Standing amongst the becostumed, the painted and the faithful, there’s no mistaking it. Somewhere between the First Amendment and the Fonz, college football has bludgeoned its way into that indefinable something that makes America, America.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Seattle, the 21st of September. Loyalists 60,000 strong witnessed their Huskies methodically dismantle the upstart Idaho State Bengal Tigers 56-0 at the University of Washington.
Husky Stadium shuddered on every third down as fans stomped to rally the defense. Devotees claim to bleed purple without a trace of irony. Alumni came from far afield to attend.
“The Huskies used to be a really great team from the early ’90s to the early 2000s, so we have a pretty big football dynasty,” said Thuc Nhi Nguyen, sports editor for The Daily, the University of Washington’s student newspaper. “People love their football here. When it comes to Saturday afternoon or even Saturday morning, they go all out. They tailgate early and often.”
Husky Stadium is also one of only two arenas in the U.S. that is situated on water, and has a dock for boats to come “sailgating.”
The fervor would be easily explainable if it were in the American South, where they are plumb crazy and the Almighty gets invoked on a regular basis before kickoffs. But this isn’t Tuscaloosa or Lafayette. This is a mere 140 miles from Vancouver, a brisk three-hour drive from the UBC Point Grey campus. And yet the Thunderbirds have never seen anything close to such a display in their stands.
Kareem Ba, a fourth-year defensive end for the Thunderbirds, highlighted the cultural difference. “Football in the United States is ingrained in their culture,” he said. “People go to games because they want to feel like they are a part of the community and a part of the family.”
As for here? “It is almost something that needs to be imposed on students,” Ba said. “[UBC] is an academic institution and it’s one of the best in the world, and people are here for different reasons other than just to have a good time.”
He is prosaic about the poor showings at many of the Thunderbird games. “On Friday night or Saturday afternoon, people may want to go out or study or do other things, and it’s their choice.”
Where this divergence in American and Canadian college football began is not so clear. Indeed, many trace the genesis of North American football to a shared historical moment between the two countries, an 1874 intercollegiate game between Harvard and McGill University. What is clear is that the United States has embraced this bastardization of soccer and rugby with a fanaticism that Canada simply can’t match.
The Husky pre-game ritual begins the evening before each match. A rally is led around the campus by the marching band and a fire-dancer. The band and the cheer squad travel with the team on away games, all expenses paid after their first year. Players arrive on buses accompanied by police escort.
The victory celebrations are likewise outsized. “After the game, the team will go to the student section and sing our fight song, which is ‘Bow Down to Washington,’” Nguyen explained. “For certain games that are really important, when we win, we will rush the fields. We did that last year when we beat Stanford.”
So why are UBC fans being upstaged by their UDub counterparts?
Part of the answer is evidently the level of play. Only select Thunderbirds have gone on to professional careers, whereas an NCAA Division 1 program like the University of Washington regularly grooms nascent powerhouses for the National Football League; there are no fewer than 17 former Huskies currently playing in the NFL.
► Ticket prices: UW: $24-$551 UBC: $2-$10
► Package prices: Dawg pack/Husky card: $99 Blue Crew: $20
For his university career, Ba was faced with the choice of a number of Canadian programs and the one offered by the University of Washington. “My major deciding factor was the quality of education. Football honestly was secondary to me coming out of high school,” he said.
It’s been argued that feeder programs for professional sports belong in the minor leagues rather than at universities. While impressive, seeing these full-fledged commercial enterprises housed in academic institutions can be somewhat jarring.
With ticket sales and cable deals generating revenue at an almost obscene level, the Huskies football program is financially independent. For Saturday’s game, the home team paid Idaho State $450,000 to make an appearance. A magnificent new stadium was completed earlier this year with a budget of $250 million and a total cost of $280 million.
“It was all constructed via private funds,” Nguyen said. “It didn’t take any money from tuition or any of the public funds that go from the state to the school.”
While recognizing that the level of play may never reach Div 1-level intensity, a spectator sport tradition on UBC campus is one worth building. Football, with its raw athleticism, is a visually dynamic spectacle that can be very powerful when it unifies fans. You don’t need to be able to parse statistics on rushing yards to join in the collective bating of breath on a long field goal, or to feel a wild surge of hope on a Hail Mary pass.
► Pro players: Huskies in NFL: 17 T-Birds in CFL: 3
► Head coach's salary: Steve Sarkislan, UW: $2.55 million Shawn Olson, UBC: $90,072
It will not be easy. A loyal following like the Husky Nation has its roots in cherished memories and bitter regrets that a slick PR campaign can’t manufacture. The passionate Oregon-Washington rivalry developed over the course of a century, taking on a meaning that outsiders can’t easily grasp.
Over time, fans will need to discover for themselves the game’s balance of brutality and grace. The Thunderbirds will need to build their own narratives of redemption and glory.
In the Canadian system, varsity players don’t typically expect to be rewarded with a lucrative professional career. They still choose to subject themselves to grueling training and take incredible risks with their bodies at each game. It adds a strangely noble quality to their pursuit.
The reason, according to Ba?
“It’s simple: we do it for the love of the game.”
–Photos by Geoff Lister