The Victory Cannon: Former, current players discuss importance of Central-Western rivalry
Corey Willis lined up on the left side of the offensive formation with 2:47 to play on Nov. 1, 2017.
He moved inside and caught a Shane Morris thrown ball almost right at midfield in one-on-one coverage and sprinted to the southwest end zone at Waldo Stadium.
The score capped a run of 21-unanswered points in the fourth quarter as Central Michigan won 35-28 and brought home the Victory Cannon.
But the catch was not Willis' favorite memory of the rivalry, however, it was part of it.
"That whole second half was magical," Willis said.
But the most magical part for him was wearing the jersey number of his best friend during his time at Central Michigan.
No. 21 – Derrick Nash.
Nash died in 2015 at the age of 20 following a battle with leukemia. After his death, former coach John Bonamego selected one player – usually the "player of the game" the week before – to wear the 21 jersey in Nash's honor.
Willis said that making one of the biggest plays of his life wearing his best friend's jersey is a moment he is most proud of.
“I just think it was an awesome feeling, playing CMU football and understanding the tradition that goes with it," Willis said. "When I came to CMU, I was just trying to find a way to be remembered, figure out a way to have a lasting impression on this university and I feel like the easiest way to do that is in the Western rivalry."
After the Chippewas won the 89th playing of the rivalry game, they lifted the Victory Cannon above their heads.
The Victory Cannon, first introduced in 2008, was established by the student government associations at Central and Western Michigan.
It symbolizes the cannons in both Kelly/Shorts Stadium and Waldo Stadium that are fired after each score. The gold cannon sits atop a block with plaques with each the name of each university and smaller plaques signifying winning scores.
Western Michigan leads the series, which began in 1907, 49-39-2 and it is one of the oldest rivalries in the Mid-American Conference.
CMU and WMU have battled for the Victory Cannon 11 times and the Broncos have housed it in Kalamazoo six times. Four of those Bronco victories came in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
The Chippewas won the Cannon first with a 38-28 win over WMU. The Broncos won the game last year, 35-10 in Mount Pleasant and took the Cannon back to Kalamazoo.
Quarterback Dan LeFevour was a member of that 2008 team that won the trophy for the first time. However, the then-junior did not play in the game due to injury.
He said that the rivalry was great, even before the Cannon was introduced.
"It meant a lot, obviously," LeFevour said. "The emotion was super high, the stadium was always packed. Both fan bases were super into it and it was just super fun to play in it, lots of energy. Every year was special and it is something that I’ll remember for a very long time."
When fans and friends ask him, the former quarterback often struggles to describe the feeling of stepping on the field for the annual rivalry.
"There’s energy in the stands, in the parking lot and of course on the field," LeFevour said. "It’s just an electric atmosphere.
"If I’m not on the football field and just watching the game from home, I don’t get as fired up as I did when I was playing. But when I step on that field, especially for a Central-Western game, you can just feel the energy and feel the intensity just feels a little bit different."
LeFevour said that his favorite game against WMU was 2006.
It was his first rivalry match as a redshirt freshman, and he learned more about himself than ever. He learned his role was as a leader for the Chippewas.
"We won the MAC West (Division) and validated everything that we did that year," LeFevour said. "It had been 12 years since Central Michigan made a MAC championship game and being a redshirt freshman, being able to achieve those things for my teammates meant a lot personally and from a program standpoint, getting back to the top of our conference was very important."
Tyler Conklin, a former tight end, transferred to CMU from Northwood after his freshman year and did not know much about the rivalry until he played in it.
But when he did, it became a memory he'd never forget it.
"It's everything," Conklin said. "The trophy sits there in one of the end zones during the whole game and when you're at home and you lose that game, you have to watch the other team grab it in your home stadium and be happy – it hurts."
Beating Western Michigan is enough motivation for any Chippewa, but the 2017 game had extra emphasis for the seniors playing the Broncos for the final time. WMU had won the game, and therefore the trophy, three straight times and five out of the previous six.
Conklin and Willis were both seniors in 2017 and wanted to leave an impact on the year, the program and the rivalry.
"Western was talking crap the whole game," Conklin said. "All of a sudden, after the game, we were holding that trophy. You kind of know that you're etched in history at that point. That year, we ended the streak of them having the trophy.
"Just holding up that trophy as a team in their home stadium and watch them walk off in disappointment — that's the big thing."
Willis said he's in the same boat as Conklin in the fact that he believes the Cannon trophy is the most important for both the CMU and WMU programs.
"It’s the ultimate trophy you can have at CMU," Willis said. "Everybody wants MAC championships and bowl games. If you win four or five bowl games or MAC championships but you don’t get that Cannon Trophy, at the end of the day it’s a bit of a disappointment. To me, it’s just the ultimate bragging rights."
Steve Eipper is one of those guys that had to endure losing the Cannon on home turf last season. The senior center said that he has one mission heading into his final appearance against the Broncos.
Bring home the Cannon.
"Losing last year, we had some troubles, but that game hurt a little bit more because it was Western and losing that trophy really sucked," Eipper said. "So, going down there and winning that trophy back is important."
Eipper said the 2017 game and the elation he and his teammates felt following made it his favorite game he has played in a Chippewa uniform. The stakes are always higher.
"There’s obviously a lot of emotions in this game this rivalry goes back a long time," Eipper said. "We don’t like each other that much, and there’s a lot of emotion. This is a really important game for us to get.
"It's Western, and we’re going to come ready to play."