University football lures 2,300 fans to first game
Published on September 28th by Jon MacNeill of the Telegraph Journal
FREDERICTON – For years, Pat Gillin longed for the return of the Red Bombers football team to the University of New Brunswick Fredericton campus.
The UNB alumnus started his schooling in 1948, the inaugural season of the Bombers, and though he never played for the team he quickly realized how valuable the program was to the university community.
Pat died this July at the age of 84, and while he didn’t live to bear witness to his dream of the Red Bombers’ return, his passing played no small part in its realization.
Pat had arranged to leave a donation to the university upon his passing that would go towards funding a football program, should one ever start up again.
“He wanted everyone to get involved, so he structured the donation in such a way that other people could donate as well, to match (his),” Pat’s 37-year-old son Jeff said during halftime of the Atlantic Football League’s opening game between the Red Bombers and University of New Brunswick Saint John Seawolves Saturday night in Fredericton.
“Of course, he wasn’t here for this night, but he would have been thrilled. Just thrilled,” added Pat’s widow, Lois Walker Gillin.
Lois and Pat were members of the committee responsible for the creation of the AFL, a project four years in the making.
The two are listed as touchdown level (more than $5,000) contributors to the Red Bombers, a donation that helped purchase the squad’s equipment.
Lois, Jeff and his sister, Janet Campbell Gillin came to Fredericton from their homes in Ottawa and were honoured before the start of Saturday night’s game, in which the Seawolves edged the Bombers 16-14.
The family was presented with honorary jerseys, bearing the initials “PG” on each sleeve, and shook hands with the captains, coaches and managers of both teams at centre field.
“He always felt that (football) was very important for the kids coming to UNB because it was a way of getting together in the fall and it created such a good atmosphere,” Lois said.
“It brought the whole school together.”
For the family, knowing their father played a role in making Saturday’s game possible added to the already charged atmosphere at Chapman Field, where an estimated 2,300 people were in attendance.
“It’s extremely special, I know he’s up there smiling,” said Janet. “This would have been such a big thing for him – he said everything good from his life came out of UNB and I’m sure he’s happy with the way things turned out.”
The same can be said for former Red Bomber Stephen Gale, who flew in from his home in Waterloo, Ont., to watch the game with his school-days friend Bob Forbes.
Both men played for the Bombers from 1972-76. They were teammates, roommates at Bridges House, and wore the numbers 12 and 34. “I was one-two and he was three-four,” Gale said with a laugh.
“This is fantastic,” he added as the two teams battled on the gridiron. “I think it’s a great step for the university to build up some morale amongst students. Just look at the people here tonight.”
“Football is huge for the campus, it’s a rallying point,” chipped in Forbes, a family doctor based in Riverview.
“It adds a great deal to the campus spirit and it’s a meeting point for people. (A football program) is a tremendous thing to have, it adds a lot of character to the campus and I think UNB was really missing out by not having a team before,” Forbes said, adding his son might suit up for the Bombers next season.
Friday night and Saturday afternoon the football community in the Capital City was humming with excitement for the opening game. Tailgate parties took place around the city and at the parking lot of Chapman Field in anticipation of the Red Bombers first action in 29 years.
“It’s pretty darn exciting,” Dean Culligan said as his family and Fredericton neighbours the Burns and McGuigans grilled up some burgers and sausages before the kick-off.
“When you look at this – see the turnout, feel the atmosphere – you think maybe there’s a chance to get a varsity program back at UNB,” he said.
In the meantime, Culligan is more than content with the action presented by the AFL.
“I really think this might be a recurring event for us, to come up here and have a family tailgate party and support the team.”
Red Bombers co-coach Mike DeMello said the large turnout and obvious support for the new league was a good sign for the program’s future.
“I just had some people that I coached in football come up to me and say that the university should pay attention because the atmosphere was electric and there was a lot of excitement around the field,” DeMello said moments after the game ended.
“I would hope that this is something the university community would look at and say, ‘this is definitely a viable and exciting product,’ and let it grow over the years.”