From his living-room window, Doug Walz can see Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field – not the aged edifice that stands like the Coliseum on the prairies. That version is in Regina, 466 kilometres to the southeast of Luseland, population 571, where Mr. Walz lives and breathes all that is Saskatchewan.
But since Rome won’t come to Mr. Walz, the long-time football fan has brought Rome to Luseland. Taylor Field sits on Mr. Walz’s front lawn. It’s a scaled-down replica complete with grandstands constructed from wagon wheels, a field of grass that Mr. Walz meticulously cuts in the summer, with stadium lights and a model of Gainer the Gopher, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ prized mascot.
All this has been Mr. Walz’s tribute to his favourite team, the one looking to make history Sunday by winning its fourth Grey Cup championship but its very first in its famous home field. It’s been enough to turn Regina 50 shades of green and further energize the Canadian Football League’s most devoted fans, a costumed collection who uniquely serve as both the pulse and purse of the three-down game.
With the Riders about to face the East Division-winning Hamilton Tiger-Cats and their handful of former Riders, Regina is bracing for a sold-out football game (more than 45,000) – which was expected before the CFL regular season began – and a week-long celebration of Rider Nation. Men and women will paint their faces, wear green jerseys and hollowed-out watermelons, and shout “Go Riders” as if it were a religious mantra, which it is in Saskatchewan. Regina hotels have been booked solid for a year, and locals are scrambling to get their hands on tickets that fans of Calgary and Toronto – the two teams that lost their division finals – are now unloading.
Toughened by decades of football disappointments, angered and broken-hearted when star players and coaches have left, Saskatchewan fans have always clung to the one professional sports team that gives them national status. Truth be told, the Riders have long mattered as much to the CFL, too.
The Riders sell more merchandise than any other CFL team and routinely draw the biggest crowds in rival stadiums. Regina has twice hosted the Grey Cup, in 1995 and 2003, and both games were memorable and well-organized. In fact, the Riders are very much part of the league’s yearly Grey Cup planning, which is: hope the host city’s team makes it to the finale; failing that, hope for the Riders because their fans will travel through heaven, hell and tundra just to watch their heroes.
Little wonder the fan base loves to be touted as the Riders’ 13th man, except when you’re talking about the 2009 Grey Cup and Saskatchewan losing it for having 13 players on the field. That miscue allowed the Montreal Alouettes to eke out a one-point victory. In 2010, Montreal again beat the Riders for the Cup.
“At the beginning of the year we forget what happened last year,” said Mr. Walz, who will follow Sunday’s action from his own Taylor Field with family and friends. “It’s hard to explain what being a Rider fan means. It means you bleed green.”
Mr. Walz will be watching the Cup while wearing a Riders’ No. 33 jersey, signed by former fullback Chris Szarka, and keeping one hand close to the switch that activates a siren. Whenever Saskatchewan scores, Mr. Walz hits the switch and the outdoor siren wails – three times for a touchdown, one for a field goal. (Nothing for a rouge.) The first time Mr. Walz did it one of the town’s firemen took off, thinking there was an emergency.
This week, CBC Radio in Regina has been highlighting Rider fans and the great lengths they’ve gone to supporting the team. One man talked about turning his half-bathroom into a Rider shrine with everything from Grey Cup ticket stubs to thunder sticks to “stuff from a liquor store,” he said to no one’s surprise.
Rider fans and their actions are legion. You’ll see people dressed in all manner of garb and headgear – horned Viking helmets, fright wigs, old-school football helmets with flashing lights stuck on top. You’ll see guys without shirts with Riders spelled out on their chests – in sub-zero temperatures. You’ll see a woman, Lori Cosh, dressed up as Sister Saskatchewan, a nun praying in the stands. Not to be outdone, someone else will be wearing a skull mask and shaking Hulk-sized large green fists. It’s like Halloween meets Mardi Gras on sacred ground.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories of people who have scattered the ashes of their loved ones at Taylor Field,” said team president and CEO Jim Hopson, a former Riders’ player who has experienced the adoration over the years. “It really is a remarkable story. I think a lot of it comes from the fact so many of us left [the province] over the last three, four decades, but the Riders were the tie that bonded us. People lived in B.C. and Alberta but they would always say, ‘I’m a ‘Rider fan.’ It’s what keeps us all close.”
It’s what gets them partying, too. To accommodate all the Rider supporters, as well as those of other teams, the Regina Soccer Centre has been made over to house multiple events, entertainment and some 20,000 revellers. The vast majority will be soaking up the festivities knowing what Mr. Hopson believes is fact: that having the Riders playing in their home stadium in front of their home fans with the Grey Cup on the line is “certainly not something we’ll see again for a long, long time … That’s why you have to enjoy it.”
As for Mr. Walz, he will have a Riders’ flag flying high, his siren will be ready and anyone who wants to come by and take a photograph of his front lawn is welcome to do so.
“Nobody has ever touched it or vandalized it,” he said of his mini-Taylor Field. “I feel pretty good about that. I guess it’s because we respect the Riders so much.”