While the University of Calgary Dinos football team was preparing for Friday's KICKOFF game, there were a few essentials that fans needed to add to their checklist in order for a successful tailgating party: body paint, and lots of it, 2,000 free Spolumbo's hot dogs, dunk tanks and prizes to win tuition money.
The tailgate party was nothing but good times from start to finish. U of C students really upped the ante on what it takes to be a fan.
Vice-president student life Matt Diteljan could be spotted running around MC-ing this years KICKOFF, wearing red booty shorts and body paint. He described KICKOFF as a way for students to become engaged, not only with the varsity athletes, but to take advantage of becoming part of the university community.
"There is no shame in showing your pride for our Dinos," he said. "I think KICKOFF was awesome, the scene was electric. There were so many different things the students could do. All the sponsors from the alumni association really allowed KICKOFF to be the success that it was. Participating in varsity games throughout the year is a great way for students at the U of C to become a part of something that is bigger within our city."
The atmosphere created by this year's Dinos fanatics translated from the tailgate into the stadium and onto the field, allowing the players to come out and do what they do best.
Dinos running back Steven Lumbala described the atmosphere before KICKOFF began: "I felt really excited because it is a big event, the first home opener. The whole team was excited-- we just really wanted to play the game. It was so impressive to see everyone dressed in red and getting ready. It was definitely a motivating factor for me and for the whole team."
Dinos rookie receiver Jake Harty was humbled by the turnout to his first home game. "When I entered the stadium around three in the afternoon there were already a couple thousand people around four hours before KICKOFF. Mentally I was excited for how many people were going to be there."
The home opener against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds brought out over 4,100 in a battle both teams hoped to come out of with a 2-0 record. With the loss of superstar players like former receivers Nate Coehorn and Anthony Parker, the rookies stepped up under pressure and came out strong to defeat the Thunderbirds 30-25 in a knuckle-wrenching game.
"We're a different team with a lot of youth and they're going to have to go through their growing pains," said head coach Blake Nill in a press conference. "Full credit to UBC though-- their quarterback is the best in the conference, and he presents a unique challenge."
As the fans crowded into McMahon stadium, the Dinos ran onto the field as the clock was set to begin the first quarter of the game. The first two quarters dizzied Dinos fans with anticipation on more than one occasion. Dinos fan Jessica Rowland described the atmosphere during the first half as exciting and a change of pace from last season.
"No one was really sure what was going on, the game seemed so close," said Bowland. "UBC was definitely proving to be a good team and the odds of either team taking the win seemed pretty high. We definitely felt anxious for the players and were really anticipating some big plays to come in the second half to make up for what seemed to be some inconsistencies during the first two quarters."
On the field before the third quarter began, Harty described the excitement and pressure he felt playing the home turf. He said the inconsistencies within a new team dynamic are bound to occur in the first half of the season, but overcoming them is behind good coaching and teamwork.
"Playing on your home turf is really comforting," said Harty. "It was really important for us as a team to prove what we can do in front of our fans and set the right tone for the season. We struggled at the start-- it was a closer game than we expected. UBC is a really good team this year. Key guys were able to really step in and make plays for us."
With just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the concern and desire to make a comeback was palpable. UBC quarterback Billy Greene found wide receiver Jordan Grieve for a 53-yard pass-and-run play, giving the Thunderbirds a 25-24 lead. Like last week's win in Winnipeg, the Dinos were able to come back in the final minutes of the last quarter with a win over the UBC Thunderbirds.
Third-year running back Steven Lumbala tucked his chin in and rammed his way through UBC's defensive linemen, running the ball a jaw-dropping total of 204 rushing yards during the game. Although impressive, Lumbala said his focus is about playing hard all 60 minutes of the game. His focus was centered on his team and what they can make happen when the clock is ticking on the field.
"The ball was in my hands," said Lumbala. "Everyone on offence was going to take nothing less than a touchdown and that's what we did."
During the last three minutes of play, the two teams were neck-in-neck and the crowd had risen to its feet in anticipation. The engagement of the fans and the players demonstrated the importance of supporting the team.
Lumbala scored a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner with just 18 seconds left as the number four Dinos improved to 2-0 for the season, taking the number 10th ranked Thunderbirds by a close five points.
Lumbala said that having support from the fans helps the team stay focused.
"I think fan participation is unbelievable," he said. "That's the way it should be every game. We are one of the top teams in the country and it is important for the fans to feel the accomplishment as well. The turnout is encouraging because you don't want to lose in front of your peers. Having them there, mentally, gets your head in the game in a way that wouldn't happen if they weren't."
Lumbala and Harty have played in tandem since junior high and their chemistry and coordination was evident on the field as they helped carry the team to a win.
"Jake [Harty] is an old friend of mine," said Lumbala. "I've been playing against and with him since junior high. He is an extraordinary football player who has helped us in the last two games. When you are in the huddle it is great to see the great group of guys we have this year."
Given his performance in the first two season games, opposing teams will have to keep an eye out for Harty. His striking talent and ability to perform under pressure made his Dinos fans proud Friday night. The former Colts player said he is appreciative of the recognition and credit he has received thus far, but feels pressure to uphold the status of former players who left an imprint on the team.
"It's a huge honour to be mentioned around the names of Dinos legends like Nate Coehorn and Anthony Parker," he said. "As for pressure, I am taking it in week by week, becoming more mature and a better football player."
Harty made it clear that his teammates deserve equal, if not more, tribute to the Dinos wins, praising the overall performance of the offensive line and the new starting quarterback Eric Dzwileski.
"It was great-- Eric threw the ball and put in a great spot for me to make a play and I'm glad Eric had the trust and confidence in me to come up with those big plays. The offensive line stepped up at the final minute of the KICKOFF game. Key players are important, but the team as a whole coming together and playing well is really where the success for the Dinos comes from."
Harty remains positive and confident in his team and his coaches.
"I see nothing but good things for our team in the future. We are a young group of guys and a lot of us still have potential to develop as a team now that there is a lot more players with lengthy eligibility. A couple more years of stability with these great guys will lead to an exciting future."
Harty's performance, and that of his fellow teammates, left an impression on this season's fans and he hopes for more turnouts like the one at this year's KICKOFF.
"For me personally as a player, we want to see a KICKOFF story every single game," he said. "That is something I think every player wants. It really helps us and the momentum really takes the game to another level when we have the fans' support on our side."
In return for all the support shown at this season's KICKOFF, Lumbala plans to continue showing gratitude and appreciation for Dinos fans, as they are important to his team's future success on the road to this year's Vanier Cup at Laval University.
"This year, the team will keep trying to play hard, executing fast plays and hope things can happen as well as they did at KICKOFF. For me personally, I want to do what I can to make the team better."