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A beloved Rutgers football tradition continues despite global pandemic

The cannon fire brings comfort and a sense of normalcy for the fan base and the university during this time.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 home opener for Rutgers football was certainly different than originally anticipated back when Greg Schiano returned home to the program last December. Due to the global pandemic COVID-19, other than the teams themselves, staff personnel, and family members, SHI Stadium was almost completely empty. There were no fans, no cheerleaders, and no band. The pageantry of game day, including tailgating, the tradition of cheering the team entering the Stadium along the Scarlet Walk and the normal buzz of anticipation before kickoff were sadly absent. That will be the case all season, except for one long standing Rutgers tradition that will remain.

Cannon fire will continue to fill the air every game this season. When the Scarlet Knights enter and exit the field, as well as put points on the scoreboard, the familiar boom will sound.

The group that operates the cannon is the Second Regiment Middlesex County Militia. Their leader, John Nelson, explained that the group refers to themselves as the Rutgers Artillery Crew. As for the experience at the home opener against Indiana on Halloween, Nelson simply stated, “It was different.”

For longtime Rutgers fans and people associated with the football program, the continuation of this tradition is invaluable.

Chris Carlin, the radio voice of Rutgers football who began covering games as a sideline reporter in 2001 when Schiano first led the program, explained why it is so important. “It is comforting. In a bizarre time right now, it’s so exciting around Rutgers and we unfortunately can’t have fans there. It does at least supply some normalcy to the situation.” He continued, “Every bit of tradition that you can continue, even in this incredibly strange time that we are in, I think is very important. Just for fans to be able to hear (the cannon) on TV watching the games, I think that’s great.”

The way in which the firing of the cannon became embedded as a game day tradition is an interesting story that Nelson explained. “Back in the seventies, one of our guys was working in the parking area at the time when he was a student. He overhead a conversation about the cannon and how the class of 1949 really wished it was working again. He put his two cents in and told them to contact Lou Force, who was our commanding officer at the time.”

The cannon was purchased in order to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first college football game, a 6-4 Rutgers victory over Princeton. However, it stopped working at some point due to the operators lacking familiarity with Revolutionary War cannons. Enter Nelson’s unit, who had the expertise and knowledge to fix the issue.

“One weekend, Lou told us to get our stuff together, as we were going to a football game, Nelson said. He further explained, “We had our own cannon at the time and put it on our trailer. When we got there, underneath the old green scoreboard they had set up the Rutgers cannon, the red one you see now. We decided to take a look at it before we broke ours out.”

Nelson gives a technical explanation, stating “What they had done was make their charges out of aluminum foil, rammed it home and fired it. What they didn’t do is what we do, which is put what they call a worm down it by screwing it in and pulling out the remnants of the old charge. What happened is that it eventually got to the point that when you put the wick in, it did not make a contacted charge. We took it all out, looked it over and Lou decided that it was safe enough to try the gun.”

What happened next chartered a path for a new tradition at Rutgers.

Nelson explained, “We put a charge in it and there was no one in the stadium bowl. It was Homecoming. We decided to put a double charge in it to see if it would go off. If it did and nothing went wrong, you can then use a single moving forward. We put it in, packed it up and everyone stood behind the gun and fired it. It rang like the cannon was declaring, ‘I’m back in action!’”

The reaction from the cannon firing was all the confirmation needed that Nelson’s group had done well. “We walked up to it to continue preparations and we looked down below us. The athletic director at the time was looking up at the hill and had a smile on that you could see a mile away, giving us the thumbs up. I guess we did well.”

The athletic director was Fred Gruninger, who was inducted into the 2019 Rutgers Hall of Fame class and confirmed that it was his direction to resurrect that cannon at football games.

Nelson explained how things evolved from that first game. “We thought we took care of the homecoming and we were good. We then got asked back. They put us on the hill on the far side by the red lot. We ended up having a very good time there for years until they closed the stadium all in. We’ve been in the stadium on the field ever since.”

Four plus decades later and despite a global pandemic, the tradition continues to resonate with the fan base.

“They connect the history of the school and the program with the current day,” explained Jon Newman, who is a longtime season ticket holder and donor, as well as the co-host of the Scarlet Spotlight podcast who led the grassroots fundraising campaign when Schiano was hired last winter that raised over $300,000 for the RFund. He continued, “It connects the days when Rutgers played Princeton every year to where we are now playing Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten. So much history gets forgotten or doesn’t carry on, so to see that group still involved ties it all together. Some of my earliest memories of Rutgers Stadium is when the cannon went off for the team coming out and when they scored. It’s great in times like these that they are allowed to take part.”

As for when the cannon is fired, Nelson explained the origin of it. “We went through the whole first game firing every time Rutgers scored. Every time we did, the fans seemed happy. We decided to fire on every score. We decided knowing what we know, we could fire for the score, which is what they expected and the point after. It is a very quick reload and a very safe one if you do it right. When the team came out, we fired. When it was halftime, we fired. End of the game, we fired. There was some discussion with Rutgers on executing things that way.”

As for if there was any doubt Nelson’s team would continue the tradition this season, he explained that “the only doubt we had was whether the Big Ten would approve us to be there or not. That’s the only reason we would have shut down. Fortunately, they said since we aren’t on the field and away from people, we could come.”

The cannon was relocated from the corner of one end zone to the concourse level near the big scoreboard for this season. Carlin made an admission that their location poses challenges for his radio broadcast team that includes Eric LeGrand and Ray Lucas. “We are on the same side as them in the Stadium, so every time they shoot the cannon it still scares the daylight out of us.”

In regard to the absence of fan noise, Nelson’s crew was not phased. “Even when their is fan noise, it’s quiet because at the Revolutionary War reenactments that we do, there are always other cannons and things going on. So you get used to the noise. But actually yes, it was odd without fans because we like to egg them on. They did have crowd noise in the speakers, which they cranked up to an 11.”

As for the impact they made at the home opener, Nelson said “I hope it gave Rutgers on the field a little bit of a ‘yeah we still love you’ feel when they heard the cannons go off.” Regarding plans to be there the rest of this season, which will a December home game for the first time, he confirmed by stating “Cold feet and all, we’ll be there. Hopefully they’ll shovel out the snow for us.”

The Rutgers Artillery Crew was about 10 people in the beginning and are now down to down to half a dozen these days. Amazingly, four are original members and the group has always worn the traditional Revolutionary War uniforms. As for the groups standing, Nelson explained “We are the Second Regiment Middlesex County Militia and believe it or not, we are activated. We actually have activated papers from the Governor as part of the National Guard. We also do Revolutionary War reenactments. When we sent our papers in, it came back with this extra paper. Rutgers games are pretty much what we do now, not much of the Revolutionary War reenacting anymore. We are probably going to do something for the 250th Anniversary though.”

On what drives this group to continue after all of these years, Nelson said “You have to have fun. If you aren’t having fun, you don’t really need to be there.”

There hasn’t been much fun for fans to enjoy at Rutgers football games in recent seasons, but John Capodici explained how the cannon crew helped get everyone through difficult times. “During the past few years. it was brutal sitting through the defeats. Even being humiliated in our house on the field, opposing fans never dissed the Cannon Crew.” The former trustee, former President of the Rutgers Alumni Association and honored loyal son of Rutgers continued, “With every shot fired, there was hope reminiscent of the Battle of Trenton. This group was the only consistent, enjoyable experience at games in recent years. They represent the best of Rutgers.”

As for why Nelson and his team continue after all these years, I asked if it was due to a sense of duty? “Yes it is. We also go there to support Rutgers and it is a lot of fun.”

In a year that the country is greatly impacted by the global pandemic and sports have returned in a very different setting, anything that brings fun is a welcomed development. For Rutgers fans unable to attend home games, knowing that the tradition of firing the cannon remains is a comforting sign that things will return to normal at some point. “With the cannon, it’s so purely Rutgers,” said Carlin. “It’s so important to have that identity with traditions.”

Whenever fans are able to return to Rutgers home games, they can take comfort in knowing that Nelson and his crew will still be firing away.