Football at the centre of an evolving tradition

A 90 year history of Queen’s Homecoming games

The Gaels during their 1975-76 season.
The Gaels during their 1975-76 season.
Journal File Photo

This year's homecoming will look and feel very different from the first edition of the vaunted Queen’s tradition, held 90 years ago in 1926.  

The size of the school, the number of people in attendance and the schedule of events will be many degrees away from the first alumni reunion.  

But one thing hasn’t changed. Even after 90 years the Saturday afternoon football game is still the centrepiece of Homecoming weekend.

According to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall, Homecoming was started as a meeting to bring alumni back together. As students started moving further afield after they graduated, there was a desire to reconnect with their school and peers, and a weekend modelled after what American schools had already put in place was conceived.  

It was a busy weekend, with banquets and year gatherings, but McDowall unequivocally stated that the football game became the “pinnacle” of the weekend, an intense spectacle full of tradition and pride.  It was in the early years of Homecoming that the much-loved and now-altered alumni parade started, and other aspects of Queen’s lore, such as the grease pole, emerged out of the pageantry of the weekend.  

1955 provided one of the great moments in Homecoming history when a long-suffering Queen’s team found instant success with the mysterious arrival of a talented quarterback. As former Gael splayer and current Professor Merv Daub outlines in his book Gael Force, quarterback Gus Braccia transferred to Queen’s from Temple University in Philadelphia, with a preseason stop in the CFL along the way.  

A superb signal caller on a team that had everything but, Braccia led the Gaels to an 11-10 victory over University of Toronto on Homecoming weekend, a game that was won on a last-second field goal.  This key win, which kept the team in contention for their Yates Cup victory, led to the 1955 squad being the “toast of the town,” though Braccia, the key to the team’s success, ended up leaving the school by Christmas.  Fondly remembered as “the boys of ’55,” the football team of that season inspired parades, dinners, and songs in their honour.      

But as time wore on, the tenor of the weekend changed, moving from what McDowall calls “introspective” to its more familiar, boisterous state.  As the school got larger, the weekend became more spread out, with not all events being held on campus. 

Additionally, McDowall pointed out that football was no longer the anchor, or at least the sole anchor; the Saturday night street parties became one of the centrepieces of the weekend. 

And while the trend has produced the fantastic sight of streets flowing with students decked out in tricolour, showcasing their Queen’s spirit, it also led to Homecoming’s undisputed low point, the events of 2005-08 that led to its temporary cancellation.

But McDowall believes that aside from the obvious issues that arose, there were more underlying negative impacts as well that emerged from this culture shift.  

“Student passion [for football] has dissipated,” he said, noting that while attendance at the Homecoming game has been strong since its reinstatement, this hasn’t carried over to the rest of the season as it used to, as the student body is largely focused on the success of Queen’s only in that one game.  

He puts forward several factors that have contributed to this, including an increased difficulty to recruit top players because of more stringent academic standards, the shifting priorities of the student body, and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of an expectation that football games would be attended, as a matter of course.

If one is looking to delineate eras in Homecoming, 2013 would be the start of the most recent one, as it’s the year that rose from the ashes of torched cars to become the event that no current student can imagine being cancelled.  

And the football game in 2013 — at least at the first of the two Homecomings held that fall — was one of the more exciting in recent memory. 

A tight game with Laurier ended up in overtime, and the Gaels were lined up for the game winning field goal. The kick was blocked, but the ball was scooped up by holder Aaron Gazendam who kicked the ball into the endzone and chased it down to score the game winning touchdown. This rarely-seen play confounded many in the stands that day, but provided a defining moment on the restart of this important Queen’s tradition.  

With the upcoming game against Windsor as the first Homecoming in the new Richardson Stadium, maybe we can call this the beginning of a sub-era within the current phoenix-like Homecoming tradition. With that, maybe we can expect another memorable game, especially with a playoff spot on the line.

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