My elderly neighbour recently took down his Saskatchewan Roughrider flag from the place of pride it typically occupies in his living-room window. Rider Pride has been at half-mast since we failed to even make the playoffs. Our win-loss record, 5-13, is a sore point among the Canadian Football League’s most fervent fans. We follow the remaining teams with the same grudging passion a middle-aged woman nurses for her ex-husband.
After all, we’ve been on a six-month emotional roller coaster. It begins with the first tentative preseason games in early June, and, one hopes, ends with the home team’s jubilant hoisting of the Grey Cup in November. Not this year for Saskatchewan – on Sunday, it will be the Winnipeg Blue Bombers facing the B.C. Lions, and it will be a stirring matchup.
Like many sodbusters, I’m behind Winnipeg. This decision is a no-brainer since nobody who endures Arctic fronts all winter likes B.C. I may resent Winnipeg’s new stadium and NDP sovereignty, but I know a winner when I see one.
For 40 years, I scorned the CFL, with arms crossed, from my resentful perch on the sidelines. I thought football was nasty, brutish and short – too much like real life – and besides, I’d had my fill of sport growing up.
As the daughter of a sportswriter, I was unimpressed by professional athletes. My mother likes to recount my first airplane ride. It was a Roughrider team charter flight. I was just a baby, and I was tossed around from player to player like a peewee football. Perhaps this is why it took me so long to return to the game.
My dad, John (Robbie) Robertson, got his first taste early in his sports career. A brief stint at The Leader-Post covering the team in the early 1960s was enough. He fell in love with the Riders, the city of Regina and the whole province. My younger brother Tim was even a Grey Cup baby, born in Regina in November, 1964, while Robbie was on the road.
I took my time, but eventually became a CFL convert. While living in far-off Calgary, I was overtaken by an incurable case of homesickness. I needed a Prairie booster shot. What better way to infuse regional self-esteem than to watch a favourite football team resoundingly beat the Calgary home team?
My spouse, Grant, and I would head to McMahon Stadium. We’d sit with the other economic refugees and watch the Riders take on the Stampeders. And if the Bombers came to town, we took in those games, too. We cheered for our teams. But we also cheered because we were proud to be from Winnipeg, Man., and Lucky Lake, Sask. No amount of time logged in the oil patch was going to shift our devotion.
Every day in Calgary, I went about my business, never knowing who was a sodbuster transplant. Sunday afternoon at McMahon Stadium told a different story. There were adults wearing Rider-green face paint and sporting SK flags as capes. When summer watermelon was in season, one would be shaped into a makeshift helmet. In fall, as the playoffs loomed, fans used pumpkins and wore sweatpants under their boxers.
Most women my age would be turned off by this collegial outerwear. But I just get misty. My favourite photo is of Robbie making the opening kickoff at a Riders game in 1979. He’s wearing his green sweatpants and a crazy green clown wig. No, he wasn’t a contest winner or a mascot … just a manic Rider supporter. The antics made it into his Maclean’s magazine column.
I like to brag about how he, along with his loyal pals and Rider fans, miraculously helped keep the team afloat. In 1979, the franchise was deep in debt and flailing on the field. Crops were bad. The people of Saskatchewan needed some hope.
So Robbie and former Rider Ron Lancaster got together and toured the province to promote Rider Pride – a term Robbie coined. They climbed into an old plane and did a whistle-stop sales junket. They wanted to sell out the final game of the season. Their other aim was to lure people to buy season tickets for the coming year. They did it. Fans filled the stadium, farmers traded wheat for season tickets and the Riders dodged the bullet. (Until 1987, when the team ran aground again and Robbie and his buddies gathered to rally fans to his favourite cause.)
It’s been more than two decades since Dad donned his Rider sweatpants. He’s retired from sport but not from his passion for the guys in green. Come Sunday, when the Bombers play the Lions, I’ll be glued to the set cheering on my adopted team. They say there’s no one more zealous than a convert and I’m living proof. Now I’m a bandwagon-jumper, too. Go Bombers!
Patricia Dawn Robertson is a Saskatchewan freelance journalist.