For Mark Stinson, being chosen for the University of Toronto football team was a bit like joining Napoleon's army during the retreat from Moscow. The once-mighty Varsity Blues were a fallen power and things were about to get even worse.
The team's stadium on Bloor Street had been demolished. The grass was gone and the field was an expanse of sun-baked mud, so hard that students used it as a rollerblading rink. There were no change rooms - the Blues put on their gear in a leaking construction trailer and used porta-potties.
"It looked pretty grim," Mr. Stinson recalls.
He was about to become part of one of the worst losing streaks in university sports - seven years and 49 games. When he came to the team in 2004, it was already under way - the Blues had gone winless for three years.
Mr. Stinson, who would go on to become team captain, was undeterred. "I thought we could get better," he says. "I was stoked."
At 19, he was named starting quarterback, a position that once meant free beer and a supply of women to rival Brad Pitt in his single days. But Mr. Stinson walked the campus unnoticed.
On the field, his optimism was put to the test: In the first play of the season opener in 2004, he threw a pass that was intercepted and run for a touchdown by a Wilfrid Laurier player. In his second game, McMaster's star running back hurdled the Toronto defensive line, knocked over the linebackers and ran for a touchdown. Mr. Stinson was sacked so many times he lost count - every time the ball was snapped, the McMaster defence poured through his line like Genghis Khan's Mongol horde storming a village.
"We got our faces ground into the mud," he recalls. "It was rough."
But this fall, Mr. Stinson, 23, and his team were finally redeemed: The Blues won their first game since 2001, beating the Waterloo Warriors in their season opener, 18-17 (although they went on to lose to the Windsor Lancers, 38-14).
That win, though, was a vindication for the team's new coach, Greg DeLaval.
"The team needed that," he says. "They need to know that they can win."
But to fully restore the fortunes of the Varsity Blues, Mr. DeLaval, who previously coached at the University of Calgary and St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia, must fight on several fronts. He must improve the team's skill level, recruit new players, battle for improved funding - and find ways to bring football to the attention of students who seem more interested in film festivals than a team that dominated in the age of Knute Rockne.
Although college football is a virtual religion at some campuses (especially in the United States), it seems far from the minds of many U of T students.
"I don't care about football," second-year engineering student Azriel Kurtz said. "I don't understand the game."
Masters student Taylor Dalyrymple wasn't sure if U of T had a football team, and hadn't even heard about the losing streak. "That sucks!" he said when told of the team's 49 losses, then added, "They don't care about sports here. This isn't a football school."
The university's high academic standards and limited athletic scholarships complicate recruiting. Some talented players don't have the marks to get in. Others get richer scholarship offers.
Then there's the matter of selling players on a team best known for losing. "We have to win to attract players," Mr. DeLaval says. "We know that."
There was a time when the Blues were the premier destination for generations of players. In the heyday of the 1940s through the early 1970s, the Blues were one of the fabled Big Four, and the players reigned over campus life like pigskin gods. Games were an event - the old Varsity stadium had more than 20,000 seats, and that wasn't enough. When the team played Western for the 1974 Vanier Cup, the game had to be moved to Exhibition Stadium, which held 28,000.
The team's history includes 25 Ontario League Championships, two Vanier Cups and four Grey Cups (college teams once competed against pros). Although the team won the Vanier Cup in 1993, its fortunes were soon in decline.
Players quit, and it was hard to get new ones. At one point, there were only 35 players in the U of T football program (powerhouse schools typically have 125).
By last year, the Blues were a certified laughingstock, and press coverage was generally limited to stories of their downfall. When The Globe and Mail wrote a story about their losing streak in 2007, readers responded: One called the team "Canadian university football's answer to the Bad News Bears." Another called them "an absolute embarrassment to all the generations of proud and accomplished student athletes who for over 100 years built a legacy."
One reader found a positive note: "Good to know that they are not on steroids."
Football experts say the team's losing streak was the result of administrative neglect and funding cuts that devalued the football program. "The team just didn't have the resources," says Frank Cosentino, formerly a Canadian Football League quarterback and professor at York University who specialized in sports history. "And the results reflect that."
Mr. Cosentino says football is a complex, expensive game that demands a specialized coaching staff and sustained recruiting. And if a team starts losing, it gets harder to attract talented high-school players. "It's hard on the players," he says. "The cycle just keeps repeating itself."
Mr. DeLaval has instituted a series of changes, including new plays, tougher training and a team creed that the players chant at the close of every practice. The players train most of the summer (up to nine hours a day) and spend at least four hours a day practising and attending team meetings during the fall semester. "It takes a lot of sacrifice," says Mr. Stinson. "We do it because we love the game. We're keeping the faith."
The Blues hope that their recent win is part of a resurrection that will return them to a respectable position in the collegiate hierarchy.
"The monkey's off our back," receiver James McIntosh said.
"I know some people might not think it's that big a deal," Mr. Stinson said. "But for us, it was huge. There are no words in the dictionary to explain what it was like. The only guys who really understand were on the field that day."