In some rabid sporting environments — English Premier League or NCAA football — a divorce or an identity change is less traumatic than switching allegiances.
An about-face from Man U to Man City or from Michigan to Michigan State risks lofty disdain, ostracism from family and friends, to say nothing of a punch to the nose.
Thirty years ago, cheering for UBC blue and gold would have seemed unconscionable to Orville Lee, the former star running back for Simon Fraser University who went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1988 CFL draft. But with the decision of his 19-year-old son, Malcolm, to play football for the emerging program at Point Grey, some of the glue of sentiment that bound Orville to his alma mater on Burnaby Mountain has dissolved.
“I’m supporting my son’s team, getting used to seeing my wife and daughter at games in those blue hoodies with the bird (Thunderbird logo),” Lee admits. “Still, I have that competitive juice left over, no matter how long ago it was. The friendships and bonds made in the Shrum Bowl (the suspended cross-town UBC-SFU football rivalry) will always be there. I still belong to that fraternity up on the hill.”
Rooting for the T-Birds — which, in his youth, was like a Mets fan cheering for the Yankees — is what he’ll be doing this morning (10 a.m. Pacific, Sportsnet) when UBC plays the defending champion Montreal Carabins in the 51st Vanier Cup at Stade Telus in Quebec City.
Malcolm Lee, a 19-year-old transfer from the University of Nevada, was recruited by UBC head coach Blake Nill when Nill was running the Calgary Dinos and Lee was a hybrid, jack-of-all-trades quarterback-running back-receiver at St. Thomas More Collegiate in Burnaby. Lee opted to go the NCAA route, but now he’s back in Canada, following a redshirt freshman year with the Wolfpack.
A backup wide receiver at UBC, he is one of four NCAA transfers on the Thunderbirds, three of whom are integral to the dazzling rebirth of intercollegiate football on campus. From 2-6 last year, the T-Birds are 9-2 after playoff wins over Manitoba, No. 1-ranked Calgary and Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier.
“I got in contact through a friend of mine, I emailed him (Nill) and got the ball rolling,” Malcolm Lee explained. “There are lots of reasons. I saw a really good opportunity to come back home, play with some guys I knew, get in with some new guys and change the culture here. I wanted a chance to make some history.”
Penn State transfer Michael O’Connor, only 19 himself, has the T-Birds believing it’s possible. UBC is playing in its first Vanier Cup since 1997, the last of three national titles won by the Thunderbirds under Frank Smith (1982, 1986) and his son, the late Casey Smith (’97).
O’Connor not only has a pro-style throwing touch and field intelligence beyond his years, he radiates confidence. The former all-American from Ottawa transferred to UBC after sitting out the entire year behind reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg. O’Connor has validated the most critical call in Nill’s recruiting efforts when the latter took over the UBC program last December.
“When I came here, I didn’t think it was possible to go 9-2,” Lee says.
“When I felt the vibes in camp, from guys like Michael O’Connor, I began to believe it’s something we could do. He’s (O’Connor) very intelligent, very confident. If you don’t know what to do, you go to him and he’ll help you out. His desire to win, his confidence, spreads throughout the team.”
Matched against the more experienced and physically mature Carabins, led by 24-year-old quarterback Gabriel Cousineau and 23-year-old running back Sean Thomas Erlington, that confidence will be tested. The Thunderbirds are decided underdogs today.
“True, we’re a young team,” says Victoria’s Terrelle Davis, converted to linebacker from running back after transferring to UBC in 2014 from Arizona State. “But we’ve got a lot of athletes at nearly every position, and we believe we can compete with any team in the country. Michael (O’Connor) has been a great leader. He’s been trained so well to play quarterback. His maturity is like a 25-year-old. He carries the load for our team.”
The T-Birds are not, in a technical sense, a national championship football team. Nill should know. He’s been to the Vanier Cup eight times before, seven as a head coach.
Yet the green and unlikely contenders have played well when it mattered and done things they weren’t supposed to do.
It’s something of a miracle.
Remembering the bounces that have gone their way, they could use a few more.
(Photo: UBC Thunderbirds receiver Malcolm Lee is one of four NCAA transfers on this Vanier Cup-contending squad - Rich Lam, UBC)