” he said. “Some of the studies that are coming out about concussions especially, [we need] to ask whether football’s a sport we should hype up so much and put so much emphasis on.”
Clark’s points are sound, but he’s a lone dissident in a sea of support for Gaels football. Queen’s Homecoming and the sport itself have both come under fire in recent years – so why do they remain
“There’s a lot of emphasis on the history of this school, its traditions,” Clark said. “Continuing up with traditions is very important, and the football team’s a large part of that. It’s a powerful source of pride.”
Homecoming football, of course, produces the fiercest manifestation of that pride – while the lack of a Homecoming game has the opposite effect.
With no specific weekend to return for, many alumni stayed away from Kingston during Homecoming’s hiatus. Like a dropped pass or a turnover in the red zone, the four-season ban was a squandered chance, with potentially lasting consequences.
“It was a real lost opportunity to maintain the connection I had to Queen’s and to the people I met when I was there,” said Brad Elberg, the former running back. “I’m 42 years old now, and many of my closest friendships continue to be with people that I met at Queen’s. Those people are scattered over North America now, which means there are limited opportunities to get together.”
Elberg’s lament is similar to that of his
former coach. Doug Hargreaves presided
over the Gaels from 1976 to 1994 – the
same time period, he said, when student
enthusiasm for football began to dwindle.
Hargreaves said the dilution of athletic
talent and the abundance of newer
football programs contributed to the game’s
steady decline at Queen’s. The cancellation of
Homecoming certainly hasn’t helped.
“We’ve lost two generations with the shutdown of Homecoming … the freshman classes we took aboard for four years didn’t have an opportunity to experience it in their freshman year,”
“I don’t think you can recover that. If it’s recoverable, it’d be a long period of time.”
This uptick of student apathy has overlapped with Richardson Stadium’s steady demise. Built as a temporary facility on West Campus in 1971, it has now housed the Gaels for 42 seasons, and while the University began planning for a new stadium in 2005, it never materialized.
This year, both sets of upper bleachers at Richardson were deemed unsafe for use and were partially replaced with temporary seating for the 2013 season.
Former quarterback Don Bayne was one of the last players to star at the original Richardson Stadium, located at the current site of Mackintosh-Corry Hall. Now a member of Queen’s Fields and Stadium Campaign Cabinet, he believes a revitalized complex is a necessity, particularly with Homecoming’s imminent return.
“Nobody in Canada promotes a higher brand of excellence than Queen’s,” said Bayne, who won the 1968 Vanier Cup in his final university season.
“I’m looking forward to the day, in the near future, when we have an excellent facility for this, which matches the excellence of the University and the team.”
Until a new football complex is built, Richardson Stadium will remain another constant in Queen’s constant tradition. Starting with the 3-1 win over Toronto in 1926, every Homecoming game has been played at Richardson – first on main campus, then shifting west as the University evolved.
As time passes and decades-old games blur into one another, specific memories have eroded. None of Wally Mellor, Don Bayne and Brad Elberg could recall a favourite Homecoming contest, but all can reminisce at length about the halftime parade or their profound, abiding sense of belonging at Queen’s.
All three players – three generations of Golden Gaels
stars – lived the same experiences, one or three or four decades apart. All led their team in reunion games at Richardson, with thousands of students and alumni packing the tricolour bleachers, the faces aging and rotating by the season.
All three played dozens of university football games – some tight, some lopsided, some glorious, some haunting. Football aside, few games were as significant as Homecoming.
“No particular Homecoming game stands out, but the Homecoming game itself will always stand out as a special game every season,” Elberg said. “What I remember being struck by is how much the alumni cared and how much I was looking forward to being part of that family of Queen’s graduates.”
That family encompasses players and coaches, teams and students, all of whom come and go, then return one weekend each fall. Time passes and some memories fade, but others endure.
Unlike the former players, Neate Sager
can rattle off Homecoming tilts both
good (a 36-0 win over McGill in 1998)
and bad (a 30-17 loss to Concordia the
next year). Sager, ArtSci ’00, is a former
Journal Sports Editor; even decades
later, his recollections remain vivid
and his emotion real.
One of his favourite memories isn’t of a Homecoming he experienced during or after his time at Queen’s, but one before it. His mother was enrolled as a mature student at Queen’s in 1991, when Sager, a grade nine student, saw the Golden Gaels pound the Ottawa Gee-Gees 52-13 at Richardson.
“That was a totally crazy atmosphere,” he said. “It was kind of like, ‘I could see myself going to this school in four or five years.’”
Sager might be unique in choosing a school based on a team he didn’t intend to join – as he puts it, he’d never played a down of football in his life – but he’s captured the essence of Queen’s foremost institutions, and why they remain important.
“Football at Queen’s has always had this sort of out-of-time quality to it,” he said. “It’s 2013, it could be 1983, 1963, and not much
It’s 2013, and everything, and nothing, has changed. Homecoming came and went, eight decades of tradition and exuberance stored away for safekeeping. The alumni parade can finally resume; whatever year is inscribed on their leather jacket sleeve, it might as well be that at Richardson Stadium.
Will it be the same? Will graduates deprived of four Homecomings forgive and forget? Time will tell.
For now, the ritual continues. On Saturday, they’ll be home again.