Wednesday, June 13, 2007

We Were Legion

As I was sitting in the stands at last year's Saskatchewan Roughrider home opener, I started to notice that something was wrong. At first it wasn't anything tangible. But as the game went on that feeling of something being out of place grew stronger, until I finally figured out what the problem was - those damn Korean dry cleaners had switched my pants with someone else's - no, no wait, that wasn't it - it was too quiet in the stadium.

Taylor Field has long been known as the toughest stadium to play at in the CFL. The concrete-esqe turf aside, it was always the crowd that made the experience unenjoyable for the visiting team. But that night in June last year there was almost no crowd noise at all. It was eerily quiet, so much so that you would turn to the person next to you saying, "What the hell is going on in here?" And I wasn't alone in thinking it was quiet in the stadium, more than one person who attended the game had mentioned the lack of crowd noise. It was like a mausoleum in there.

This got me thinking about what had changed, what was different. Why was the crowed at the home opener so mellow? After I had attended a few more games with similar decibel levels it finally hit me, the University Section was gone.

The southern-most section of the East grandstand in Taylor Field was officially labelled Section 28 by the Saskatchewan Roughrider football club, but it was unofficially and affectionately known as the University Section. If you were a university student, looked like a university student, had a student ID, didn't have a student ID or were simply between the ages of 15 and 45 and wanted a cheaper football ticket, this was the section for you. It was consistently the loudest and most vocal section in the stadium and its volume was what I was missing on that opening day game.

Where do I even begin to tell you what it was like to sit there? First of all I should say that this section was not for everybody and those who purchased tickets in Section 28 unknowingly were seldom happy with the results. It took a special kind of person to sit there and enjoy it. There was a high probability that something was going to be spilled on you during the game - most likely an alcoholic beverage of some sort, beer or Rider rye. In rare cases it was vomit. It was drunk and it was loud and it was rowdy - but it was very, very rarely mean or nasty or confrontational, at least within the section. Those types of behaviours were directed towards the opposing players.

Maybe the best way to describe it is, it felt like being at a football game with 500 close friends. When the University Section spoke, it spoke with one voice. Everybody sang the national anthem together, loudly - and usually at least one or two lines ahead of whoever was singing it on the field. Everybody yelled and screamed together, unlike quite a few other sections of the stadium where it seems like people are obligated to sit on their hands and enjoy the game in quiet reflection. There were times when I was sitting there that I felt that we were affecting the game, that if we made enough noise we could will something to happen. I couldn't speak after the games sitting in the University Section, not because I didn't want to, but because I physically couldn't, my throat was raw and exhausted.

It was a section where you could stand and lean against the metal retaining wall on the end of the stadium and no one would hassle you (this is a surprisingly enjoyable way to watch a game). It was a section where you could scream things at opposing players like, "Hey number 20, tell your mother I love her!" and instead of being told to sit down, you were encouraged on. It was a section where you could lean over the side and leer at the females in the hot tub, or yell at a hot tub full of guys and question their sexuality (not that there's anything wrong with that). It was a section where you could heap abuse on a local radio personality for no other reason than he stood in front of you for some ill-advised reason. It was a section that when at its best, it felt like you were in a snake pit. It was a section that made you feel like you were a part of something bigger than yourself and part of something special. But it was also a section that was prone to the occasional scuffle and fight, and this was its downfall.

I was there the night the University Section died.

I wasn't sitting there that night, late in September 2005, I was in Section 2 - directly across the field from the University Section. You could tell something was happening before you could really see what it was. But soon you could tell - it was a fight. But it wasn't just a little scuffle, from across the field it looked like a full-fledged brawl. You could see the fight moving from all the way across the field, it looked like a wave rolling into the shore and breaking back. After everything was calmed down and one person was hauled away in handcuffs it was all over for the University Section.

Two months later, after the season ended, citing concerns over safety and creating a friendly environment, the team announced that the University Section would be moved from Section 28 to Section 20 - in the north end zone, as far from the field as was possible, and basically away from everyone else. I am suspicious of these motives however, as Section 28 immediately went from a $25 ticket to a $40 ticket after the move. But be that as it may, the move cut the heart right out of University Section, like Carl Spackler threatening to cut Judge Smails' hamstrings.

Now the "new University section" sits mainly empty for most games, which is a real shame. It was never just about getting a cheap ticket. There an experience that went with sitting in the old University Section that just cannot be duplicated in its current incarnation. I sat in the "new University Section" with some friends last season and we were almost the only ones there. It may end up being the same thing again this year when we sit there on opening day.

Sure it used to be a little rowdy and volatile, but it was also loud and it was infectious. The noise from Section 28 used to make everyone else in the stadium start to cheer or cheer louder. Whether it was cheers, boos or the national anthem, that sound almost always originated from the University Section and spread like wildfire around Taylor Field. And it was this noise that was missing last year on opening day - and to be honest, I'm not sure that the stadium was the same at all last year. And who knows, it may never be again. But I do know that for a few short years those of us that ventured in Section 28 were the driving force behind the mystique of Taylor Field - we were a part of the game. We were loud and we loved football in Saskatchewan.

We were legion.


Anonymous said...

Well put, I think that I now have a tear in my eye…seriously. The University section was the place where I learned to love watching the Riders (people would try and stay to the bitter end even if it was a crushing defeat, or else endure the chants of “part-time fans” from certain individuals who shall remain unidentified, lets call him Chris H.).

I have not been to a game in the University section-less Taylor Field (or whatever it is called this year)due to being away, but I don’t know if I am going to like it. Sitting on my hands reminds me of going to a game in BC place where people clap…at that giant cave of theirs that can only be filled with a few thousand people for a lions game.

My question is why didn’t/don’t the people who use to sit in the infamous section 28 still sit there? Is it the price that is keeping them away? Where do all these ‘hard-core’ fans now sit? Or have they merely stopped going to the games? Why?

Oh and can someone explain why the ticket prices have leapt so much since 2005? I don’t see new heated seats or a dome or, heck, even a grey cup winning side on the field. What is the justification for these grossly overpriced tickets? Do you have the answer Mr. Sportsaslife?

Once again, great article.


Trebor said...

Great article, but have to kinda agree with the first comment, if it wasn't just about cheap tickets...where did they all go ???

I do wish that they could have kept that atsmosphere if not the area. But when you want the famalies at the games and keep raising prices and start calling it mosaic stadium, your going to lose the university/party type crowd. Luckily it can still be found elsewhere, last year in Calgary was amazing...much louder than anytime I was at the unveristy section.

One last thing, last year when the name changed to mosaic, everyone was saying "it'll always be taylor field to me"... less than a year later though i'm not seeing/hearing that. When listening to drew remenda on cjme, a lot of callers refer to it as mosaic, news papers... mosaic. Where did Taylor field go? We all knew that eventually it would be fazed out... but this soon??

chris said...

Ahhh, i cannot agree more. A tear escaped me when the mic died on the anthem singer two years ago, and was saved by an even more intense than usual rendition by the university section.

The university section kept you honest. I believe the only sacred people in that section were pinball clemons (as witnessed when an anonymous fellow made advances on his wife, only to get ostracized) and perhaps bobby jurasin, although i can't fully vouch for this. You're a roughrider and you happen to suck on a particular day -- the university section will let you know. You're a U of R grad putting up awesome numbers for the opposing team -- we'll openly question your abilities and family. You're a quasi-local celebrity -- we'll throw things in your direction, just to keep you real.

Great memories. The only time i made national TV was when the "6 Canadians on a Bus", witnessed first hand the power and notoriety of the university section (the only time i made local television was high-fiving a certain blogger after the Canadien men won the gold medal, almost costing him his job, as previously mentioned a few articles below - in beautiful soft-lens slow motion, no less).

Where else can you find a local NFL punter puking in the aisles on labour day, a year before making his big break with the bombers?

All i can really say is that it will be sorely missed. The atmosphere can still be found when the riders visit alberta, and all the ex-saskatchewanians invade commonwealth or mcmahon. I think the resurgance will have to come from the underground. I for one, am willing to spend the extra $15 to sit in 28. Perhaps a grassroots movement via the saskatchewan bloggers association is necessary on a given home date to bring it back.

If someone in an adjacent section doesn't like it -- I WILL FIGHT THEM.


Cooper said...

I am feeling a little choked up after reading that. I have to admit that games have never been the same since the death of section 28. I remember the ti-cats game last year and even with a 30 point spread the crowd sounded as if it was on life support. Reading this brought back memories of section 28 screaming in unison "Benn-drops", "Benn-Drops".