Sports

Football program's sea change arrives early

Turnaround season due to quality coaching, veteran leadership, tenacious youth and community support

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With a mix of humility and dignity on his face, University of Calgary Dinos quarterback Deke Junior turned to The Score camera and said, "I'd like to say I love you to all my family back home. I'll try my heart out out here, let's go."

It was early in the third quarter and the Dinos just notched their first touchdown of the Uteck Bowl. The score was purely symbolic as the game was decided when the undefeated Universite de Laval et Rouge et Or scored three touchdowns in their first three possessions of the national semi-final and took a commanding 29-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. In fact, the game was so one-sided Laval put most of their second-string players on for the second half to save the big guns for the Desjardins Vanier Cup against the University of Western Ontario Mustangs this Sunday in Hamilton.

Calgary has little reason to be embarrassed by the 59-10 beating though. They have no reason to hang their heads in shame. They have no right to look back on the season and define it by their last game.

This year they are not the losers of the semi-final. They are the heroes of this university. Their success this season was considered unexpected and early. What head coach Blake Nill has done with the team in the past three years is that of hall of fame coaching. His track record proves he is capable of championship titles. He is capable of overhauling a losing program. But no one expected such a quick turnaround. His military-precision practices, his accessibility and genuine care for the players and new recruits (Raymond's Storm Bartsoff, for example) and his passion for the game has resonated with a team that was dying to buy into a winning system. They bought it.

Of course, Nill is only one factor for the greatest season the Dinos have had in 13 years; it took family and community support, as well as veteran leadership to reach this level of success.

"I'm so proud of James, I have been all season," said Dinos defensive back James Green's mom Jamie after her son helped win the Hardy Cup.

When hundreds of fans flocked to the field after the trophy was raised, you couldn't help but make note of that November chill that ran down your spine. A sense of community, an actualization of pride was reached that day. It was on the faces of the players, the staff, the parents and the fans.

The team was not missing an ounce of pride in the Uteck Bowl either. They-- like Junior mentioned-- played their hearts out. They were down and out within the first 10 minutes of the game. At first they were shocked. Nill's deer-in-the-headlights look during the first half interview was not something you see often. The halftime speech was probably one of the hardest Nill has had to give. For the Dinos to come out in the second half of a game that was already decided took courage and heart-- a feeling that transcended the television and made its way to every family member and fan watching.

Never did Nill admit defeat. Never did the players phone it in. Never did they stop playing football. They were playing for more than the Uteck Bowl. They were playing for their unforgettable, ballsy season. They were playing for football-- a concept that seems too simple to forget, but often is.

This was most apparent with fifth-year players Patrick Callan, Josh MacDonald, David Gruninger and Jon Waldie who were there when the team was in the dark days of transition and saw a sea change in the club. They contributed to this change and saw it through to their last game of their Canadian Interuniversity Sport, perhaps even their football careers. The weight of the loss probably hit them harder than anybody, but the turnaround the team has made in their time is the ultimate victory.

They can now go on with their lives knowing that the future success of this team was in large part thanks to their dedication to the community and relentless football spirit. With the legacy they have left you can bet your ass there will be future success.

Nill recognized the impact these players have made too. As he stood from afar and watched them hoist the Hardy Cup his lump-in-the-throat voice could only muster, "I'm just looking at these kids . . ."

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