Public enemies return to Regina
By BILL LANKOFF, QMI Agency
|Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Henry Burris throws a pass against the Montreal Alouettes in the first half of their CFL football game in Hamilton July 21, 2012. (REUTERS)
Andy Fantuz spent six seasons in Regina and everybody loved him: A nice Canadian boy from Chatham, Ont., who never caused trouble for anyone except opposing defences.
Stick a pair of hockey skates on him and Don Cherry would've considered him kissably good.
But this weekend, Fantuz is in an unfamiliar position. He is public enemy No. 1. Well, maybe 1A, ranked right up there with quarterback Henry Burris, as the two return to Regina as members of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
"I'm not sure what the reception will be. I'm sure it will be mixed. I'm sure there will be some boos but I also still have support from some people there," Fantuz said, after the club's final workout before leaving for Saturday's game. "It's going to be fun. Loud, hostile environment. The CFL at its finest."
Regina fans are renowned for their loyalty to The Green. It is the one major sport on the prairie, next to rolling a rock over frozen water, so the men who wear the team colours are revered. In return, fans tend to expect a loyalty from their players that probably doesn't extend to major cities such as Vancouver or Toronto where sports fans have grown accustomed to players coming and going like door-to-door salesmen.
So it is that Burris is booed. If it were still possible to pillory people in the town square, chances are the local burghers would consider it with Burris.
So, where does this leave the former favourite son? There seems to be little animosity from the local media. It seems understood by many that Fantuz left not so much because he had a problem with Regina, as he wanted to have a chance to play closer to home.
"I get a lot of support in southwestern Ontario and it makes it a lot of fun when there's a big gathering for a lot of games. It's like bringing that football family together every couple weeks," said Fantuz, who has had former teammates, coaches and family who can now make the two-hour drive to watch his games. "It was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up to come home and play. I think most people can appreciate that and are happy for me. Of course ... you can't please everybody.''
So there's the occasional bitter tweet. He admits the return will conjure memories of so many wonderful moments, including helping Rider Nation to three Grey Cup games and that Week 1 when the Riders came to visit Ivor Wynne was unique.
"It was kind of weird watching the offence out there with all my teammates from the past few years wearing the opposite colour," he said. "I'm excited to go back. I spent a lot of years there and had a good time. I'm going to see a lot of familiar faces both in the stands and on the team. Once the game starts, you just dial it out. It's like any road game. You don't take anything personal."
Fantuz is hoping one thing will turn out differently in the rematch from the season opener. The team has evened its record at 2-2 since that 43-16 collapse and has played much better in back-to-back wins.
Burris said earlier this week that with so many changes on offence the Ticats had an "identity problem" with players learning where they should be in certain places and when. Fantuz agrees. Both believe that while it has been slow, progress is being made.
"I think we're learning each others strengths and roles," said Fantuz, who is coming off his best game as a Ticat. "We're getting more comfortable with each other and how things fit. But its a long season. We have a lot of room for improvement."
For Fantuz, this game is not so much about what kudos or brickbats fans throw at him; as it is how many footballs Burris will be able to throw his way. This is about duty.
"I went back to (play in) Regina after (a tryout last year) in the NFL. In this business, you move around a lot," he said. "It (Saskatchewan) was like a second home but you can't get too attached. I'm no longer a Rider. I'm just going for business."