With the Canadian Football League season over for a month now, I am forced to reflect on a few things. Oh, how it hurts being a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan. But following the Riders does have its rewards: mainly the camaraderie. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, where I had all my schooling and first few jobs in Regina, I’ve been living in Ontario since 1976. Still a Rider fan, though. Once a Rider fan, always a Rider fan.
One of my jobs in Regina was a clerking position at the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office, or SGIO. SGI now. My desk was just a few feet around the corner from Ron Atchison’s office. This was 1974 and 1975. Atch had been retired from the game for several years, but still looked in playing condition. Not an ounce of fat on him. He had the widest, most powerful shoulders I had ever seen.
I had heard stories about Atch over the years. A 6-time All-Star defensive lineman in his 17 years from 1952-1968 with the Riders, he was brutal on the playing field. The meanest SOB to ever don a pair of cleats. But out of uniform, you couldn’t find a more decent guy. I got to know him quite well, dropping in on him on occasion, where I’d listen to his stories about grinding it out in the Canadian Football League trenches. That’s what it’s like in Regina. The Rider players were just regular guys, with jobs like the rest of us.
Established in 1910, the Roughriders are the oldest Canadian professional football team. They have won four Grey Cups (1966, 1989, 2007, and 2013) and have lost 14, along with a handful of heart-breaking playoff games that stopped them from reaching the Big Show. Still, they are “Canada’s Team.” Without them there would be no Canadian Football League because they are the CFL. They’re the Green Machine. Also, here’s a fact: Rider merchandise outsells all other CFL teams combined. And it’s a great source of income for the community owned team.
Not to exaggerate by any means, the Riders play at home for most of the season because there are droves of Rider fans everywhere in the country who attend the games live. My son, Barrie, and I attended two Rider games in Toronto in 2017: a regular season one and a playoff one. When the Rider team stormed onto the field to begin play during the first game, we “Sea of Green” Rider fans gave them a thunderous applause that rocked BMO Field. To which an impressed Argo fan beside me uttered, “Whose home game is this, anyway?” All I could do was smile.
But the playoff game was the best: the Eastern Final. The week before, the crossover Saskatchewan boys had defeated Ottawa in the Eastern Semi-final. Now, at BMO, before a crowd of 24,000-plus, about a third had to be Rider fans. Barrie and I were in a huge, highly charged Rider section behind the Saskatchewan bench. In short, in was a nuthouse. Green-and-White everywhere! A couple of big bruisers wearing Rider jerseys were standing up in the row right in front of us, so we stood too, otherwise we would not have seen anything. For the whole game! Lucky for us, we were in the last row of the first section with a concrete wall behind us, or we would’ve blocked someone else’s view.
It took until half-way through the last quarter for the Riders, who had been pathetic for most of the game, to finally come alive. Down 18-3, quarterback Brandon Bridge marched the team to a TD and field goal within a few minutes. Then, with just over two minutes remaining, they took the lead compliments of a 79-yard punt return by speedy Christion Jones all the way to the end zone. You would have thought the Riders were playing at Mosaic Stadium. The Rider fans were that noisy! But alas, the Argos came back to win it with 23 seconds to go, thus preventing the Riders from appearing in the Grey Cup as the first crossover team to do so. Yes, it hurts being a Rider fan.
On the way to the game, I told Barrie that there’s nothing like attending a Rider playoff game. It would be our first together because we had attended several games in Hamilton and Toronto over the last few years, but only regular season. “You’ll be part of the Rider fraternity now,” I told him.
After the game, and despite the loss, he said, “That was the best sporting event I’ve ever been at!” And that’s really saying something for someone who had figured he’d been at about 75 live pro sporting events in his lifetime--hockey, football, baseball and basketball. Of course, he made me proud. Once again, all I could do was smile.
Other notable Rider end-of the-game losses in past years…
--The 1970 Western Final at Regina against the Calgary Stampeders where Larry Robinson kicked a 32-yard field into the teeth of a strong wind on the last play of the game to beat the Riders 15-14 in an arctic, minus-30 November blizzard. It was the coldest CFL game ever played. Robinson’s boot that day actually went 20 yards wide at first before the wind caught it and put it through the uprights. Robinson was more surprised than anybody. He said later, “I could try that kick in those conditions 100 times and never make one.” But he did it that day. Oh, how that one hurt: The Riders were 14-2 in the regular season.
--The 1972 Grey Cup was a defensive struggle at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynn Stadium which the hometown Tiger-Cats won 13-10 on an Ian Sunter 34-yard field goal on the last play of the game. This one hurt, too.
--The 1976 Grey Cup against the Ottawa Rough Riders. The Western Riders, 17-point favorites, had the lead for most of the game. At the Rider 24-yard line a Tom Clements-to-Tony Gabriel TD pass-and-run play with seconds left did the Westerners in. Ottawa won 23-20. This one really, really hurt because Gabriel was wide open. Hearing his name still makes me cringe today.
--Of course there’s the 2009 Grey Cup and the 13th man on the field. Please, let’s not go into any details. The word hurt does not come close in describing it. Sad is more like it.
Now, for the real sweet wins…
--The 1963 Western Semi-Final, otherwise known as the Miracle at Taylor Field. Down 26 points to Calgary in a two-game total-point playoff, after being whipped 35-9 in Calgary, the Riders came roaring back to win 39-12 at home and snatch the series 48-47. First-year Rider and soon-to-be legend Ron Lancaster threw five touchdowns and set a Western Conference record by passing for 492 yards. When the game started, only a few thousand fans were in the Taylor Field seats. But by half-time, the place was packed, while cars were seen filled with fans nudging bumper-to-bumper outside, trying to get in to catch the action.
--The 1966 Grey Cup. Although Russ Jackson’s Ottawa Rough Riders were favored, Saskatchewan won their first Grey Cup 29-14, after a 56-year drought and nine tries at the Big One. Fourteen at the time and in my first year of high school, I was watching the game on our family black-and-white TV. As soon as the game ended, my older brother, Greg, hurried home from a party and scrambled to his room for his trombone, which he had played in a school band. He said he was heading downtown where he had heard all hell was breaking loose. Once he left, I could hear him blowing his instrument out the car window for at least two blocks, while his friend did the driving. He told me later that it was hilarious hearing his trombone blasts echoing off the downtown buildings in the midst of the wild celebrations.
The 1989 Grey Cup. In an all-out offensive slugfest, Saskatchewan beat Hamilton 43-40 on a 35-yard field goal by Dave Ridgway on the last play of the game. It was the Riders second title. Rider fans still call it “The Kick.”
The 2013 Grey Cup. Held in Regina, the Riders had to win this one and did before their Sea of Green faithful. The weather had been awful all week, extremely cold, just plain miserable, reminiscent of the 1970 Western Final. Then, for Game Sunday, it mysteriously warmed up to zero with no wind. By Monday, the frigid temperatures returned, as if God wanted this game to be played without having to battle the elements. Sorry Tiger-Cat fans, you didn’t stand a chance in this one. The Riders won handily, 45-23.
Being a Rider fan is unique, win or lose. It can hurt at times, but it’s fun. It’s a fraternity. And I love it. Looking forward to 2018.