2020 has been a year like none other in my life for there was no CFL football.
The cancelation of the season meant for the first time in 43 years I did not cover the Roughriders. This column, written on what would have been Grey Cup Sunday, is my first and possibly last column of the year on football. But for the virus I would be sitting this evening in a hotel room in Regina writing my final story of Grey Cup week. Instead, I sit at my desk at home in Melfort reflecting on past Grey Cups in Regina and a special Zoom gathering.
In 1995, with the CFL struggling more than usual, Saskatchewan hosted its first Grey Cup. It took place during the brief era in which the CFL had teams scattered across the United States.
What I enjoyed most were the parties that week in downtown Regina. It was a time before team parties became corporate events. In 1995 fans gathered in hotel ballrooms to just have fun and share some beverages. Riderville was on Scarth Street in a tent that provided just enough cover from Saskatchewan winter breezes.
The wind, as happened so often at Taylor Field, was central to the game. At 85 km/hr it was blasting down the field so strongly it was uncertain until shortly before game time that it was safe for fans to sit in the temporary stands at the south end of the stadium.
Personally, the game had its own challenges as our son, Jonathan, who had been dealing with a virus got sick. At halftime I helped get him to friends who took him home for the rest of the game.
On the field the Baltimore Stallions outplayed Doug Flutie and the Stampeders to become the only American team to win the Grey Cup.
A pivotal play came in the second quarter when the Stallions blocked a punt and scored a touchdown. I could see it coming. Stallion Head Coach Don Matthews always worked hard on kick blocks. With the Stampeders backed up it was the perfect time to go after the punt.
In 2003 the Alouettes and Eskimos were in Regina for the game.
A highlight of the week was talking to Pinball Clemons. He has and always will be a smiling optimist who loves the CFL. He told me of his dream to have a 22,500 seat stadium at the CNE grounds in Toronto. He thought a smaller stadium would make getting a ticket important. The Argos are now in a stadium at the CNE but the crowds are still not there.
In my game story I started: “My most exciting moments of the Grey Cup came before kickoff. I was sitting in the auxiliary pressbox in the north end zone. When the Snowbirds Tudor jet formation came blasting through Taylor Field, they were so low I felt they were coming straight into the pressbox. As the players lined up for the kickoff the pair of F-18 fighter jets thundering overhead left the stadium shaking.”
It was a good, though not great game, with the Eskimos winning the Championship.
Tom Higgins, the reluctant Eskimo head coach who went from team executive to head coach when the team was not doing well under Don Matthews, told me he only drinks at Championships. Before sipping champagne that evening from the Cup he said his last drink had been when he drank from the Cup in 1992 after the Stampeders won the game.
Grey Cup Sunday in 2013 was a magical day for me.
In the morning, at the Football Reporters of Canada Annual Breakfast, I was inducted into the Football Reporters Wing of the CFL Hall of Fame. I was the first reporter from a community newspaper to be inducted. You can look up my induction citation by either coming to my office to see my plaque or go to the Hall website.
Sharon and my son, Jonathan, were with me. My younger son, Michael, listened from Denmark where he was on a law school exchange. In my remarks I spoke about the importance of words in my life and the joy covering the Riders has brought to me.
That evening I saw the Riders win the Grey Cup at home. It was an event I had never expected. The first 10 years I covered the team they did not make the playoffs. It took 36 years for me to see the Riders win the championship in Saskatchewan.
During the second half of the game I made my way from the pressbox to sit with Jonathan in the stands to share the experience. He had been coming to Rider games for 30 years. He attended his first game when he was three weeks old.
I was standing on the field when the Cup was presented and a deafening roar of joy and relief enveloped Taylor Field.
Last Friday night members of the Football Reporters of Canada gathered by Zoom to commiserate over the lost season and celebrate memories of CFL football and look forward to 2021.
There was the easy camaraderie of a group of good colleagues. Stories were told of past Grey Cups. I indicated I had been to about 20. Darrell Davis, former columnist with the Leader Post and broadcaster with CJME, with 32 had been to the most Grey Cups.
I learned that TSN ratings for the CFL suffer if the Blue Jays are having a good season. How well the Raptors fare does not appear to affect ratings as much as the Blue Jays.
Overall the group was optimistic there would be a good season in 2021. The Riders are to open the season in Edmonton on June 12.
There was an emptiness in my life every weekend for the past 5 months with no CFL football. With the passing of the 2020 Grey Cup Week, I am now looking ahead to 2021.