Simon Fraser football hit the turf Wednesday, opening up with its first on-field session of the fall under new head coach Mike Rigell. The school's new football fieldhouse complex on Terry Fox Field, nearing completion atop Burnaby Mountain, can be seen in the background. (Photo by Jacob Hall property of Simon Fraser athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)
Feature University Football

No games for Simon Fraser football, but “…it’s like bricks off our shoulders” says SFU coach Mike Rigell of team’s return to Terry Fox Field

BURNABY — A new head coach, a new stadium, a pending new nickname, and of course, in these times of global pandemic, a new reality of uncertainty in the world of collegiate athletics.

Other than that, it’s same old, same old for Simon Fraser University football, which on Wednesday officially opened its 56th season atop Burnaby Mountain.

Of course, the first 55 campaigns kicked off practices in preparation for an actual schedule of games.

On Wednesday, in the wake of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s July 17 announcement that it would be suspending all of its fall sports, SFU football took to its own Terry Fox Field without an ounce of pomp-and-circumstance for a no-frills, no pads two-hour agility session.

It may have lacked the usual build-up to a season-opening kick-off, yet to head coach Mike Rigell, his coaching staff and the team’s 90-plus players, it was a triumph nonetheless.

“It’s kind of like taking bricks off our shoulders,” Rigell said Wednesday morning, “because we can finally be on the field together, slowly getting back to the process of what football is.”

In what could be considered the team’s first official gathering in the fieldhouse/stadium complex set for a tentative November ribbon-cutting, under its freshly-minted interim head coach who was named to the position when the program was still known under its now-former Clan moniker, Rigell paused to reflect on the all that has happened over the past half-year since the pandemic abruptly brought spring football to a close in early March.

“Just to see some guys in cleats…,” he began. “Our new motto, our new creed this season is ‘I Appreciate You’ because our players appreciate their opportunity to play football and their opportunity to go to school. With everything that has happened, they didn’t have to come back, but we only had two kids out of our 95 opt out. They have bought in. They are energized and they are excited.”

Simon Fraser’s most recent 2020 schedule had it opening the season on the road at Central Washington on Sept. 19. The team’s home opener had been set for the following Saturday, Sept. 26 against Western Oregon.

Instead, just like programs all across the NCAA, NAIA and U Sports ranks, coaching staffs like the one at SFU will get its student-athletes to focus on more of the in-the-details aspects of team culture.

And if it’s still not remotely close to replacing the actual workaday rhythm of a college football season, it’s nonetheless whetting an appetite of appreciation for the game at levels never before experienced.

And to that end, veteran players like SFU’s Griffin Barrett, Isaac Evans, Max Novak and Justin Seiber will be among a group expected to do the best work of their careers off the field in 2020.

“The main thing for our team and with the guys in general is the leadership part,” said Rigell, who succeeded Thomas Ford as the program’s head coach on an interim basis this past March when Ford left to join the staff of the Washington Huskies. “Of course our coaching staff knows what we need to do, but really, a football team is run from within its inner circle. It’s run by its own group of leadership, so we’re looking for the kind of leadership that makes sure our guys are doing the right things all of the time, especially when accountability can be tough these days with study hall, and all their classes being on-line. We can’t meet physically there, so I want to see our guys spread their wings and really grow up this year.”

Rigell, who had worn many hats over his first two seasons atop Burnaby Mountain, including special teams coordinator and receivers coach, was also the program’s recruiting coordinator.

That latter title gives him a deepened sense of appreciation for the level of off-field opportunity his players, especially those new to the program, can glean over this unique fall term.

“We’re just trying to make sure they stay positive,” Rigell begins. “SFU is a tough school, 

“We always talk about them being student-athletes, but especially for our new guys, and for our entire team in general, they actually get to be students right now,” Rigell says as a way of highlighting the fact more time than ever can now be dedicated to their studies. “Normally, you don’t get this kind of chance as a freshman or junior college (transfer) because we’d have already been practicing for three weeks and getting ready for games. Now, you have a chance to acclimate, catch your breath and understand what SFU is all about as a school.”

Mike Rigell loves the buy-in his 2020 SFU team has shown, despite the fact that the GNAC has suspended the fall season due to the global pandemic. (Photo by Jacob Hall property of Simon Fraser athletics 2020. All Rights Reserved)

Change is everywhere, beginning with the school’s announcement that its longtime Clan nickname had been officially retired with its successor set to be announced before the end of the 2020 calendar year.

“It’s big because of so much social injustice, so much going on around the world with racism in general,” said Rigell. “That name was not putting us in a good position, especially in the United States. The connotation of what it represents was not good, and it didn’t provide a safe environment for any of our athletes.”

And because the change was student-led, Rigell loved the way it further empowered the unity of the school’s student body.

“It showed the students how their voice could be a platform for something they felt serious about,” he added. “They know they were a part of the process of changing the name because of how they felt, and they were heard. It wasn’t easy to have tough conversations but the university listened and that was great. It was a high-five for everyone.”

And of course the new fieldhouse complex, nearing completion, will now come to stand symbolically as the campus community’s hope for a better tomorrow.

“I can say that the entire SFU football nation, and Simon Fraser in general, feels really blessed to have a stadium,” Rigell added, appreciative of the efforts of Theresa Hanson, the school’s athletic director.

Back in July, upon suspending the start of the fall season, the GNAC noted that it would have a decision made by mid-October regarding the status of competition after Nov. 30, with the suggestion made that if the COVID-19 curve could be safely flattened, that the potential remained open for fall sports to be played in the spring.

While the odds seem unlikely at this time, it is nonetheless a carrot that will help motivate the football team as it hits Fox Field three times a week for its two-hour sessions.

“Today is going to be the first time we are actually out on the field, but we have seen the players in the weight room already, and what I can tell you is that there is a spark, a fire,” says Rigell. “I can see it in their eyes.

“We just got back into our offices yesterday,” he continued. “We’ve been doing so much stuff off the field, and part of being a coach is making sure that the wellness of your team is taken care of. Today, I am just taking a deep breath. I am really happy that our guys have all bought in.”

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