Red Bombers back in the air and on the gridiron Saturday night
September 23, 2009 by David Ritchie of the Daily Gleaner
It’s been 30 years since there was a football game played at the University of New Brunswick.
So when they turn on the lights and crank up the music at Chapman Field for Saturday’s inaugural game in the Atlantic Football League, it’s anybody’s guess what kind of response they’re going to get.
Larry Wisniewski, the general manager and public face of the Fredericton-UNB Red Bombers, and others involved with this project including head coach Mike Dollimore certainly have every reason to be a little nervous about ‘opening night,’ if you will.
Wisniewski has stated that one of the criteria for determining the long-term viability of bringing back football to UNB, even if it’s a club team operating under the school’s campus recreational program, is the response of the paying public.
No guarantees. Even on opening night. Maybe because it’s opening night.
There are the selling points: the curiousity factor. The mystique of a new league. UNB vs. UNBSJ. Fredericton vs. Saint John. Part of the lure.
It’s not CIS-calibre football, but the league has been very up front about that. That doesn’t mean these guys can’t tap into Red Bombers’ nostalgia. Football at UNB. For people who used to make their way to College Field on Saturday afternoons, it’s got a nice ring to it. Or at least, people like Wiz sure hope so.
“From where I stand, I’m hearing from a lot of people who are planning to go to the game Saturday. But who really knows? There are any number of factors about whether people actually go or not,” says Wisniewski.
“Talk is cheap. You don’t know until you actually get up there on Saturday. A thousand? I’m hoping.”
Wisniewski says people need to understand what the league is all about. There are three teams for the maiden season including the Red Bombers, Sea Wolves out of UNBSJ and a club team out of Moncton run by former Football N.B. president Dan Fougere. Teams each play other twice plus playoffs.
“Basically, what we’re offering is a place for local kids to play local sports locally,” says Wisniewski. “In our case, it’s football. This is not about bringing back CIS football into UNB. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the food chain for players who might aspire to play at that level. It’s a big step from high school to the CIS. For some kids, maybe a year or two playing at this level is what they need to prepare for the next level. Not everybody wants to go away to play CIS football, at least not right away. Those are the kids we hope to attract.”
Under the guidelines by which club teams operate, a team such as the Red Bombers includes both UNB and St. Thomas students plus youngsters from the community who are not attending university but meet the age critiera (18-24).
“We had about 70 people express an interest when we first started camp,” says Wiz. ” But you know how it is. When they realized we practised twice a week, some of them didn’t want to do that. It hasn’t been easy because we’ve had to move around (different facilities). But now we’ve got about 40 players in full gear now, and that’s about what we were really expecting. It’s workable.”
Wisniewski says the breakdown is about 25 from UNB, another eight to 10 from STU and the rest from the community.
“It’s an interesting mix,” he says. “Ideally, the players who are from the community are looking at football as a way of furthering their education down the road. That’s our goal with this.”
The $64,000 question, of course, is whether enough people will be intrigued enough to care.
Even under the ‘club’ designation, Wiz and his group are banking somewhat on the magic associated with resurrecting Red Bombers football, hoping for the best but fully cognizant that it could be a huge bust as well. Times have changed. People aren’t inclined to give the new kid on the block much of a chance anymore. And remember, the climate was such that UNB felt compelled to kill the sport from its athletic lineup 30 years ago.
But hope springs eternal.
For opening night at least, the group is pulling out all the stops to make it enticing. Flat fee of $5 for adults with students getting in free. Wiz says people within the alumni association at the university have been working diligently to contact many of the former Red Bombers to invite them to be part of the festivities.
The family of Pat Gillen, an alumus who was a major financial contributor to UNB athletics and a supporter of football before his death, will be on hand to receive a token of appreciation in his honour.
“We’re not planning any great elaborate pre-game ceremonies, but we’re hoping that many of the former Red Bombers will be on hand to help usher in the new Red Bombers and to be a part of all this,” says Wisniewski.
“There’s a rich tradition of football at UNB. We want to recognize that. It’s important that we do that.”
Sports editor David Ritchie can be contacted at email@example.com or at 458-6484. His y column appears each Wednesday.