Tuesday, November 20, 2007


My home team's playing for the Grey Cup! Perhaps I could even go so far as to say that Canada's team is playing for the CFL Championship this year. For those fans who come from other cities, I understand your loyalties are split, but you have to admit it's true.

Nobody dislikes the Saskatchewan Roughriders! Even when we're killing other teams we're the underdogs, the small town guys who made good, an eternal Cinderella story.

For those of you reading from lands afar, I'm talking about Canadian football. It's a game not much removed from the American version, but with unique quirks that make it faster and more fun. We play with more guys on a bigger field and three downs instead of four. Other than that and arcane scoring terms like the "rouge", it's pretty much the same product.

The Roughriders are from Regina, the smallest city in the league. They're our equivalent of the Green Bay Packers and their fans are just as loyal.

They were also the first professional sports team I ever saw play. And when I was a kid, I worshipped each and every one of them. They were heroes in a land that had none. Larger than life and yet so much a part of the town that they seemed no different from your dad or next door neighbor.

My family moved to Regina from the SW of Saskatchewan in 1960. Back then, the city had a population of less than 100,000 and not much in the way of traditional sports and entertainment. The Riders were literally the only game in town. And at that time, that wasn't saying much.

The team had suffered a terrible tragedy a couple of years earlier when their four best players were killed in a plane crash returning from our version of the Pro-Bowl. Without their stars, and with the fans' hearts cut out, the Riders endured a string of miserable seasons. Attendance fell to nothing and the franchise was close to going under.

In fact, the team ended up being taken over by the city fathers in a last ditch erffort to save it and to this day remains the only community owned franchise in professional sport. If you live in Saskatchewan, you can buy a club membership and have a say in how things are run.

Anyway, around 1961 or 2, I landed my first job; a paper route with the Regina Leader-Post. And when football season approached, us paperboys were handed books of tickets and asked to sell them door to door as we delivered newspapers, to help keep the team alive. For every book of tickets you sold, you got an end zone seat in a section reserved for kids with an overhead sign that read "RIDER ROOKIES".

I sold two books and my brother and I went to our first football game. It was against the BC Lions and their hated Quarterback (later NFL and B-movie star) Joe Kapp.

Kapp had gotten on the bad side of Saskatchewan kids by becoming the spokesman for "Squirrel" Peanut Butter. We couldn't understand how the people at Squirrel would let a quarterback for some other team try to sell us peanut butter. The brand immediately dropped to last place on the shelves at Safeway. We'd eat crap like "Jif" before we'd let our mothers buy another jar of "Squirrel"!!!

Joe was so detested, that when you got his picture wheel in a bag of Old Dutch Potato Chips, those guys were smart enough to encourage you to return it for a free bag.

Unfortunately, Joe (now dubbed "The Peanut Butter Kid") and his team kicked our ass that night. Although he did get sacked on the two yard line right in front of us which was sweet! We lost bad. But the combination of crisp night air, steaming hot dogs smothered in mustard and the thrill of being in a sea of happy drunks dressed in green and white turned me into one of the best ticket salesmen the team ever had.

I'm not saying that it was all those people I convinced to attend games that turned the Riders around. But turn around they soon did, inaugurating what's still considered the Roughrider's golden age.

In 1963, a Fullback from Washington State named George Reed turned down the Denver Broncos to play in Regina because the Riders offered him $3,000 more in an era when salaries in both leagues were interchangeable.

Reed was an astonishing ball carrier who took endless punishment as he ground out his above 5 yards per carry career average. As a testament to his courage and determination, George once played a half dozen games with a broken leg and broke both his hands four times each over his 13 year career. After he also broke Jim Brown's professional rushing record, 12 different NFL teams offered him a contract. He chose to stay in Regina.

George Reed was also one of the first guys to buy me a beer. I walked into a pub one day just after turning 18 and he was sitting at the bar. His off season job was doing promotional work for a local brewery. I stared. George smiled and asked if I was old enough to drink. I nodded and he suggested I try a "Canadian" and directed the bartender to slide one my way.

I snuck that bottle outside and it stood in a place of honor for many football seasons to come.

Two years after George arrived, the Roughriders paid Ottawa $500 for a back up quarterback named Ron Lancaster. At 5' 5" tall, Lancaster was considered an unlikely candidate for pro ball. As the saying goes, they failed to measure the size of his heart.

I don't know that I can adequately describe the sheer terror you felt as you watched Lancaster scramble out of the pocket, pursued by Defensive lineman literally twice his size, knowing that if he didn't get the pass away he might never get off the ground. Some said the legendary Offensive line that soon formed in front of him, including Ted Urness and Bill Clarke (who lived up my street) felt Lancaster's very life depended on them stopping the blitz.

But the terror was matched by the excitement as Lancaster would scoot to a point where he could just see over the defenders and launch a perfect spiral to his favorite receiver, "Gluey" Hughie Campbell.

Campbell was a long, lean and rubbery man who moved like a Chinese fighting kite, rippling off the ground to snare impossible passes. It was as if he was born to perform this one action with perfection. In fact, that might be true, because Campbell actually wrote his college thesis on the math and geometry involved in successfully completing the forward pass.

By now, I must be coming off like some kind of rabid, stat monkey. But what you have to understand is the Riders were a couple of dozen guys who lived and worked in a really small town that had little else. Most of them had regular jobs there in the off-season. They were our neighbors.

The local Ford dealership didn't need to have a celebrity Saturday because half their sales staff was the defensive backfield to start with. A tight end delivered the mail. Guys who returned punts helped you try on a suit at The Bay. Kicker Alan Ford was even my Math teacher for a while.

Because it was Saskatchewan, nobody treated them like they were special. And they didn't act like they were special either. They just played football for a living. Reed and defensive tackle Ed McQuarters were probably the first black people half of Regina ever met. You saw Bill Baker at church and Wayne Shaw at the grocery store.

It was a grown up version of "Friday Night Lights". Farmers drove tractors and combines to Taylor Field so they could get right back to the fall harvest after a game. We didn't have tailgate parties, but on a cold night, it wasn't unusual to have somebody's mickey passed down a row of strangers until it was gone, or see some guy take hot dog orders for his section because he was heading to the concession stand himself.

I think our official mascot was a Gopher, but the unofficial one was some madman who strapped a flash pot to his head and lit it after every touchdown.

Calgary might have a pretty cowgirl on horseback circling the field, but we had somebody willing to risk blowing his head off everytime we scored -- right in the middle of the stands! I believe the league stepped in and ended the practise before anything more than a few eardrums were lost.

In 1966, led by coach Eagle Keys out of East Jesus, Tennessee (Honest, I am not making that up) the Saskatchewan Roughriders finally won their first Grey Cup. The long yearned for victory and their return to the Championship game the following year marked the end of that golden era.

But the loyalty that decade of teams had created endures to this day.

I last saw Ron Lancaster play in the 1976 Grey Cup game, when Tony Gabriel broke my heart catching a touchdown in the dying minutes to seal a win for the other Roughriders from Ottawa. But I tasted victory again in 1989 at the Skydome in Toronto as the Riders beat Hamilton on the last play of the game -- accompanied by a brother who hadn't even been born when I first saw them play.

I guess, like the place you come from, the teams you love stay a part of you as well. They get into your blood, their character sets a standard that forms your own. In some ways, I think that's what being a fan is really all about. It's not just being a part of something bigger. It's knowing that that something is also a part of you.

Go Riders! The game's Sunday on CBC and available to 70 million homes in the US on Comcast regional sports channels and HD net. I believe it's also available in Europe and Asia. Check your local listings.


Riddley Walker said...

You rabid stat-monkey, you... ;)

Lovely post as ever, Jim.

Anonymous said...

August 30/08 (labour day weekend football)

Jim -

I was just out to Regina for a neice's wedding and a family reunion.
Spent 2 days going to the Sask Roughrider's practice with Bishop practicing. What a feeling sitting in those Regina stands again and soaking the rider pride up like no where else.
I am a long time rider fan from the Eagle Keys and Lancaster days. I went to high school in the late 60's with Eagle's daughter and we used to go to every home game. I held season tickets throughout high school and university while in Regina.
Your comments "I guess, like the place you come from, the teams you love stay a part of you as well. They get into your blood, their character sets a standard that forms your own. In some ways, I think that's what being a fan is really all about. It's not just being a part of something bigger. It's knowing that that something is also a part of you." from an article you wrote last November ring very true!
I now live in Grimsby, Ontario and am still a very avid Sask. rider fan. Just can't shake it and don't want to. In fact, I live just down the street from Ron Lancaster here in Grimsby. The rider pride just sores everytime I see him in town.

Sad news about Ron with lung cancer now but if he fights it the way he fought and played for the Sask. riders than he may just beat this cancer. I'm praying for the best for him.

Great article you wrote back in November 2007. Thanks for the memories.

/Pat (Anderson) Kirkland

Anonymous said...

Great writing.

Anonymous said...

Our family lived in Regina from 1960-70. As a young kid I remember attending games in the "Rider Rookie" section for the grand sum of $0.50 a game. It was just for kids and we were caged in to prevent us from trying to get better seats. Myself, my three siblings and parents have all remained loyal rider fans even though none of us live in Sask anymore and two of us are now living in the US. I attended a practice in '68 or '69 and got as many autographs as I could - Lancaster, Reed, McQuaters, Ford, Urness, Shaw, Baker and many others including Eagle Keys - still have that book today. I remember buying the CFL trading cards - a pack would have bubble gum, three or four player cards and one fold out 8x10 photo. I went to both Lancaster's and Reed's respective homes to get those 8x10's autographed. I asked Hugh Campbell to authograph as Gluie Hughy but said it was too conceited. Unfortuantely those got lost in a move. Anyone that I know who ever lived in Sask during that era remains a rider fan for life. FYI I think George Reed joined the riders in '63 (I think he broke his ankle in his junior year at Washington State - both he and Hugh Campbell were on the Cougers at the same time and I believe still hold some records). Great story.