OTTAWA, ON – The easiest way to tell that the Panda Game is different is to just listen to the noise.
As the gates around TD Place open at 10:30 a.m, it exists as a buzz, A hum that slowly spreads across the towering structure at the south end of The Glebe, as Carleton and uOttawa students, covered head to toe in their school colours, begin to file in. When the clock hits 11:30, the Gee-Gees and Ravens complete their warmups, and the buzz grows. Back and forth, across the stadium, slowly building as cheers begin ringing out into the Ottawa morning.
As each minute ticks closer to 12, the noise just gets louder. Finally, noon hits, and as the Ravens and Gee-Gees take the field, the noise reaches a fever pitch. Almost cathartic, as if all the sound not made in the last 18 months was brought out in one fiery cheer spread across 15,000 voices.
It’s a special moment, a unique sound befitting a fantastic opportunity.
After all, this is more than just any OUA Football Game.
Under the cover of clouds and fog on a cold October Saturday afternoon, the iconic Panda Game made its long-awaited return to TD Place. For fifty-one years, the annual game has served as the marquee matchup on the OUA Football calendar, with Carleton and uOttawa fighting for bragging rights and the right to take ownership of Pedro the Panda.
In many ways, it was not like past Panda Games. A stadium capped at 15,000 seats out of the available 24,000, COVID-19 vaccinations required to enter, and masks worn while inside. Yet the key draw of Panda remained as each fanbase took to their respective side, uOttawa faithful layering the north side stands in garnet and grey and Carleton covering the south side in black and red.
Despite the rivalry between the stands, the pre-game offered the chance for mutual reflection. A pre-game ceremony to honour the memory of Francis Perron, the uOttawa Gee-Gees defensive tackle who passed just over two weeks ago, saw a stadium of rivals for a brief moment be brought together.
With number 99 on their helmets and in their hearts, it was an emotional day for Ottawa; but playing to honour Perron also helped serve as inspiration.
“This game was bigger than us; we had to play for him,” said Ottawa receiver J-P Cimankinda. “We went out there and did all that for him and for us.”
After an ankle injury against York in week two sent Tanner DeJong to the sidelines, ownership of the Carleton offence was handed to first-year quarterbacks Reid VanKoughnett and Tristan Rinaldis.
“First-year guys getting their first starts in a Panda Game—you can’t add up all of the challenges that they are faced [with],” said Ravens Head Coach Steve Sumarah. “I thought they handled themselves well.”
Before long, though, it was old favourite Nathan Carter, doing what he has done since he arrived in Carleton, taking a handoff and storming into the Gee-Gees end zone to give the Ravens the lead.
With his 57 rushings yards in the first quarter, Carter etched himself into Ravens history, breaking Mark Brown’s 33-year-old record of 2,759 career rushing yards.
With second-year Ben Maracle orchestrating under the cloudy sky at TD Place, the Gee-Gees controlled most of the offence in the first half. It was punctuated early in the second quarter by a 64-yard connection to Tristan Park for a uOttawa touchdown.
As halftime approached, the sky above TD Place opened up, and the rain that had been threatening all afternoon finally arrived — sending the thousands of fans in attendance for cover on the concourse and both teams to their rooms for a reset with the Gee-Gees leading 12-7.
With the rain beginning to pound down on the fans, a flat third-quarter left both sides restless.
Who would step up? The 2021 Panda looked to be at least partially a disappointment on the field until suddenly it didn’t.
“[It was] another typical Panda Game, never over until it’s over,” said Sumarah. As the fourth quarter rolled on, just one set of four plays saw a Gee-Gees fumble, an incomplete pass by VanKoughnett, a Gee-Gees sack, and a Ravens punt that the Gee-Gees fumbled again.
VanKoughnett pushed the Ravens back down the field before a Brandon Forcier 32-yard field goal sent the Carleton faithful in the south stands into hysterics, giving the Raven’s a 17-16 lead with 3:53 to play.
He was 7-15 for 43 yards, but with one of those connections being Khalik Johnson for his first career OUA touchdown, it was a mixed debut for first-year VanKoughnett. To be dropped into the fire of the Panda Game was something he did need to adjust to though, “The crowd was something I was new to, but I feel like as a team we handled it well,” said Vankoughnett.
The Gee-Gees forced the Ravens back down the field so much that with the clock winding down to one minute and thousands of eyes staring down on him, the fate of the Panda Game rested at the foot of third-year Ottawa kicker Campbell Fair.
“As a kicker, we want to be the most calm guys on the field at all times,” said Fair. “At that moment], I’m just trying to think about mechanics and the most basic form.”
From 45 yards out, Fair sent a kick soaring through the Ottawa sky and right between the uprights. In the process, tying former Ottawa Gee-Gee Lewis Ward for the longest kick in Panda Game history and sealing off a 19-17 win for the Gee-Gees in Panda Game 2021
“It’s definitely the biggest moment in my career for sure,” said Fair.
As the clock hit zero, the north side of TD Place erupted in a sea of jubilated Gee-Gees faithful, storming the field. For the third consecutive season, the Ottawa Gee-Gees took control of Pedro the Panda, and in their first game in Ottawa, in what will be their home for the 2021 season, the Gee-Gees found a way to win on an emotional afternoon.
“More than a Game.”
A message that was emblazoned across the shirts of the family of Francis Perron during the pre-game ceremony but also a message that encapsulated the afternoon. For at least one rainy Saturday in Ottawa, Panda 2021 was more than the play on the field. It was a chance to reflect, an opportunity to celebrate, and a reminder of the beautiful sounds that happen when we have the chance to gather together.