Saskatchewan football fans live and die by the exploits of their beloved Roughriders on the field. Many claim that they bleed green.
There was a lot of bleeding during the club’s first half-century of existence.
Entering league play in 1910, the Regina Rugby Club (renamed the Regina Roughriders in 1924) quickly established itself as the dominant team in Western Canada.
It also had the less envious reputation of always losing the big game.
The Regina Roughriders, wearing red-and-black uniforms, appeared in the Grey Cup six times between 1928 and 1934 – and lost every time to an eastern opponent.
In 1929, the Riders did make history when their quarterback completed the first forward pass in a Grey Cup game.
Another first came the following year, when CKCK Regina treated Saskatchewan fans to the first radio coverage of the big game. The live broadcast made no difference to the outcome: the Riders lost 11-6 in the mud at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
Great things were expected in 1936, when Regina upset the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the defending champions, in the playoffs. But the Roughriders were declared ineligible to play for the Grey Cup that year because of American players on their roster.
In 1951, led by legendary quarterback Glenn Dobbs, or the “Dobber” as he was known, the Roughriders returned to the title game for the first time since 1934.
This time, they sported a new name – they officially became the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1948.
They had also adopted new colours when a team executive found a set of green-and-white jerseys at a Chicago surplus store.
Despite these changes, the national football championship still eluded them.
The Riders did not make another Grey Cup appearance until 1966. It was widely expected that the team’s futility in the big game would continue.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson made no attempt to appear neutral and confidently
put eight bucks on the Ottawa Rough Riders. It seemed a safe bet.
Vancouver organizers decided to break with tradition that year and hold the Grey Cup parade on Friday evening instead of the Saturday morning before the game. An estimated crowd of 150,000 lined the downtown streets under the stars.
Things started badly when the announcers had their parade notes stolen and identified one float as being from the city of Saskatchewan.
Then, it took an ugly turn when several thousand spectators, many of them drunk, refused to disperse after the parade and fought a four hour battle with the local police.
By the time Georgia Street was cleared and order restored, 300 people had been arrested. One 15-year-old girl arrived home wearing handcuffs.
News of the riot filled the Saturday morning papers. But the real story happened at Empire Stadium that afternoon.
With the game deadlocked at 14 going into the second half, Ottawa seemed to have the edge. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Russ Jackson had scorched the Saskatchewan defence twice in the first half with 61-yard and 85-yard touchdown passes to Whit Tucker.
But the Riders made adjustments during halftime and never looked back.
Behind the inspired play making of the little field general, quarterback Ronnie Lancaster, and the punishing running game of George Reed, Saskatchewan scored two unanswered touchdowns en route to a 29-14 victory.
Ironically, the post-game interviews had to be held in the Ottawa dressing room. Convinced that Saskatchewan would lose, the CBC had set up its cameras there before the final whistle.
The Roughrider players ignored the slight and basked in their first Grey Cup victory while the shellshocked pretenders from Ottawa glumly looked on.
Now that the Grey Cup drought was finally over, Rider fans expected more in the coming years. The next one – in 1989 – took only a third of a century.
(Rider trivia: Saskatchewan has never won the Grey Cup when the CCF-NDP has been in power.)
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo Credit: Regina Leader-Post