Hi everyone. I've been a member of these forums since they were mostly simple text; I stopped posting a while back after getting into one too many arguments that left me feeling sour, when discussing the team should make me feel great. Anyway, in a fit of "too much time on my hands", I wrote the following. It's all true, and all from the heart, and I wanted to post it here. Flame me, call me names, whatever; I mean every word of it. Thanks for reading.
July of 2004 isn’t the beginning of the story; it’s just the point where everything changed. It’s the reason there is a story to tell. If life had continued on after that point just as it had before, there would be nothing more for me to say. But life has a funny way of changing up on us, and in those changes we are sometimes given things and just as often have things we care about taken away from us. As many men and women wiser than I have noted, we tend not to notice the things we have until they are lost. That is most certainly my story, and my hope is that, if I never forget what I lost, that I can find it again.
I have always loved sports, though in the beginning they seemed terribly distant. The idea of being able to be a part of something bigger than myself, to fight for a common goal, always appealed to me. However, as a boy I was a loner; I was unathletic, socially awkward and painfully shy; being part of a team was a dream that seemed truly out of reach. My family was not wealthy, though my parents made ends meet through the kinds of heroic efforts that we never appreciate until we are too old to properly say “thank you?. This had the dual effect of providing me an excuse to avoid trying out for sports (who could afford pads or skates or a good glove?), and also keeping me remote from the professional games (we certainly could not afford tickets).
It was the kind of chance, a tiny accident that only occurs in the normal lives of normal people in places like Hamilton (or Stoney Creek, to be precise), that first brought be through the gates of Ivor Wynne Stadium. I was engaged in my most frequent of solitary activities – delivering newspapers for the Hamilton Spectator – and in so doing, I won a contest. I couldn’t today tell you what the contest was, but the result was four tickets to a pre-season game. I also don’t remember who came with me, other than my mother, but I remember sitting in the south stands, looking over the field, and thinking that I had never seen anything so wonderful and terrifying in my life. Imagine, being the kind of boy who never wanted to be looked at, who wanted badly to be the centre of attention but was also terrified of what that would mean, and try to understand how it felt to see a place where thousands upon thousands of people loom above men whose names are broadcast with their every move. The idea of thousands of people cheering – or booing – my every move made me week in the knees. The sheer power of it was terrifying, but also addicting. One pre-season game, and I was hooked.
Over the following years, I did whatever I could to return to that place, to immerse myself in it. I saved up enough money from my paper route to buy a ticket to the icy, freezing playoff game where Ozzy booted his miracle field goal. I did the same to be at the game that ended up being Matt Dunnigan’s last in the CFL. I traded skills – yard work, or hooking up a computer – to my neighbours in exchange for their tickets to see the Tiger-Cats play now-forgotten teams from Las Vegas and Baltimore. And the lessons I learned watching those games were the lessons that I needed in order to grow up. I learned that preparation and perseverance are the universal qualities of success; I learned that being tough doesn’t mean being a bully, but rather getting up off the ground after the bully knocks you down and going back for more; I learned that being part of a team means both relying on others and letting them rely on you. Maybe most importantly, I learned that no matter how long the odds, no matter how remote the possibility, victory is never impossible to achieve, and through the years of tough times for the Tiger-Cats, while some concentrated on the losses, I concentrated on the unlikely wins.
I had to focus on the comebacks and upsets because, in a strange way, the Tiger-Cats became my cultural teachers. Like them, I was the underdog; like them, I had to fight for everything; like them, the wins were few and far between, but spectacular all the same, even if only to me. Along the way, I fought hard to come out of my shell – aided in no small part by the vocalization lessons (that means yelling and cheering) that I received from my fellow Tiger-Cat fans – and eventually learned to talk to people and make friends. I worked part-time jobs from the time I was 14 years old, even after my parents fought their – and our – way out of poverty. I busted my butt to become one of the best students in my high school, and dreamed of becoming the first person in my family to graduate from university; that dream started to become a reality when I entered my hometown school, McMaster, in ’99. I could focus on the negatives, including the low point of my high school graduation: despite my grades and volunteer work, I won no scholarships, as they were monopolized by the only two students above me in grades (also, both athletes which I still was not). But I accepted that I would have to work my way through school like everyone else; my role models were Joe Montford, too small for the NFL, Paul Osbaldiston, whose appearance belied his talents, and Darren Flutie, small and unassuming and overshadowed by his famous brother. Following their example, I knew I would succeed. After all, that 1999 Grey Cup was no fluke, and that it came in the year that I started off to learn about the wider world and become an adult seemed like no coincidence to me. That was just Hamilton, just Steeltown, to me. Always overlooked, never given an advantage, but showing up to fight anyway. Lots of people overlooked me in favour of other students, but it wasn’t them I was fighting for anyway.
Through it all, I never missed a game. I had talked my family into buying four season tickets – one each for my parents, my older brother, and myself – and our seats in Box J were like a temple to me. No matter how stressful, confusing, and challenging the rest of my life became, I knew that I would return there and it would all make sense. Even as the team began to unravel, both on the field and in the owner’s box, I was there, faithful. That was why I found it hard to be depressed when, upon graduating from Mac with Honours, I found that the only job I could get was pumping gas. At the same time, the Tiger-Cats were having their worst season ever and the ownership simply ran out of money, and our fates seemed intertwined again; I was lost, and so was my team, but being lost didn’t seem so bad if I wasn’t alone. And I continued to believe in the long shot, the underdog, the million-to-one chance; both for me, and for them. I had to.
Which brings me to July 2004: to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. The Cats were purchased by Bob Young, and things began to change. Meanwhile, I was about to be married and start graduate school, and things also began to change. In both cases, no one was really sure what the future would bring; for me, it brought relocation to Victoria, BC, and the biggest challenges of my life. Those challenges are not for here, but suffice to say, everything up to that point had simply been preparation. For the Tiger-Cats, the changes were similarly sweeping and the challenges equally daunting. But from my vantage point, one thing changed that was a clear break with the past: after July 2004, when the lights came on and crowds filed in to Ivor Wynne, someone else was in my seat.
I watched the Labour Day Game in 2004 – the choppy, jury-rigged, webcast – from a lonely concrete residence room in Victoria. It was the first Labour Day game, and one of the few home games overall, that I had missed in my entire adult life. I have not been back to Ivor Wynne since. I have struggled, succeeded and failed for the past four years, just as the Tiger-Cats have, but I have done so without the connection that taught me so much, the reminder of why I have to keep the faith, without something very meaningful to me. I haven’t smelled the air under the north stands, or felt the sun hit my face as I climbed the step up to my seat, or heard the roar of the crowd during the player introductions. I haven’t shared the suspense, the heartbreak, and the rare glory with the other fans. I haven’t looked past the scoreboard towards a perfect sunset as the final minutes of a game ticked away. The memories I have are strong, but memory without reminder always fades, and I fear the day I will begin to forget what I’ve learned, to drift, to become something else. But everyone has to come home sometime; everyone has to find their way eventually.
I believe that the Tiger-Cats, after many changes and challenges over the past few years, are finding their way home. I believe that there are reasons to believe in this team, reasons to believe that they will justify the faith that so many of us have had over the years. I believe that you can go home again, even home means a different team with different players; some things come and go, but those aren’t what make a place “home?. I also believe that my story and the Tiger-Cats’ story are still the same story, and that what I’ve lost – my connection to the dream that is this team – can be only be found in one place. And so I’m coming home too. On Monday, thanks to a partner who understands that my identity and my culture are defined by the word “Hamilton?, I will walk through the gates of Ivor Wynne for the first time in years. I’ll probably fall to my knees and kiss the concrete, and then, when I can, I’ll walk up the stairs to Box J and come home. I won’t be the same person I was when I left, but that’s okay; in July 2004, I was hardly the scared boy that I was years before. What matters is not what I have done, but what I will do; not who I am, but what I stand for. For the Tiger-Cats, it’s the same. And I have faith in this team, as I did before, as I will afterwards.
To anyone who has drifted away over the years, I can only tell you that nothing is worse than having the choice removed from you; my ticket stayed but I was gone, and I could not support the team because my life took me elsewhere. But on Monday night, I’ll do everything I can to show that I never really left; I’ll scream my support, even if the going is rough, just like the players will give everything they have, the score be damned. Will you do the same? You who have the choice, week after week, to renew your faith or let it fall: will you choose to come home again? If you do, I’ll see you there, and a heck of a homecoming party we’ll have.
Eat ‘em raw, my friends.