Thursday, 27 October 2016

Last call for Rider Nation at Taylor Field

Final Roughriders game a surreal thought for storied stadium

All smiles after a Riders win at 2009 Labour Day Classic at Taylor Field.
    My mind is working overtime thinking about what this drive will be like.
    When I leave Saskatoon early Saturday morning for Regina, I will be heading to the Saskatchewan Roughriders final home game at Taylor Field/Mosaic Stadium, which will be the team’s 611th contest at that facility. They face the B.C. Lions at 5 p.m. local time. It is definitely a day I never imagined happening.
    For generations, many residents from Saskatoon and from all corners of the province of Saskatchewan have made the jaunt to the provincial capital to support the “Green and White.” During that drive on Saturday, I know my mind will be jumping through all sorts of memories.
    As far as football stadiums in Canada go, Taylor Field holds an esteem similar to that of Lambeau Field in the United States, which is home to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Over the last decade, it has been common for fans of other CFL clubs to make the journey to see one game at Taylor Field in order to experience the passion of Rider Nation in person.
Rider Nation enjoys a pre-game practice field party before a 2006 game.
    When I first stepped into Taylor Field, I didn’t know how much I would take that place to my heart.
    A year after moving to Regina, I attended my first Roughriders game on July 26, 1996. The hosts were taking on the powerful Toronto Argonauts led by arguably the CFL’s all-time greatest player in Doug Flutie.
    The Argos jumped out to a 34-14 lead at halftime and cruised to a 40-16 victory. The Riders were so bad that game it almost hit a comic level. As those that follow the team know, the Riders have had many hapless down stretches.
    A crowd of 24,902 turned out and filled most of the facility that sat 27,732 at that time. There were those that left early in the fourth quarter, but most of the spectators stayed to the end.
    I was impressed. Out of the 20 years I had been alive to that point in time, I had lived a total of 16 years in Winnipeg. Football was the sport I loved the most, and I discovered it watching the Cal Murphy era Winnipeg Blue Bombers win Grey Cups in 1984, 1988 and 1990. I went to many games at old Winnipeg Stadium to see the Bombers play.
    The Bombers were so successful that fan expectations in Winnipeg hit the point that a season that didn’t finish with a Grey Cup win was deemed a failure even in 14-4 and 13-5 campaigns.
Fans get pumped up at the 2010 Labour Day Classic at Taylor Field.
    Watching the Roughriders fall to the Argonauts that warm summer night in July of 1996, I almost couldn’t imagine them ever winning the Grey Cup. That game was also the first time I went to a sporting event where the fans had a good time despite the fact their team was hammered on the scoreboard.
    I was also just weeks removed from getting dumped by my long time high school sweetheart girlfriend from Winnipeg. For me, stepping foot onto Taylor Field was a move towards becoming more of the community of Regina and Saskatchewan. While I was born in Winnipeg, my family came from Saskatchewan, so this was a return to the roots.
    My late father’s heart was with the Riders, and I remember him talking about what it was like to go to the deciding game of the 1970 West Final series, where a 14-2 Roughriders team dropped a 15-14 heartbreaker to the Calgary Stampeders at a frigid Taylor Field and fell in a best-of-three set 2-1. The cold heartbreak was pretty large that day.
Fans are all set in legendary Section 28 for a 2007 game at Taylor Field.
    Due to the family ties to Saskatchewan, the Roughriders were always a second favourite team, but they were going to be elevated to a favourite spot.
    After making my first game at Taylor Field, I began meeting players and coaches from the team due to the fact it was easy to interact with them in the Saskatchewan capital. I started to make regular appearances at Taylor Field to support the people I was getting to know.
    I remember hanging around with members of the University of Regina Cougars men’s basketball team in the fall of 1998 talking about how we hoped the Riders would go on a big winning streak to save the job of then head coach Jim Daley. Daley’s wife, Diane Hilko, was a gifted assistant coach with the Cougars women’s basketball team, and the Roughriders bench boss frequently appeared on campus.
    Soon, friends from the University of Regina Rams football team were suiting up for the Roughriders. The link really got solidified as soon as I moved to Medicine Hat for a 10-year stay starting in September of 2004.
The Riders Pep Band performs before a game at Taylor Field this year.
    When you left Saskatchewan, your identity was highly linked to the Roughriders, and the passion took another step. I would be part of the mass group of Roughriders supporters that made a few of the team’s road games in Calgary causing those matches to be dubbed the “Christmas Tree” games due to the mix of red and green colours in the stands.
    When Roy Shivers became the Roughriders general manager in 2000, the brain trust of the team worked to strengthen its links with former Saskatchewan residents that lived across Canada. When the team began to have a resurgence in the early 2000s, the Roughriders were boldly marketed as “Canada’s Team,” which is something that sticks to this day long after Shivers tenure with the squad ended.
    While living in Alberta, the best games were still the ventures back to Regina for visits to Taylor Field. It always felt like a homecoming.
    The anticipation was always there for the tailgating that went on in various parking lots near the facility and getting to the practice field for pre-game festivities. When the game ended, parties often went long into the night along the nightclub strip on Dewdney Avenue and the early hours the morning.
Darian Durant runs for an OT winning TD against the Eskimos this year.
    Soon, the Roughriders hit new heights with the dawning of the Darian Durant era at quarterback. He joined the team in 2006, was a backup on the 2007 Grey Cup winner, became the undisputed starter in 2009, guided the team to Grey Cup appearances in 2009 and 2010 and led a magical home Grey Cup win in 2013 with a 45-23 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
    I was at that home Grey Cup win, and that is still my best memory of being at Taylor Field. I wished that night would never end.
    Durant also became my all-time favourite CFL quarterback, and it has been fun watching him lead the Roughriders to many victories. One of the most scrutinized positions in Canadian sport is being the Roughriders starting quarterback. I could see a large number of CFL great signal callers failing in that role.
    Durant has taken ownership of that position, and you can tell being the Roughriders starting quarterback is important to him.
Gainer the Gopher makes his rounds at Taylor Field after a Roughriders TD.
    All of these thoughts cross the mind as the final Roughriders game at Taylor Field approaches. The Rams will actually close out the facility as they have the potential of hosting three U Sports playoff games there next month.
    However, Taylor Field’s identity will always be first linked with the Roughriders and Rider Nation. Since moving back to Saskatchewan in late July 2014 and settling in Saskatoon, I have tried to make as many Roughriders games as possible. This last CFL game at the storied park will be an emotional one, and the day and night will no doubt speed by way faster than you would like.
    The goal is to soak in the one last memory that will be made.

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