In Hamilton, football means more. I realize that’s a hard statement to quantify, but when you’re in the vicinity of the old Ivor Wynne Stadium in the early hours of a game day it is unassailable fact. The fragrance of charred bratwurst mixes with that of local craft beer and alerts your senses: This is the home of Ti-Cat football. And to the fans here, it means everything.
For the Box J Boys—named for the supporters’ section in the former Ivor Wynne—tailgating starts at 9:00 a.m. The most popular spot is Lot E, on the corner of Chapple St. and Barton St. E., and sits just a couple blocks from the stadium entrance.
The best parking spots aside from the tailgates are on the lawns of friendly neighbours who for a nominal fee will let you pull up beside their petunias. Those spots go quick, though, and the next-best alternatives are at nearby schools and churches, who use the parking money plus the sale of baked goods to the tailgating crowd to fund their buildings. The team is not just an entertainment option—it is a vessel that helps the community thrive.
Even if fans aren’t tailgating, many arrive early to high-five players as they pull into the employee lot. So much excitement for a team that hasn’t won a championship in 17 years. Yet they still party like it’s 1999.
On every residential block in the city you’ll see at least one Tiger-Cats flag flying on a front porch. But here in Ward 3, the east end of the city historically populated with steelworkers, it seems like every house is adorned with black and yellow window dressing.
The team is so much the people’s that it sits in the middle of a residential subdivision, and season-ticket holders have been known to buy property in the area just so they have an optimum destination to pre-drink. When it was decided in 2009 that the Pan Am Games were coming to town, some lobbied to move the site of the yet-to-be-built Tim Hortons Field to a location near the water. It could have been beautiful—an architect’s dream. Except it wouldn’t have the gritty character of its diehard fans. In hindsight, staying firm on that hollowed ground was the right choice. The grass may have actually been greener in the alternate location, but it wouldn’t have been better.
These fans are undeterred despite losing by slim margins in both the Grey Cup in 2014 and the East Division final in 2015. Year after year they trek back to Balsam Ave. to cheer with the steadfast belief that this is the year they’ll win the title. Night after night you can pull up a spot at the bar at West Town Bar & Grill and debate with Monday morning quarterbacks what the team needs to do more or less. If you keep your head on a swivel you can catch the players congregating here, too. Local boy Dave Stala no longer plays for the team but is still given the hero’s treatment on sight. No, this is not the SEC—this is Locke St.
At other stadiums, the vast majority of fans don the uniform of the starting quarterback or the star tailback. In Hamilton, fans favour the jerseys of local stars. Go to a game today and you’re just as likely to see a Mike Daly jersey as anything else. The homegrown defensive back who won a national title with McMaster now is trying to do the same as a pro.
And the locals who wear his name on their backs believe he will.
Hamilton is known for a small handful of things: steel, music, the escarpment and football. But Tiger-Cats fans are the true pride of Hamilton.
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