Sunday, 24 May 2015

From Razorbacks to Roughriders

Hughes lived the Saskatchewan football dream    

Neal Hughes gets pictured with a couple of small fans in 2011.
    Neal Hughes' football journey started rather innocently enough with a hint of the determination that would define his career.
    Long before he played fullback for 11 seasons with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders, Hughes was just your typical Regina born boy who had dreams of suiting up for the Green and White one day. 
    Growing up, his favourite Riders players included Tim McCray, Tom Burgess, Willis Jacox, Orville Lee, Jeff Fairholm, Don Narcisse, Eddie Lowe and Bobby Jurasin. Hughes often wore Jurasin's trademark bandanna.
    At age seven, Hughes learned about a minor football team in his Regina community called the Razorbacks from a friend.
    After making this discovery, Hughes asked his parents, father Bill and mother Phyllis, if he could play football. Bill told his young son he was still too small to play that sport and the answer was no. Plus, the son was still a year too young at the time to play minor football in the city.
Neal was not deterred.
    A short time later, he got his hands on an application form to join the Razorbacks. He filled it out on the hood of his parents' car and listed himself being nine-years-old.
    After that step, Neal broke the news to his parents about his football adventure by showing up at the family home with equipment issued by the Razorbacks. A Saskatchewan football star was born.
    Bill and Phyllis let their son stay in minor football that season. Little did they know, Neal would play football until making his retirement from the Roughriders official on Wednesday, which was about six weeks shy of his 35th birthday.
    Back in his first season in the Regina minor football ranks, Neal was the smallest player on the Razorbacks. The team's coaches and players used to get a kick out of watching him catch multiple long ball passes that were thrown his way during one practice session.
    From that start, Hughes moved up the local football system and joined Regina's Thom Collegiate Trojans in Grade 10. He became a Regina high school football star at running back and relished taking part in the Argyle Street rivalry between Thom and the Archbishop M.C. O'Neill Titans. The two high schools face each other across Argyle Street.
Neal Hughes plows into to the line for the Regina Rams in 1998 CJFL action.
    When it came time to join the post-secondary ranks, Hughes didn't leave his hometown. In 1998, he became a prized recruit of the defending Canadian Junior Football League champion Regina Rams, who introduced the tailback at a press conference held at their old clubhouse located at Scotty Livingstone Field on the north end of town.
    The Rams were embarking on their final campaign as a member of the CJFL before joining the Canadian university ranks in what was then known as the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union and is now known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Hughes stepped on to the Rams practice field in training camp and immediately began ripping off long runs against the team's starters. It was obvious that Hughes was going to make an immediate impact with the storied Rams franchise.
    He blossomed into a star helping the Rams finish first overall in the Prairie Football Conference with a 7-1 record as a tailback and kick returner. He suffered a broken leg when the Rams downed the Saskatoon Hilltops in that year's conference final. As a result, Hughes watched from the sidelines as the Rams thumped the Okanagan Sun 36-13 in the CJFL championship game, the Canadian Bowl, at Taylor Field.
    Hughes was spectacular for the Rams in five seasons at the university level. He is still the team's career leader in rushing yards (2,934), rushing touchdowns (17) and all-purpose yards (5,667) in university action.
Neal Hughes bursts downfield in 2001 for the U of Regina Rams.
    He scored the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the 2000 Canada West final on a 10-yard outlet pass on a third and goal situation to give the Rams a 25-22 victory over the host U of Manitoba Bisons. In total that day, Hughes caught 10 passes for 206 yards, returned four kickoffs for 102 yards, rushed six times for 28 yards and returned two punts for nine yards.
    His most memorable game came in the 2000 Atlantic Bowl. The Rams were attempting to make the Vanier Cup in only their second season of university play, but they fell behind the host Saint Mary's University Huskies 36-24 about halfway through the fourth quarter of the semifinal bowl contest.
    After the Huskies scored a major to expand their edge to 12 points, Hughes returned the ensuring kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, which included bouncing off a group of four tacklers and charging home to daylight through an open lane.
    The Huskies conceded a safety to further cut their edge to 36-33, and Hughes returned that ensuing kickoff to Saint Mary's 12. Rams quarterback Darryl Leason hooked up with receiver Chris Warnecke for a TD strike to give the Rams a 40-36 victory.
    The Rams would fall in the 2000 Vanier Cup 42-39 to the U of Ottawa Gee Gees.
    Off the field with the Rams, Hughes, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 208 pounds, developed a reputation of being a player you wanted in the community representing your team. He also became fast friends with a large number of athletes from all of the other University of Regina Cougars teams. The Rams kept their name when they moved to university football.
    During his years with the Rams, the football rivalry between the cities of Regina and Saskatoon was quite intense, and despite the harsh feelings that sometimes arose, Hughes was respected by those involved with the Hilltops and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
Neal Hughes runs the ball for the Rams in 2003.
    While he accomplished a lot with the Rams, there were no guarantees that Hughes would have a career at the CFL. When Hughes finished his time with the Rams, it wasn't a common practise for CFL teams to take a chance on Canadian born running backs. A lot of times, those running backs were converted to be fullbacks, but it was custom for those careers to run three or four years.
    Hughes was invited to Roughriders training in 1999 under junior territorial rules due to the fact the Rams hadn't played their first university level game. Even that invite didn't guarantee a possible future playing in the CFL.
    After no one selected him in the 2004 CFL Draft, Hughes signed as a free agent with the Roughriders. He ended up playing in 14 regular season games and both of the Roughriders playoff contests in that rookie campaign.
    During training camp, Hughes proved he was versatile showing that he could run the ball, be a receiver, return kicks and cover well on special teams. In Week 10 of the 2004 campaign, Hughes replaced an injured Paul McCallum as the team's punter and averaged 35.0 yards on two kicks.
    He remained with the Roughriders through the end of the 2014 campaign being a member of two Grey Cup championship teams in 2007 and 2013. Through his CFL career, Hughes mainly focused on blocking duties as a fullback or from a tight end position and covered kicks on special teams.
    The home-grown product did get a handful of chances to produce yards as a rusher or receiver. The biggest offensive highlight came in the 2007 West Final, when Hughes hauled in a two-yard scoring reception on a play action pass play to provide the winning points in a 26-17 victory over the host British Columbia Lions. That would be his only major score in CFL post-season play.
Neal Hughes signs a young fan's jersey in 2010.
    Hughes quickly became popular with his teammates and was a fan favourite throughout his career. Like his days with the Rams, he was one of the Roughriders best representatives in the community engaging in numerous charitable and community activities.
    As he moved into the later years of his playing career, Hughes never lost his boyish joy in being a member of the Green and White. After the Roughriders downed the host Calgary Stampeders 35-13 in the 2013 CFL West Final, Hughes, at age 33, was super excited about the victory. The grown man had the enthusiasm of a little boy, and he still cherished the privilege to be living his dream.
    Having lost the opportunity to play in the 1998 Canadian Bowl at home because of injury, Hughes eagerly anticipated the chance to play the 2013 Grey Cup at home in the storied facility now known as Mosaic Stadium.
    The 101st Grey Cup on November 24, 2013 was a fairy tale night for Rider Nation. Playing in front of a sellout crowd of 44,710 spectators at Mosaic, the Roughriders blasted the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 45-23.
A Roughriders' promo picture of Neal Hughes.
    Hughes carried the ball three times for 32 yards in front of his hometown crowd. It appeared he might get to record a touchdown in the game's final seconds, but the team knelt down to end the contest to allow victory celebrations to start in earnest. The win was obviously the most memorable night for Hughes in his hometown park.
    With the excitement of how the 2013 campaign ended, it didn't seem like 2014 would be Hughes final year in the CFL. Dogged by various injuries to his foot, the veteran was limited to playing just two regular season games and last suited up on July 5, 2014 in a 48-15 blowout loss to the Argonauts in Toronto.
    Entering free agency after playing in the league for 11 seasons and having missed significant time in the last year of his contract due to injury, the likelihood was high that the 2014 campaign could be Hughes' last in the CFL.
    After officially announcing his retirement, Hughes could walk away with no regrets. He turned the Saskatchewan dream into a reality and also earned two Grey Cup rings in the process.
    No one can question the fact that his run was a good one.

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