In the dark, the Friday night lights beamed bright, glinted off helmets and put an electric spotlight on the teens who ruled Investors Group Field.
It was the first time a high school football game played out at the new stadium, and the first edition of the Winnipeg High School Football League's planned MS Society benefit game too, and so all the excitement had a healthy crowd to match: perhaps 600 or more turned out to watch the Dakota Lancers get the best of the Vincent Massey Trojans, 15-5. They were cheering, clapping, tapping thundersticks.
"I played at the old stadium, but this is so much nicer, everything is so much louder," Lancers starting pivot Ben Christensen said, after leading his team to the triumph. "It was just awesome."
On the field, cleats found clean turf instead of the sometimes roughed-up dirt and grass to which high school teams are often accustomed. So feet flew faster, and that made for some heroics: in the dying minute of the second quarter, a Lancers interception opened up a chance. With just 30 seconds left, a busted play was redeemed when Lancers receiver Chris Donnelly swiveled around a Trojans defender, reached up, and hauled down a laser beam pass from Christensen.
Donnelly, a senior, ran it in to the house, a 33-yard touchdown catch to lift the Lancers to an 8-0 lead which the Trojans would never catch. The crowd roared.
"It was unbelievable, like nothing I've ever had before," Donnelly said.
Best of all, the tilt was for a good cause. Getting recognition for the kids was part of the plan when former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Kelly Butler, the MS Society and Football Manitoba teamed up to launch the fundraising game; that matched perfectly with the Winnipeg High School Football League, which is looking to put down deeper roots in the community.
In the future, Butler said, he hopes for the MS Society game to grow into a series; they already had the red-and-white custom MS Society jerseys. For Butler, it's not just charity. This is personal: his mother was diagnosed with MS when he was only five years old. And football, he said, helped put him on a solid road.
"How could I go out there and connect something that had given me so much, and a city I retired in, and give to a great cause?" Butler said. "Manitoba has the largest population of MS in all of Canada, and (amateur) football in general needed to get a push, so it was a match made in heaven."
Yeah, say that again: when WHSFL commissioner Rick Henkewich walked in to IGF, "just the whole atmosphere, there was a great catch, and you could hear the crowd," Henkewich said, giddy with the vibe. "This is great."
Parents around the stadium roundly agreed, looking at the buzz a big-name high school game could bring to young athletes.
"You don't get crowds like this at the home games," Lori Milani said with a grin, as she watched her son Derek Milani, 17, a senior on the Lancers' defence. Her husband John coaches the Dakota linebackers.
"It's a real honour... The more recognition they can bring to amateur ball, the better. There's a lot of kids who want to go on and play for the Rifles, or the Bisons."