It was on a fall Saturday in 1947 when the sport of football kicked off at Dalhousie. Playing in front of a crowd of 3,000 people, the Tigers would edge Saint Mary’s College 9-7 to claim a victory in their very first game.
This past Saturday, students and alumni gathered at Wickwire field to celebrate the 70th anniversary of football at Dalhousie. It was a night where past and present intersected, and where legendary former players and coaches proudly watched on while their beloved Tigers rolled to a dominant 39-0 victory.
This was the second week in a row the Tigers had shutout their opponent and also the second week their offence had racked up an impressive 39 points. With the future looking bright for Dal football, it’s all the more special that so many of the team’s historical contributors were there to witness this momentous victory.
The significance of this event was very much present in the minds of those most closely involved.
“I honestly think this is one of the biggest games for this program over the last seven years [since the program restarted in 2010], if not the biggest,” head coach Mark Haggett said in an interview before the game.
“Seventy years of history is on the line with this, home field advantage is on the line, we’ve got fifty alumni coming to this game, 3 former head coaches… It’s going to be a really good build up to something that we’re hoping to have good success with, and it’s big to be a part of this historic team.”
The team consistently found the success coach Haggett hoped for through all four quarters during this memorable home opener against UNB Fredericton. It was a perfect tribute to the glory years of Dal football.
With the arrow pointing up for Tigers football and excitement riding high from Saturday’s historic night, it is worth taking a look at how football got started at Dalhousie and how Jim Wilson and Rick Rivers brought it back to life many years later.
Dalhousie’s first football team had a tie to the military. The first football league in Nova Scotia included two teams from local military bases, the Navy base at Stadacona and the Air Force base at Shearwater.
Bill Burkhart is the man responsible for bringing football to Dalhousie. Volunteering to be the team’s first coach, Burkhart would help organize the league and plant the seeds for two Dal championship teams in the 1950s.
These were the original glory years for Dalhousie football, with legendary players like Reg Cluney, Peter Corkum and Ted Wickwire.
The multi-talented Cluney managed to play quarterback, running back, defensive back, punter and kicker while leading the Tigers to championships in 1951 and 1954.
The program started to decline in the 1970s when recruiting waned and less emphasis was placed on football, and the team quickly folded. 1976 would be the last season of Dalhousie football for more than thirty years.
Decades later, Jim Wilson was chairing the student committee as a member of Dal’s board of governors when he thought of a great way to increase school spirit and the overall experience of students. The idea was to finally bring football back to Dalhousie.
Along with long time contributor to Nova Scotia football and former Dal quarterback Rick Rivers, the two would begin to build and shape Dal’s football program into what it is today.
For the program’s two most instrumental figures football is about much more than just a simple game. It is about developing leadership, forming lifelong bonds, learning invaluable lessons about teamwork and pushing yourself beyond what you believed was possible.
“The whole thing is, and Jim and I wholeheartedly agree on this, this is a character development thing for these guys,” Rivers said. “There’s so much that can come from being involved with a team, and especially a team that’s involved in a collision sport.”
And while everyone involved aspires for the team to one day become an AUS program, the main goal for the program’s rebirth is about giving students opportunities and making their time at Dalhousie even more memorable.
“When we started up, some of my friends would go ‘well you’re not playing in the best league,’ and I’d go ‘I don’t care if I’m playing in the best league,’” Rivers said.
“We are giving fifty kids an opportunity to play post-secondary football, and I love to see the smiles on their faces when they win a game or somebody makes a catch and runs for a touchdown.”
When it comes to the future of Dalhousie football, there is one goal in mind amongst coaches and players.
After losing a championship game on the road last season by a mere 8 points to Holland College, the Tigers look even better and boast one of the most well-rounded teams in the Atlantic Football League.
“It’s a championship year, it has to be,” head coach Mark Haggett said. “We lost to Holland College by a margin last year, and I feel that we have a stronger team. We have most of the guys back from that team, we’ve got really good leadership, really good coaching.”
After two straight dominant victories, the Tigers have their ultimate goal in mind. But they never lose focus of the daily work and preparation that goes into every single game.
“As a unit and as a head coach we’re taking it one game at a time, but I don’t think you should be out here doing this if you don’t think you’re going to win a championship,” coach Haggett said.
With their impressive offence led by veteran quarterback Nick Hunsley and with playmakers like running back Zack Leger and receiver Louis Gauvin, the Tigers have the dynamic weapons to make life a nightmare for opposing defences.
On the defensive side, the Tigers have not ceded a single point yet this season. One of Saturday’s most exciting touchdowns came courtesy of an interception returned by linebacker Jack Chiasson, last season’s league defensive MVP.
The team’s early season success is not just a result of their talent and hard work, but also a testament to the coaching environment the Tigers learn in every week.
“It’s really a compliment to the coaches that are here this year, because they are absolutely coaching every second that they get our here,” coach Haggett said. “All you ever hear out here is people talking football.”
The Tigers go on the road to UNB Fredericton next week for the Alumni Cup game, and they will continue on their mission to host and win a league championship at Dalhousie.