Football and me: A brief history

My love of football is a story about Saskatchewan and my father

My wife thinks football is complicated. She said so in 2017 while I watched a game on TV, legs stretched on the couch, bag of potato chips on my chest. So, I tried explaining to Sarah the madness emanating from the screen, the zig-zagging men wearing green smashing into the zig-zagging men wearing white.

“The team with the ball tries to progress ten yards from the line of scrimmage in order to get a first down. The ultimate goal is to reach the end zone.”

But my brief explanation was flawed. For someone without any knowledge of football, terms like “line of scrimmage,” “first down,” and “end zone” were meaningless, thus making the entire explanation meaningless. Each term demanded its own explanation, and within those explanations would be new terms that would need explanations. To properly define “line of scrimmage” would mean defining "snap.” To define “snap” would mean defining “centre.”

I began explaining the terms above—in between plays and during commercials, of course, so I didn’t miss any action. By the end of the second commercial break, chip dust settled in the crevasses of my shirt, Sarah left the living room. Annoyed, perhaps, at my inability to explain what was happening without falling into a whirlwind of circling definitions. Or maybe what she meant in her initial statement was that my enjoyment of football is complicated. Maybe what she meant by “complicated” was “puzzling.” We did almost everything together: prepare dinner, play board games, workshop poems, question life choices at midnight over tears and wet pillows, but, when it came to spending Friday nights in our Nanaimo home watching men in shoulder pads and tights chase a football in Regina, I was alone.

Unlike Sarah, I grew up in Regina, the heartland of Canadian football and home of the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League (CFL). In Saskatchewan, scheduling a wedding or funeral on Roughriders game day is a sin and complaining about the team’s quarterback—at the grocery store, on radio shows, at church—is a rite of passage. I can’t remember learning the rules of football like I can’t remember learning how to walk. Where I’m from, football is primal.

In 2003, when I was eleven, my dad purchased four Roughriders season tickets. One for him, one for me, one for my ten-year-old brother, Turner, and one for my eight-year-old brother, Logan. At the time, the Roughriders played at Taylor Field, an open-air stadium located in North Central Regina. The neighbourhood, created to accommodate railway workers in the 1880s, was infamously called “Canada’s worst neighbourhood” by Maclean’s in 2007 for its dilapidated housing, crime, and for having for more IV drug users per capita than Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. My dad grew up in North Central, only a block away from Taylor Field. When he was sixteen, a fire broke out in his house, which killed his father.

On game day, I didn’t think much about my dad’s relationship to the neighbourhood we occupied. As soon as he parked his truck in the yard of a Robinson Street house and paid whoever needed to be paid, I was fully focused on joining the spectacle before us (as a kid, my dad used to park gamegoers in his Robinson Street backyard for cash). The official stadium parking was minimal, which meant thousands of people either walked, took the bus, or parked as my dad did—on a lawn, in a backyard, at the McDonald’s on the corner of Dewdney—and herded through a few streets toward Taylor Field. Gaggles of men, women, and children, all wearing the Roughriders’ primary colour, green.

Almost everyone had official Roughriders gear of some kind, from jerseys, like the ones our often family wore, to face tattoos, bandanas, and flags. Regina had under 200,000 residents, yet the Roughriders sold more merchandise than every professional Canadian sports team outside the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. The unofficial gear, however, was the most interesting. Some fans donned watermelons on their head, shaped to resemble leather football helmets used in the 1920s, or watermelons on their chest as faux bras. Others made hats from 24-pack boxes of Old Style Pilsner, the beer likely consumed shortly before arriving. Other common accessories: green afros, green mohawks, Old Style Pilsner capes, green Stormtrooper helmets, and Incredible Hulk foam fists. On game day, the neighbourhood rippled with green bodies.

People screamed and hollered. Some of it made sense, the echoing chants of “Let’s go Riders” for example, and some of it was unintelligible, like the sound of rambling uncles at Thanksgiving, full of liquor and conviction. People stopped their march only for a quick high-five or to squeeze the last drop from a mickey. Fellow Rider fans were greeted with cheers. Out-of-towners, brave enough to wear the jerseys of the opposing team, were greeted with sneers. While brawls sometimes broke out between Rider fans and the opposing team’s fans, they typically happened during the game, spurred by three quarters of additional drinking and a bad call or two.

After making it past the entrance gate, we purchased cheeseburgers, pop, and liquorice, hiked the winding ramps up the grandstand, and found our seats among rickety, wooden bleachers. Taylor Field was built in 1936 and, throughout its history, felt like a stadium built in 1936 despite its many upgrades and expansions. Hugh Campbell, who played receiver for the Riders through most of the 60s, said this about Taylor Field in a CFL documentary: “When I first saw the stadium in Regina, it looked like a farmer had built it, you know, like they'd just added on a few pieces here and there, and half of the dressing room was dirt floor…”

By 2003, the dressing room had a real floor, but there were other problems: a leaky roof, no refrigeration for the concessions, a shortage of washrooms (the men’s washrooms that were running had troughs for urinals), and a longstanding, seemingly ineradicable bat infestation. But these flaws, as some might call them, were part of the stadium’s charm.

The team itself also had a particular brand of charm, and were often referred to as “the lovable losers.” The Roughriders, playing in a league that typically had eight to nine teams (not including a brief U.S. expansion in the 90s), had only won the league championship, The Grey Cup, twice from its founding in 1910 to when my dad bought season tickets in 2003. Take a moment to absorb the astounding math. The Edmonton Eskimos, founded in 1949, nearly forty years after the Roughriders, won five Grey Cups in a row from 1978 to 1982 and had eleven Grey Cup victories in total. Despite the perpetual losing, including many tragic Grey Cup losses, none worse than a last-second loss to the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1976 (yes, in a league with nine teams, two teams had the same name), Saskatchewan embraced the Roughriders wholeheartedly.

Once settled in the bleachers, the first thing we did was eat our cheeseburgers. Sitting under a heat lamp for hours, the buns soaked up all the patty grease, which amounted to a delectable, poor man’s marinade. To this day, there is no cheeseburger in the world I’d have over a Taylor Field cheeseburger. Though, the air didn’t smell like any of the concession food. Rather, the air retained the fruity, yeasty smell of beer. Most people’s breath smelled of beer, and it was likely someone would accidentally spill beer on you during the game. To first experience the fan sitting in the bleachers behind you spill beer on your head was to experience a Taylor Field baptism.

My dad sat beside me (we knew the rosters, the rules, and the pre-game storylines, and the proximity allowed us to communicate) while Logan and Turner sat beside each other. People from all across Saskatchewan surrounded us. Farmers from Cabri, Carnora, Carlyle. Nurses from Regina. Warehouse workers from Saskatoon. At a capacity of 28,880, Taylor Field became the fifth largest city in Saskatchewan on game day.

After a flurry of advertisements, player introductions, and the singing of the national anthem (which sometimes included a Snowbirds fly-over), the game began. In 2003, the Roughriders were pretty good. They had the fastest quarterback in the league, Nealon Greene, a tall, acrobatic receiver, Matt Dominguez, and a hard-hitting defence, led by linebacker Reggie Hunt. That season, they posted an 11-7 regular season record, their best since 1994.

A touchdown at Taylor Field was like nothing else. The Riders could be down by twenty, the stadium still and silent, but, if they scored, Taylor Field would erupt. Our gopher mascot, Gainer, rode on the roof of a 1971 Toyota Corona as it circled the field in celebration. Men, the kind who worked in fields and on ladders, the kind who worked fourteen-hour shifts, would hug and sing and dance. My dad, who ran a roofing company, was one of them.

Minus the gopher mascot, that might sound like a celebration occurring in any football stadium. The energy from the crowd, however, was a product of something much more profound than football, but I didn’t understand that at eleven years old. I equated the loyalty and decibel level of fans to alcohol consumption and a province that didn’t offer much else to do on the weekend, which was partly right, but not the whole picture.

When I eventually developed an awareness of what it meant to live in Saskatchewan versus the rest of the country, I understood that scoring a touchdown against Ottawa wasn’t just scoring a touchdown against Ottawa. Instead, it was scoring a touchdown against the capital city of Canada, the architect of equalization payments and purveyor of Western alienation. Beating the B.C. Lions wasn’t just beating the B.C. Lions. Rather, it was a statement—for one day, on this flat, cold plot of land you consider the middle of nowhere, we were better than you and your mountains, skyscrapers, and January cherry blossoms.

A touchdown or win against another Canadian city in a game of football may not seem like much, but for the gang of farmers and blue-collar hustlers sitting in rickety, wooden bleachers in a bat-infested stadium from 1936, at least for one day, it was everything.

After the game, win or lose, my dad would ask us: “Did you have a good time?” He was always worried about our happiness. His fatherhood could be defined as an effort to provide his children the comforts and opportunities he didn’t always have growing up. As I became older and continued to attend Roughrider games at Taylor Field (which later became Mosaic Stadium at Taylor Field due to corporate sponsorship), the fact that he lost his father only a few hundred feet from the stadium wasn’t lost on me.

To my dad’s question about whether we had a good time, I’d respond, “I had a great time.” But knowing what I know now, I wish I had said it with a bit more force. The full truth, the one I could only realize with time, is this: Roughrider games at Taylor Field were the highlight of my childhood.