Some fans have bussed cross country to get here, while others have chipped in gas money to drive out with a crowded car full of friends. Once they arrive, many have found rare acts of generosity, lasting friendships, hilarity, spontaneity, a passion for tribalism and some of the wildest costumes imaginable.
The pilgrimage to a Grey Cup game, for some Canadians, has grown into a yearly addiction, regardless of which CFL teams are competing. In Regina this week, where passion for the Saskatchewan Roughriders oozes into every facet of life, the annual celebration of Canada's quaint eight-team football league pulses in vibrant colour. They've partied all week and today many of them will hand off the Cup from person to person throughout the city on a parade to the 101st game.
Ahead of Sunday's championship game between the Riders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a fan festival rages into the wee hours at Regina's Evraz Place, a stone's throw from Mosaic Stadium. It's like a tailgate party on steroids. Fans of all CFL teams (yet the monster's share garbed in Rider green and white) float in and out of themed party rooms like Tiger Town, Stamps House, Double Blue Bash, Touchdown Manitoba, and Lions Den for live music and dancing, beer pong, foosball, even a giant game of Jenga. Parties pop in clubs across the city too, like Spirit of Edmonton and Alouettes Huddle.
Riderville is the ultimate attraction, and the large hallway at huge Evraz Place is packed with a lineup that snakes and stretches as far as the eye can see.
"How many Stampeders does it take to change a tire," one waiting Riders fan calls out as he mingles. "Just one, unless it's a blowout, and then the whole team shows up."
Jeff May has just arrived at Tiger Town after a 48-hour hour bus journey from Hamilton. Once his beloved Tiger-Cats made it to the Grey Cup, the 51-year-old accountant was exasperated to find flights had soared to over $2000. So he settled for a round-trip bus ticket which cost him less than $500 and took him through countless small towns across Northern Ontario and Manitoba as he talked with various passengers along the way. With hotel rooms costly or hard to find, he found a Regina family on Kijiji willing to billet him at their home.
"It's my sixth Grey Cup – I drove to Winnipeg one year, so why not this," said May. "I've been a Ticats fan since 1972 and there's nothing like the Grey Cup."
Riders fan Jeff Mazurkewich of Asquith, Sask., often buys an extra Rider ticket or two and gives it away to someone he befriends on game day. On Saturday night, he had an extra ticket to the fan festival, and handed it to a Ticats fan who had arrived after the tickets sold out.
Inside Tiger Town, Riders fan Boyd Weir proudly produces a small cherished booklet labelled "Rider Nation Passport", which acts as the ultimate ice-breaker. He wears a white cowboy hat, suit jacket and green scarf and tie decorated with decades worth of buttons and friendship pins. Befriending a group of Ticat friends, they flip through his passport together – full of photos from games and parties, autographs from players and scrawled messages from the hundreds of friends he has met at the now 15 Grey Cups he has attended all across Canada.
He was born in a little town near Regina called Milden, and later moved to Houston, Tex. But his deep-rooted passion for Riderville has never faded.
He travels with a group of men who all introduce themselves as Darryl and hand out "Honourary Darryl" buttons to new friends, no matter their CFL colours.
"I've been coming to Grey Cups since 1975, and we used to go pub to pub," said Weir. "What I love the most is talking to fans from other teams, listening to their stories, their passions, their concerns about the CFL."
There's Frank Pyatt and his wife Heather, Argo and Ticat fans who have come every year since 2006, a couple that adores the CFL so much that they bought a little house up the street from the new Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton, which they will use as a cottage for game weekends.
"The game on Sunday is just the cherry on top of the sundae, and the few days of seeing people year after year is all the great ice cream and tasty stuff underneath," said Pyatt. "We're hooked. It's like a family reunion every year."
Ticats fan Jarrett Harris couldn't justify spending airfare to Regina after his home suffered massive flood damage this past summer. So he joined a car load of friends and split gas money to drive 26 straight hours from Hamilton. He's been to eight Grey Cups in a row.
"You wouldn't see this in the No Fun League," said Harris. "Grey Cup brings all regional prides together. We all embrace each other."
Randy Newman is attending his 18th Grey Cup, having collaborated with Harris on a CFL Fans Fighting Cancer fundraiser connected with the festivities, which every year makes a donation to a cancer charity in the host city.
All around them, against a backdrop of ice sculptures, mascots, and loud music, fans are garbed in the zaniest of costumes, which open the door to conversations that start lifelong friendships.
There's a man in full joker makeup and dress with a green plaid jacket and Riders shirt. There's Ronald McDonald with knee-high green and white Riders socks. A couple waltzes by dressed as a Roughrider priest and nun, while there are others done up in full Lions faces or with watermelon helmets painted on their bald scalps. The room suddenly breaks out in a chant of "HENRY, HENRY", as a foreshadowing of the friendly ribbing Ticats quarterback Henry Burris will take from Riders fans on Sunday.
"It's the best party the country throws," says Weir. "And it has become totally addictive."