TRURO, N.S. — From buying turtleneck sweaters at Bentley’s so there would be at least some coordination of uniforms on the field, to becoming a powerhouse program in the province, CEC Cougars football has a colourful and rich history.
And with the kickoff to start their season this year, the Cougars turned 50 years old – a milestone which will be celebrated during halftime of their Oct. 17 game versus Bay View High.
“We were known by the other teams as the Rainbow Raiders because some guys had white pants, some had blue, black,” former head coach Keith MacKenzie said of those very early days and the mismatch of uniforms, adding he and other coaches sewed numbers on the sweaters from Bentley’s.
“That is how the thing got started, so it was a rough beginning,” he said.
Jed Ritcey served as head coach for CEC’s first season of football. MacKenzie and Dave Parker would take over in year two. He said CEC’s predecessor, Truro Senior High, had been in the league a few years with little success.
With CEC combining the Truro school with others in Colchester County, MacKenzie said it created an interesting situation as well because a lot of the teammates didn’t know each other to start the year.
“That made it unique too,” he said. “That first year was rocky, but it was a step.”
And things only kept going up for the program as it quickly joined the perennial powers from Halifax and Dartmouth in vying for provincial supremacy.
“We won a championship our fourth year (1974-75 school year) after we started in the league and improved every year,” MacKenzie, a Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame member, said. “That was kind of the start of the Cougars as we became one of the powers in the league. And for four or five years in there, either QEH (Queen Elizabeth High – former high school in Halifax) or we won it.”
MacKenzie talked about the first year they won the provincial title, a 28-14 victory over Prince Andrew High, and fire trucks greeting the team as it arrived back in Truro.
“We had a parade through town,” he said. “It was a monumental occasion for the kids, the team, school, and football in the area. The entire front page of The Truro Daily News featured the memorable event.”
The team repeated the next season – the only back-to-back titles in its history.
For the 1976-77 season, the Cougars moved from the TAAC grounds to the school’s new facility.
“Which housed one of the top natural surface football fields in the Maritimes,” MacKenzie said. “We established a Bleacher Club to raise $18,000 to purchase bleachers to seat 1,000. These were purchased from the Montreal Olympics. We sold memberships for $50 and, with great community support, had them paid for in a year.”
MacKenzie’s final year (1984-85), the Cougars went undefeated on the season and captured their fifth provincial championship.
As to what helped them achieve at the highest level, MacKenzie pointed to the creation of CEC providing more resources and supports, but it also boiling down to the tireless work of the coaches and eagerness of the players.
“Football became the energizer,” he said, referencing the early days of CEC. “We being the coaches were gung-ho and the kids were gung-ho, and when you start something and have a little bit of success, you have a lot of people jump on the bandwagon.
“And, yes, we did have some extremely good athletes. The one who would stand out overall would be Reg Boudreau, who went on to play a bit in the CFL, but we also had a lot of kids who went on to play at the college route.”
MacKenzie recalls the support the program received from CEC’s first principal Archie Robertson and something Robertson said to him which encapsulated the early years of the school.
“Archie said to me the two things that brought this school together have been football and the musical. I think that was true. The community was behind it, we had great fan support, and the kids gravitated to it. It ended up rivaling hockey in the early fall season.”
The status of Cougar football helped grow the game at the grassroots level in and around Truro.
“Before CEC got it, it was almost a joke to be playing football, and then it became the in thing to be playing football,” MacKenzie said. “It was a whole change in attitude.”
Among those drawn to the game was Mike MacKay.
Currently the Women’s High-Performance manager for Basketball Canada, MacKay played wide receiver for the Cougars in the mid to late 70s, before embarking on a remarkable coaching career in many sports, most notably basketball. His CEC coaching days include time as the head man on the Cougars’ sidelines.
“I know it was an important part of my life and it impacted a lot of other people in the Town of Truro,” he said. “The lessons we learned playing football have been very valuable. It has helped guide a lot of things I’ve done in my career … in my life.”
MacKay expanded on those lessons, especially regarding leadership.
“I always felt leadership started with leading yourself; if you couldn’t lead yourself, you couldn’t play football and go to school,” MacKay said. “(Players) leading themselves to show up for class and do their best every day, because if you didn’t perform in class you couldn’t perform on the football field. So it was giving them that direction, they had to lead themselves.”
Proving supportive energy was another factor MacKay touched on.
“You had to be a contributor, not a follower, not just standing on the sideline,” he said. “You had to give energy to the group. Those two things, I think, were, and are, very important.”
As for the Cougars’ impact on Truro, MacKay said he saw a football game as an event and tried to make it that way for the community.
“If you had 60 young men playing on the team, well, if mom and dad came there are 120 people in your crowd. Then if you had the CEC band playing, involved, and some of their parents showed up, there are another 100 people. If you had the cheerleaders out, more people,” MacKay said.
“Just people coming out to watch their sons and daughters participate in the event and you’re already up around 500 people in the crowd. So you start to build a following because, a lot of the time, people would say to me, my son stop playing but I still like going to the football game.”
MacKay also talked about the people behind a team.
“You need a whole village to run it; you can’t run a football team with just one coach,” he said. “Other sports you can get by with one or two people but football you need a lot of dedicated people and players for a short, but intense, period of time.”
Former CFL coach Scott Annand knows all about those intense periods of time. A former Cougar player and head coach, Annand’s long and successful football resume includes many successful seasons coaching in U Sport, to go along with high school and professional stints.
“Tradition, excellence, discipline, the instilling of life skills and values,” he said when asked what first comes to mind when he thinks about the Cougars’ gridiron program reaching 50.
“You had to buy into the system, and I have no regrets; it, sort of, made me who I am today. It fueled my passion to succeed at the highest level.”
Annand said he is grateful to not just CEC football but Truro minor football as well.
“My first minor football coach, Archie Robertson, basically, replicated Keith MacKenzie and the CEC mentality,” he said. “I’m grateful; what a life I have been able to live through football.”
Annand’s time was the Cougars was, like MacKay’s, in the late 70s and includes the 1980 season. A tailback, he recalls the fierce rivalry with QEH and playing in the first provincial championship outside of metro – on CEC’s home turf (1979-80 school year).
“Which was a bone of contention with the metro schools at the time, but it was an agreement then that if we finished a slot higher than the metro team, we would host,” he said of a game played in a steady downpour and won by the Cougars over QEH.
Annand is helping to organize the halftime ceremony during the Oct. 17 game which starts at 1 p.m. He said he found it hard to believe when current head coach Shawn Davison reached out to him to confirm it has been 50 years.
“Within five minutes I was on the phone with one of the most important people in my life – Keith MacKenzie – and he confirmed it. That includes a lot of history, traditions, and all the provincial champions CEC was involved in.”
All CEC football alumni are encouraged to join their former teammates for the halftime ceremony which will honour team founders MacKenzie as well as the late David Parker, as well as past head coaches which include, along with MacKay and Annand, the late Rick Kaupp, Scott Cameron, Jason Williams, and Brent MacPhee.
“We are trying to get the word out to try to bring as many former coaches and players back to Truro for the event,” Davison said.
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