Sunday, November 02, 2008

The charge of the Golden brigade

There are some moments in sports that transcend the usual prose used to describe such encounters, when art, life and competition collide in a surreal mix. Saturday's football game between Queen's and the Ottawa Gee-Gees was one of those moments, at least from this perspective: I've been trying to find the proper way to give it justice for two days now. In the end, there was one poem that kept flashing through my mind high up in the chilly Richardson Stadium press box while watching the Gaels' dream season reduced to ruins on the gridiron below. I present it below, with annotated commentary on its relevance to this occasion.

[The full text of The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Lord Tennyson, can be found here...]

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Much like the famed Light Brigade, the Gaels perhaps came into this game without an idea of what they were truly up against. Yes, the coaches and players said all the right things beforehand ["Have the tables turned?", myself, Queen's Journal: the question mark I added into that title seems like a bloody good idea in retrospect, as today's game showed that the tables haven't changed too much since the 2006 loss]. Even in their guarded comments, though, the confidence came through, and they were right to be confident: they were an 8-0 team playing at home against a 4-4 team that barely stumbled into the playoffs. As I mentioned in my live blog of the game, though, "There are two kinds of 4-4 teams: the mediocre ones who gut out a few wins, and the brilliantly talented but inconsistent ones. Ottawa was always the latter."

That latter group of teams is scary, and it exists across all sports, but especially in football: the small sample size of the regular season and how each game can often turn on a play or two makes it so there isn't often that much difference between a perfect or near-perfect team and a team that just snuck into the playoffs. The ultimate case in point is last year's Super Bowl, where the 14-6 New York Giants knocked off the 18-0 New England Patriots, but there have been plenty of other examples. The 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers are another great case in point; they earned the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs with a 11-5 record, but went on to win Super Bowl XL in Detroit. The 12-7-1 Toronto Argonauts knocking off the 14-5 B.C. Lions in the 2004 Grey Cup also is a good example, as is 4-4 Western's run to the Yates Cup last year. There's a good reason why they made Any Given Sunday a football movie.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Was there a man dismayed? There certainly didn't seem to be on the Queen's side. In my pregame interviews for the aforementioned preview piece, there was a huge atmosphere of confidence. No Giffin, no problem; Queen's hung a 38-16 pasting on Ottawa in Week Six with Giffin in a limited role, and that win was convincing enough for me to write a regrettable lede.

"Saturday’s football game was a tale of two programs. The 6-0 Gaels were off to their best start in ages and ranked second in the country, while the 3-3 Ottawa Gee-Gees were a former powerhouse in sharp decline. Queen’s helped Ottawa continue their slide from pre-season favourites to a team struggling to make the playoffs, beating the Gee-Gees 38-16."

That was probably justified at the time: Ottawa struggled for most of the season, and they never found consistency until this week. Still, I didn't think this one was going to be anywhere near as easy, especially given Ottawa's returnees from injury and Giffin's possible to probable absence. Even after the Waterloo game, all the talk was that he wasn't that badly hurt and would be back; glad I stayed skeptical there.

In any case, the Gaels weren't dismayed even without their star running back. Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien had proven to be capable backups before, even if they didn't pose the same kind of power running threat and force the defence to concentrate on the ground game. They were still an 8-0 team that had been lights-out dominant against most of the OUA (the Western game was a notable exception, but they still took that one by a large margin in the end). There was also every chance that the bad, inconsistent Ottawa would show up, and even a flawless Gee-Gees team would have had trouble competing with a top-notch showing from the Gaels. Maybe it looked too easy; hindsight is always 20-20, and this columnist was surely taken in to a degree as well. I didn't go to the lengths of Jan Murphy from the Whig, but I thought Queen's could win by seven even without Giffin. My confidence, and that of the team, proved sorely mistaken in the end. Like the Light Brigade, the Gaels rode into the valley of death with high hopes that didn't survive the clash of battle.

Someone had blundered. Now, we come to the nub of the problem: assigning responsibility. This is one area where my twin interests of history and sportswriting overlap: both professions are always looking for scapegoats. You can make a case for a variety of causes in this one, though. Neate theorized that a big part of it is the playoff structure and the uneven competition during the season*, but he also assigns some blame to the coaching staff and Queen's ineffectiveness on offence.

*I partly agree on this, but I don't take it to the same lengths. Yes, it's horrible having teams that are basically just a walkover on the schedule. Those games don't accomplish anything for either school, and if we can find a way to reduce them by either forcing every school that wants to play CIS football into a more substantial commitment or realigning/tiering the divisions, I'm all for it. That's going to be a tough sell at the CIS level, though, especially considering that the current model favours the participation of the many. I disagree that there's something inherently wrong with a league where a 4-4 team can win the Yates Cup, though, and I think the reason for that dissent is my sports background. As Neate wrote, his first love is baseball, which takes the sustained-excellence model further than pretty much any other sport these days due to the length of the regular season and the limited number of teams in the playoffs. I come from more of a soccer, hockey and football background, at least originally, and in all of those sports, it's more about getting hot at the right time. I live for the crazy upsets in the FA Cup and UEFA Champions League, the deep playoff runs of the likes of the 1982 and 1994 Vancouver Canucks and the Super Bowl trophy of the 2007-08 New York Giants. For me, it's the playoffs that matter, and I love to see the results no one predicted, which is why I'd probably be thrilled about Ottawa's win if I didn't go to Queen's.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Back to the scapegoats: I'm not so sure that we need to find too many in this case. Yes, there were plenty of bad plays, including a shocking number of drops by the receiving corps when they were open: if they're able to pull in a few of those, it might have been a different story. From my perspective, though, it just looked like the Gaels could never get everything to click at the same time. When Dan Brannagan was making lights-out throws, the receivers couldn't haul them in. Other times when they got open, Brannagan missed them with a pass. Yes, Dan Village missed two field goals, but he did a great job of punting all day for my money, and a more effective offence might have given him a shorter kick or scored touchdowns on its own. Yes, Giffin's absence hurt, but Gordon and Therrien filled in pretty well. They couldn't force Ottawa to play the run, and that hurt Queen's passing game, but they did their best and created a lot of yards on the ground. It's tough to do that when you haven't seen much of the ball for most of the season. Yes, losing middle linebacker Thaine Carter hurt the Gaels' defence, but as fellow linebacker T.J. Leeper pointed out afterwards, they seemed to rally around their fallen leader. The defence did an admirable job overall of containing an explosive group of Gee-Gees. At times, Queen's rode boldly and well; as the poem shows, though, no cavalry charge can succeed against massed artillery fire.

Probably eight times out of ten, the Gaels would have played well enough to win this one, but this was one of the outliers. Ottawa executed a perfect game, shutting down Queen's passing offence and pounding the ball with running back Dave Mason. Even after he went down, they stayed with the smash-mouth football and Kingston native Craig Bearss stuck it to his hometown. As mentioned above, Queen's defence did a decent job of containment that on most days would have been good enough, especially with their usual lights-out offence. This wasn't most days, though, and what should have been a glorious charge through the enemy lines turned into a nightmarish ride into the jaws of death.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

While all the world wondered. That summed up this one pretty well. All of a sudden, the mighty Golden machine ground to a halt against an underachieving bunch in garnet and grey. If you look at the previous history, though, it's easy to see the Gaels as the underdogs and Ottawa as the powerhouse army. Queen's hadn't beaten Ottawa in six years before this year's Thanksgiving game, and they'd lost to them in the semifinals two years ago. They'd also lost their first home playoff game in a long while last season against the Western Mustangs, another 4-4 team that underachieved during the regular season based on their talent but got rolling at the right time and went on to win the Yates Cup. Queen's was certainly still the favorite here, but perhaps shouldn't have been favoured by so much. Yet, they were, so all the world wondered when their season ended in tatters.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

Back from the mouth of hell. That could have described the understandably shell-shocked expressions on the players' faces after the game. They that had fought so well during the regular season had ran into far worse than they were expecting, and came up short in the end. Much like the British cavalry units involved in that disastrous charge, they found that past glories were worthless in the face of a new, more powerful foe.

All that was left of them: perhaps that's even more apt. Some will argue that it's just a game. Well, not at this level, and certainly not higher up. Anyone who's read or watched Friday Night Lights knows about the levels they go to in Texas over high school football. Here, the intensity isn't quite that bad, but there are still school reputations and potential CFL jobs on the line. Moreover, anyone who ever argues that university sports (or any reasonably high-level sport, for that matter) are just meaningless games obviously hasn't put in the time on the practice field. For months and years, these students devoted themselves to their university's football team, probably at the expense of grades and friendships, certainly at the expense of countless amounts of time. For some of the graduating ones, they'll never again don a helmet and pads. When you play any sport for a long period of time, your identity begins to get bound up in it: believe me, I know. When that all comes crashing down weeks before you thought it would, in the worst way possible, it's awfully tough for there to be much left. I've been through the soul-crushing defeats as an athlete, and it can just ruin your life for a while. The Queen's guys are all smart types, and I know there's more to their lives than football, but it's still certainly going to be an adjustment for them.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

When can their glory fade? The traditional view of sports would argue that it should have already dissipated. In the end, there can only be one, and nothing short of the ultimate prize is worth celebration. I take exception to that, though. Yes, this is not what they hoped for and not what they could have acheived, but this team should be honoured and celebrated on its own merits. This is surely one of the best squads ever to don Queen's uniforms, even if they didn't claim the Vanier Cup. They were the only Gaels team to ever go 8-0, and only the eighth team ever to go undefeated in the regular season. They set a school record for offence with 374 points, averaging over 47 points per game and only allowing over 16 points twice. Giffin led the OUA in rushing yards and might still pick up Ontario's Hec Creighton nomination, while Brannagan threw for the third-most yards in the country, Osie Ukwuoma led the CIS in sacks (with Dee Sterling tied for third) and Scott Valberg led the country in receiving yards. Valberg also put up the third-best season in Queen's history in terms of receiving yards (but perhaps the best ever, considering that he averaged more yards per catch than either Jock Climie or James Maclean, the two legends in front of him). This team put on a show all year, and those of us who saw them play can proudly attest to that. They also revitalized the interest in university football in Kingston, among both students and local residents.

Let's not blot out the good with the bad; these Gaels should be feted for what they did accomplish, not raked over the coals for what they didn't. As my hero Grantland Rice once penned in Alumnus Football,

"For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks-not that you won or lost-
But how you played the game."

The Light Brigade didn't accomplish their goal, and their charge turned into a horrible defeat. Yet, you can make a strong case that it's not the defeat that was noteworthy: after all, those have happened since time began. What's always stood out to me about the poem is the triumph even in defeat.

"Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd."

That's a picture of a doomed but heroic force, and I think it's applicable to this year's Gaels football team. Yes, they lost in the end, but boldly they rode and well, back from the mouth of hell, and as Queen's students, fans and chroniclers, we still should honour them; they're our noble six hundred.


  1. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

  2. Anonymous3:59 PM

    Thank you for summing up our feelings so succinctly. We get reminded over and over that life aint fair ... but there is glory in a valiant attempt and more to learn from a loss than victory.