Game Changer

The Rider’s Grey Cup win actually does mean something

by Stephen LaRose

Grey Cup Celebration - photo by Eagleclaw Thom

With a couple minutes left to play in the 2013 Grey Cup, TSN’s cameras pictured a green-clad woman, looking to be in her late ’60s or early ’70s, leaning on a railing on the west side stands, and she was weeping.

If you’re a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan of a certain age, you know why.

At that point, the game was all but irrelevant. Running back Kory Sheets had just converted a second-and-19 with a 21-yard run, helping to erase a 57-year-old record for most rushing yards in a Grey Cup game, one of the few Canadian Football League records that is or was not held by George Reed. Quarterback Darian Durant passed for three touchdowns, two to 38-year-old Geroy Simon, the first Rider receiver to score more than one touchdown in a game. The Gods of Football bailed out the Riders on one first quarter play, when a Hamilton Tiger-Cat defender popped the ball from Durant’s arms during a broken play. The ball fell into Sheets’ hands, and he ran for another 39 of his 197 yards.

After that, the fans took over. Almost all of the 44,710 in Mosaic Stadium howled ‘HEEENNNNNNNNNNN…RRRRRRYYYYYYY’ during the TiCats’ offensive plays, leaving their quarterback, Henry Burris, as rattled as a set of maracas in a Carmen Miranda musical.

And yet she still weeps. And I know why.

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These aren’t your Daddy’s Roughriders. In the first 60 years of the CFL’s modern era — from 1946 to 2006 — the Roughriders appeared in eight Grey Cup games (1951, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1989, 1997) and won two. In the seven years from 2007 to 2013, the Riders have appeared in four Grey Cup games (2007, 2009, 2010, 2013) and have won two. For all the talk about the seasons when Ron Lancaster and George Reed dominated the CFL, the Roughriders never have had it so good, on or off the field.

2006 marks the dividing line between the old and new Roughriders, and not because that was the year Eric Tillman replaced Roy Shivers as general manager. It was the year when an economic turnaround, social media coming of age, a larger television contract with TSN, and a resurgent Roughrider team coincided with a form of corporate socialism called the CFL Salary Management System, mandating that all teams spend a maximum $4.09 million on players’ salaries. In years gone by, Rider fans would complain that teams with deeper pockets bought free agents or had more extensive scouting systems. Today, the Roughriders sell more merchandise than the rest of the CFL teams combined, and more merch —replica jerseys, hats, toques, scarves, shoes, shirts, pajamas, barbecue covers, windshield washer fluid —  in Canada than all 32 NFL teams combined. More merchandise, in fact, than any other Canadian sports team save the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Riders led the league in average attendance through the regular season, they were the top box office draw when they played on the road, and were the top draw on TSN’s broadcasts. This year’s Grey Cup was the most watched sports program in 2013, the fourth most-watched Grey Cup ever, the Western Final between the Roughriders and the Calgary Stampeders outdrew Hockey Night in Canada (1.9 million pairs of eyeballs to 1.88 million for games featuring the Leafs and Canadiens).

All this means that when the Riders close the book on the 2013 financial year, this March, they will boast a profit that will almost certainly be larger than its total operating budget of 15 years ago.

And yet she weeps.

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If you’re over the age of 25, you know the Saskatchewan Roughriders as the leading cause of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Canada. The team’s legendary losses in the Grey Cup or in playoff games — or, during the 1980s Reign of Error, in an attempt to get into the playoffs — have scarred people for life (I know of three television sets that died horrible deaths — one by shotgun, two by beer bottle — when Tony Gabriel caught the winning touchdown in the 1976 Grey Cup. I would have made it four had both my parents not sat on me for 20 minutes until I passed out from crying). They seemed to embrace the kiss of death for sporting franchises — the title of Loveable Losers.

And yet the Riders, kept alive by telethons, trading sacks of wheat for seasons’ tickets, and the grease of human kindness when operating a CFL franchise in such a tiny market made no business sense at all, were rich in the things that money couldn’t buy. It was a devotion, a love, a sense of community that popes, presidents and tinpot dictators could only envy.

On Grey Cup Day I viewed my Facebook friends — a group of people ranging from artists to second-generation feminists to social activists and union leaders. Any with a connection with Saskatchewan – whether they were born here, moved here, or lived here — were united in their support for the Riders. And if they had tickets to the game, they would no more sell them and stay home to watch the Grey Cup than they would sell their firstborn.

Two weeks ago my wife and I took a cab home from a Christmas party. Our cab driver, a devout Sikh, was an expert cricket player who had moved to Saskatchewan three years ago and was following the Roughriders. “On game days, I wear my green turban,” he assured us.

I got into the game thanks to the generosity of one of my wife’s co-workers, who emigrated from France to Regina two years ago, still translating what he knows of rugby to Canadian football. In October, his parents flew from Nice to Regina to visit and renovate his new home: they attended a Rider game. On Grey Cup Sunday, Bruce assured me, his father was desperately trying to find a French-language internet video feed of the championship. And you couldn’t help but see two young black men, probably recent immigrants, joyfully waving an Eritrea scarf behind Kory Sheets during his post-game on-field interview.

Rider Pride spans generations and infects its subjects through osmosis. The Thursday before the Western Final, my youngest daughter needed something showing her favourite number, four. Grandma cut out a picture of Darian Durant, and Caitlin promptly brought it to playschool. She sang ‘Green is the Colour’ continually, and unprompted, for the next 10 days. Jim Hopson, take note.

And that’s why the elderly woman was crying. It’s our provincial lingua franca – if you want to start a conversation, do business, make a friend, or say something to you hope will be your future significant other, you start by talking Riders.

Something has happened to the Roughriders, and by implication, Saskatchewan. For those of us waiting for the next disaster to befall that Grey Cup night — a fumble, an interception, some kind of miracle play that would result in an improbable TiCats victory — the Grey Cup was like expecting a horror movie and watching a storybook fairytale.

Your Daddy’s Riders may not be dead, but they’re history. As opposed to this team, which, from here, look to be history in the making.

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At the start of this season, Stephen LaRose predicted on the prairiedogmag.com blog that the Saskatchewan Roughriders would finish the season with an 8-10 record and would lose the Western Semi-Final to Calgary. Recipes for crow will be accepted at [email protected]

2013-11-28

One thought on “Game Changer”

  1. Couldn’t find The Big Game in Bangladesh! (And no internet feeds, either.)

    Someone — torrent! Thanks ; )

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