It’s Friday night at the F.B. Wickwire Memorial Field, one week before the first home football game in 34 years.
Overcast conditions mean darkness comes early, held at the fringes by brilliant halide lights. In one corner of the 200-yard field, ultimate Frisbee players run a co-ed practice. A soccer player drills a ball against the kicking wall.
The first sign of football appears when an athlete walks in front of the bleachers tightening the chin strap on his helmet. Gradually they populate the stands, the 55 players on the final roster. They’re hauling on game jerseys tonight, with a morning road trip to play the Holland College Hurricanes, only the second match of the season.
Head Coach Mike Tanner hurries in on the heels of a game pitting his top ranked Citadel High team against Sackville High. Coaches begin running special teams identifiable by their red helmets amid a swarm of black helmets — practicing for the punt return, the kick-off return and field goals.
The rain starts spitting, accenting the chill.
They all brought heart — and a wide variety of backgrounds, from experience with other sports to ex-varsity status. “It’s a collision sport and some fell by the wayside after they experienced that in tryouts,” says Rick Rivers, receiver coach and general manager.
The team includes a handful of ex-varsity players, lots of students who played in high school, and eight athletes with no prior football experience. “Some have a steep learning curve ahead of them; others are quite experienced,” says Rivers.
“Training camp was a big challenge for a lot of guys because a lot of it is getting into stances. Our bodies are feeling it right now, because our bodies are not used to the rigors,” says Andrew Wilson, an offensive co-captain. “But the conditioning comes along with the season.”
Early days yet, but that season is going well for the club team, a recent entry in the Atlantic Football League (AFL). In the AFL season opener, the Tigers took their game to the Red Bombers at UNB’s Chapman Field. Late in the fourth quarter, Dal’s Greg Pelly caught a kick-off in his end zone and ran it more than 100 yards for a touchdown.
Along with the final score (Dal 22 and UNB 19) there was an intangible impact on the Tigers. “In playing football, you want the excitement to come after the game. It was a huge test, that first game, to keep our composure and to compete. The results show our hard work, but we’re enjoying ourselves too,” says Wade.
It was a positive experience for an eclectic group that had never played together before.
“I think the team building comes from that road trip itself and having the win, that was important,” says Rivers.
James Green, an offensive co-captain and a running back, describes it as a work in progress. “The first game at UNB was fun, a lot of guys have not played at the university level and it was great to see them rise to the occasion.”
Each game will assist the team as they develop their offensive and defensive plays.
“Right now, the passing game is our strength,” says Rivers. “We have a quarterback who used to play with Citadel and he has good technique and reads the defense really well.”
Their second road trip to PEI last weekend brought another game and a different kind of test.
“At the end of the first half we were up a lot. The QB was nailing the receivers and the offense was on fire,” recalls Wilson.
The second half was challenging, seeing the Hurricanes claw their way back up the scoreboard. Dalhousie’s new team held together and was victorious, 56 to 40.
“It’s tough with a new team, we didn’t know one another and we have to gel — but luckily, we’re learning to play together,” says Wilson.
Before the historic game on October 2, players will be put through another demanding conditioning practice. The team is looking forward to the re-match with the Holland College Hurricanes.
“I hope we get a big crowd out and get some excitement on the Dal campus,” says Wade, a defensive co-captain.
“I’ve got about a billion friends who said they’re coming,” adds Wilson.
So — this Saturday night at the F.B. Wickwire Memorial Field — our first home football game in 34 years.
SEE GAME 2 HIGHLIGHTS: Dal 56, Hurricanes 40
Mike Tanner, Head Coach
This year alone, Mike has coached at four different levels: junior varsity, provincial, high school and university. A stellar coaching career was recognized when he was chosen as the first recipient of the NFL/CFL Coaches’ Award in 1999. As a player, he was an outstanding defensive back and receiver who played for Mount Allison and Dalhousie.
Rick Rivers, Receiver Coach and General Manager
As a coach, Rick has led high school and provincial teams and worked to develop national championships. As a team captain he provided leadership for the Burlington Braves, leading to a berth in the Little Grey Cup in 1967. In 1969 he joined the Dalhousie Tigers football team. Rick will be inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame later this fall.
Erik Novak, Running Back Coach
Eric began his football career with coach Mike Tanner. As a fullback and defensive end with the varsity football squad at St. Mary’s University, he added two Vanier Cups to his accomplishments. His father, Wolfgang played for the Dalhousie Tigers in the early 1970s.
Keith Skiffington, Defensive Back Coach
For the past decade, he has been head coach of the Timberlea Titans. He founded the Sir John A. MacDonald High School football team. Keith was named to Acadia’s all decade team for the 1970s as a defensive back. Currently he is the president of Nova Scotia Minor Football.
Scott MacLean, “D” Line Coach
At Acadia, he was an all-conference lineman and member of the 1981 Canadian CIAU championship team. His coaching experience has been at the minor level and he is proud to join older brother Stuart and his former high school coach Mike Tanner as a member of the coaching staff at Dalhousie.
Stuart MacLean, Associate Head Coach and “D” Co-cordinator
He attended Dal in 1978 before heading to Acadia to play football. As a linebacker, Stuart led the Acadia Axemen to Vanier Cup championships in 1979 and 1981. He is excited to be coaching at Dal — his son Mark is a defensive end with the Tiger’s football team.
Louis Grilli , “O” Line Coach
A standout lineman during high school, he was recruited to play at McGill where he helped their varsity team to a Mitchell Bowl victory in 2002. He spent a year coaching the St. Jean De Brebeuf Braves (his former team) before entering law school at Dalhousie.
Ian Sinclair, Linebacker Coach
Ian’s coaching experience includes working with Citadel High for three seasons while he was a Dalhousie student. After winning a national championship with Team Ontario at the Football Canada Cup, Ian played for Mount Allison where they won an AUS title. Ian graduated with an LLB and an MBA from Dalhousie this past spring.
Andrew Adamski, Offensive Captain
Andrew is from Moncton and he attended St. FX University where he played varsity football for three years. A graduate student in physiology and biophysics, his days are occupied with research. He finds time around his schedule for practices and games and plays as a wide receiver.
“I heard Dal was pretty fired up about football. It’s nice after 34 years to help in any way I can with Dal’s first year back.”
James Green, Offensive Captain
James hails from Halifax and played varsity at Saint Francis University where he graduated last spring. He plays as a running back for the Tigers when he’s not attending classes at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie.
“Just after I got accepted at law school, I heard about the football. I thought my playing days were done, so it was a welcome surprise.”
Bryce Wade, Defensive Captain
A former Riverview Mustang, Bryce also played senior football. He’s in his fourth year of mechanical engineering at Dalhousie. He plays free safety for the Tigers.
“I heard about the football last winter, there was talk and excitement. I was at the organizational meetings at the very beginning. It matters big time to me, being involved in football, for my whole experience here.”
Andrew Wilson, Offensive Captain
Andrew played high school football in Toronto until he was injured and had surgery. He always remained interested in football and is back in the game playing offense. At Dalhousie, he is taking a major in history and a minor in film studies.
“And to have the academics and then add this sport, for me it makes it an unbelievable feeling to be at Dal.”
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