By Martin Cleary
Tackle football is a game of raw emotions.
In the days preceding a game, the players gradually psyche themselves up to face their despised opponent.
The game is filled with ups and downs, celebrations and disappointment, elation and pain.
The post game is a time for reflection, rejoicing, review and looking ahead to do it all again next week.
The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees’ football team is familiar with that process.
But every player, coach and team support member had their emotions stretched to the limits, when they learned the shocking news about the tragic passing of defensive tackle Francis Perron, who had a heart attack following an 11-10 defeat to the University of Toronto Varsity Blues on Sept. 18.
The Gee-Gees football program and the university campus were shaken by the loss of a top student-athlete.
Perron wore the Gee-Gees’ uniform for 23 career games (2017-21) and recorded 30 tackles, 32 assisted tackles, four sacks, six tackles for loss and one key fumble recovery in 2019. He turned that 22-yard fumble recovery into the game-winning touchdown as the Gee-Gees defeated Carleton University Ravens 32-10 in the Panda Game.
Academically, the fifth-year mechanical engineering student was a high achiever in the classroom and won two Academic All-Canadian awards. The university made Perron a three-time Academic All-Canadian on Thursday night, when it presented that significant award to 48 per cent of its student-athletes in varsity sports for the 2020-21 varsity campaign, which was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The student-athletes continued to practise last season, despite no competitive seasons.
Last week, Ontario University Athletics honoured Perron’s athletic skills, academic achievements and citizenship by naming him the recipient of the Russ Jackson Award in “a collective effort from the conference’s coaches.”
“It’s a wonderful tribute to Francis, a.k.a. Frank,” said University of Ottawa director of varsity athletics Sue Hylland in an interview Thursday. “He epitomized what we want our student-athletes to be.
“He also was nominated by us in 2019. It was fitting his name went in again this year. It’s a wonderful tribute to him.”
At next week’s U Sports football awards ceremony, Perron will be the OUA nominee for the national Russ Jackson Award. He will be considered for the award along with the recipients from the three other conferences: Canada West, linebacker Josiah Schakel, University of Alberta; AUS, linebacker Graeme Stevens, Mount Allison University; and RSEQ, defensive end Malick Sylvain, Concordia University.
Perron’s bio on the Gee-Gees’ football website gave a keen insight into the fifth-year senior: “A bright, passionate and caring person, Perron poured himself into his craft as a player and in his academic pursuit of becoming an engineer. He was as big of a star in the classroom as he was on the field, becoming a multiple-time U Sports Academic All-Canadian, while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Ottawa.”
The week after Perron’s passing was particularly challenging for everyone connected with the football team. Early-week practices were cancelled before the team started to regroup and prepare for a game one week after Perron’s death against the Queen’s University Gaels.
While the game was played in Kingston, Perron was remembered at the start in a special way. In a pre-game ceremony at Richardson Stadium, the Gee-Gees’ and Gaels’ captains had commemorative No. 99 stickers placed on their helmets. All OUA football players wore the No. 99 sticker for the rest of the season to keep his memory alive.
After a moment of silence before the start of the Ottawa-Queen’s game, Perron’s framed jersey was brought to centre field. As the game was about to start, the Gee-Gees sent 11 players onto the field and the 12th player was represented by Perron’s framed jersey. Ottawa took a ceremonial delay of game penalty to complete the ceremony.
“It was emotional,” Gee-Gees head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said about the remembrance ceremony for Perron. “It was nostalgic, it was a mixed bag of feelings. Being on the field again, since last weekend (against Toronto), just being a part of a football game again, it was really different.
“It was important to play the full 60 minutes, not only for (Perron), but also for our team.”
Queen’s won the game 30-7, but the Gee-Gees scored their only points, a converted touchdown, on their final drive of the game.
Before joining the Gee-Gees, Perron, a Sherbrooke, Que., native, was a student-athlete at CEGEP de Sherbrooke from 2014-16. He was the RSEQ division 2 conference defensive player of the year, defensive lineman of the year and an all-star. In 2016, he led the conference with 12 sacks.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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