Eat, sleep, study, football: the 'Birds prepare for Saturday's Vanier Cup

Unexpected is an understatement. Unbelievable would be appropriate. Miraculous wouldn’t be out of place.

It has been one hell of a season for the UBC Thunderbirds football team. The 60 odd student players, coach Blake Nill and the team staff have resurrected a dead program and uncaged a seemingly unstoppable bird of prey.

First the ‘Birds took down Manitoba in back-to-back face-offs to secure their spot in the Canada West Hardy Cup. Then they took down the undefeated, number-one ranked monster that was the Calgary Dinos in a huge upset. They breezed by the St. FX X-Men in a cold and rainy Uteck Bowl on the East Coast. Now, without returning home or looking back, they are headed to their first Vanier Cup since their 1997 win to take on the reigning champs — the University of Montréal.

When Nill signed on with the ’Birds in November and it was announced that Michael O’Connor — a redshirt quarterback from Penn State — was coming to UBC in February, expectations were high for the team. But even the most optimistic predictions just barely put the seventh ranked ’Birds into the Canada West playoffs. Never did anyone expect them to make the Vanier Cup.

“We’re all surprised. But it’s the power of what young men can do when they put their minds together — whether it’s sports or research or any realm at the University of British Columbia. When you have a band of brothers like these come together and believe in a coach, anything can happen and that’s what they’re proving right now. It’s almost like a Field of Dreams as far as I’m concerned,” said David Sidoo, an alumni and donor for the team. Sidoo won a Vanier Cup with the ’Birds in 1982 and this will be his first time back at the game since.

“I wouldn’t have expected this in a million years. It just shows how hard our team worked,” said Will Watson, a second-year receiver.

A change in coaching staff, the number one recruiting class in Canada, high profile transfers and a renewed funding campaign led by Sidoo’s 13th Man Foundation have all played a part in the turnaround season. However, the season is behind the team and everyone is looking forward to Saturday's game.

We’ll take a closer look at the on-the-field matchup tomorrow — stick around for our coverage of everything Vanier Cup. But how prepared are the ’Birds?

Nill’s previous experience won’t hurt the ’Birds. Saturday will be his eighth Vanier Cup game as head coach. However, his track-record doesn’t bode well for the T-Birds — he’s only won two.

“Experience helps you a lot taking on logistical challenges, like moving your football team, like preparing the schedule.… It’s a high stress time, so what I’m trying to do now is just keep them focused on short term periods and keep them as calm as I can."

“[The players] have three areas they have to be responsible for. One is that they get enough sleep and that they’re looking after their body. Two is making sure that they’re doing a couple of hours a day [of school] … and third is to make sure they’re focused on the game plan,” said Nill.

The team, which hasn’t seen Vancouver in over a week, is doing everything to prepare and are getting support from all across BC. The BC Lions are sending out their cold weather gear for the ’Birds to use to combat the colder-than-Vancouver Québécois weather. Christy Clark tweeted after their Uteck Bowl victory. Newspapers across the province and Canada can’t stop talking about the game — sorry, but not really. In Quebec City, over 11,000 tickets have been sold in a stadium can fit upwards of 18,000.

However, Nill and his players shrug off the media hype. Instead, it's eat, sleep, study, football and repeat until the big game.

“It’ll be a crazy atmosphere and we’ll never forget it…. We’re just looking forward to playing and representing UBC on the national stage,” said O’Connor.

“Go T-Birds!” said Trivel Pinto, the first-year wide receiver from Brampton, Ontario.

“I want to win this game, more than anything. I don’t care about any stats or anything other than the win. I feel like that’s the whole team mindset. Whatever we can do to get a ring on our finger and be a national champion is what we have to do,” said Watson.

The season has been one to remember — ring or no ring. Homecoming saw its biggest crowd in a quarter century at Thunderbird Stadium. The team beat the number-one ranked University of Calgary, a team Nill built, in Calgary. UBC qualified for its first Vanier Cup appearance in 18 years. It’s been a good year to be a ’Bird.

It’s been one hell of a season. Now go get ’em boys — bring the Vanier Cup back to BC.