If you live in Western Canada, at least on the prairies where we still care about such things, you would know that on Sunday the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be playing in the Grey Cup, which this year is being held in that province’s capital city, my hometown, Regina.
I actually grew up in the old north end of Regina, two blocks from Mosaic Stadium, or as it was known back in the day, Taylor Field. (Who was Taylor anyway? I’m not sure that I ever knew. Quick edit at this point: please see Aydon Charlton’s comment on this blog for some interesting notes on Mr. Taylor and other Roughrider lore and legend.)
Growing up as close to the Elysian field as I did, it obviously played a big part in my life and in the life of my friends. On game days, my dad would park his car in the garage so I could park cars alongside and in back of the garage. When I was ten years old or so, this constituted the biggest part of my annual income. I would stand on the street with a cardboard sign, hoping to attract some generous fans from the wealthier south end of town. It was a real bonus if they’d had a few drinks because that usually meant they would be more generous.
My friends and I could actually get into the games in a few different ways. One was by hopping the fence which was a little tricky as it was topped with barbed wire and you had to go quickly to avoid being caught by one of the staff (especially the old geezer we dubbed “sausage fingers”), or by the air cadets who patrolled the inside perimeter, ever vigilant for us miscreants.
The other way, which was safer and actually paid something, was to become a hustler for a man known as Spud Leggett. There was no beer at the games in those days, so you were effectively selling mix to the fans who, generally speaking, may have been a lot of things, but sober was not one of them. I preferred selling pop corn or peanuts because they weren’t as messy as pop. Spud’s pre-game pep talk to the motley assembly of rugrat hustlers should have been taped for the ages, but I remember the bottom line was in fact the bottom line, with Spud saying, “The better yous guys do, the better I do, so get out there and sell, sell, sell.” Or words to that effect.
As I grew older, I became more aware of the players in our community. When I got to grad 8 at old Albert School, we had an actual Rider for our phys ed coach. His name was Dale West and he had been an all star defensive back. Not only that, he was a really good guy. It was a big deal for us to have him as a teacher, a real brush with greatness at that young and impressionable age.
In high school at Scott Collegiate, a knee injury prevented me from playing football, so my dream of actually playing for the Riders some day died early. But I did play basketball. The coach at Thom Collegiate (north end rivals) was Al Ford, probably one of the last players in the league to play both defence and offence. He was a punter as well. It was a big deal to shake his hand at the end of the day.
Over at Central Collegiate, Ron Lancaster was the head coach, and again it was a big deal to play a good game against Central and somehow earn his respect. I also shared a few cigarettes with Ronnie in the waiting room of the old Grey Nuns Hospital emergency ward on one occasion. With were both in for some kind of procedure – you know how it is for us athletes. I think I was having an infected blister on the ball of my foot treated (ouch), but I can’t remember why he was there.
(And yes it’s true, I am old enough to remember smoking in a hospital. It seems like a million years ago.)
Bill Baker, a defensive lineman for the Riders who came to be known as Baker the Undertaker for his penchant to try to decapitate opposing quarterbacks had gone to my high school. He gave a speech at my grade 12 grad.
And so it was in my part of Regina, at least, the team was involved in the day to day life of the community and they were loved, we lived and died with them. When they won the Grey Cup for the first time in 1966, I was 10 years old and I assumed my life would be full of many Grey Cup victories, but such was not the case. The next one didn’t come until 23 years later (Lancaster’s number had been 23, for those who believe in such things) in 1989.
I had been living in Toronto prior to that where the CFL hardly registers, but got back to Regina in time for that Grey Cup. I watched the game at my brother’s house and then as it was a fairly mild night (only -20 or so) I walked home to my apartment downtown. To get home I had to cross Albert Street, which was a steady slow-moving stream of pick up trucks by the time I got there.
Most of the trucks had some good old boys in the back of them, probably sitting on hay bails. One of these guys saw me and said, “Hey! Where’s your beer?” I shrugged my shoulders, showed my empty hands, and he reached down and came up with a Pilsner tall boy for me.
What the hell? The Riders had just won the Grey Cup!
I don’t know what the team means to people in other parts of the province, or in the far-flung region of Rider Nation that literally spans the globe, and I don’t know what they mean to fans in Regina and Saskatchewan today, but they sure meant a lot to me growing up in the shadow of Taylor Field, and they still do to this day.
What can I say? Cut me, I bleed green.
Go Riders Go!
Thanks for reading. Here’s a song by one of my favourite Saskatchewan bands.