Each season, for 30 years or so, Ted Smale picked up four season tickets for the Ottawa Rough Riders/Renegades.
It wasn’t so much that he felt it was an obligation ... he had played for the Riders for seven years ... but it was a passion for football and the team — along with a strong sense of civic pride.
Smale, now 79, suffered through the final and dark days of the once-storied franchise.
What was going on was barely tolerable, unthinkable in some eyes. The passion was replaced by disgust from a guy who, along with wearing No. 71 for the Rough Riders, held down another full-time job.
And then football was gone, just like that ... folding in 1996, then, after a brief return, again in 2006. It was a blemish on a team that had won nine Grey Cups, the last in 1976.
Smale is excited the CFL is returning to Ottawa, as early as 2014 if the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park pushes ahead soon. He thinks committed ownership will make all the difference in the world — a far cry from the circus the CFL team had become on its deathbed.
“The OSEG group is local,” Smale said. “And they’ve got deep pockets. They admit they are not football people, but will put the best football people in place. They are part of the community so they’re not about to pack up and leave. It will succeed because of the individuals involved.
“It’s been very frustrating to me. We’re throwing money into the park just to keep it screwed up the way it was. I think the redevelopment is good for the city and it’s good for the Glebe. Football day was always profitable for the Glebe.
“We’re like a lot of people in the city ... we believe in football.”
Smale was a defensive end for the Rough Riders from 1956-62.
Drafted by the Toronto Argonauts, Smale had already accepted a job with Atomic Energy in Ottawa. It took some arm twisting, but the Argos eventually agreed to let Smale, who had already been secretly huddling with the Rough Riders in a back corner of Lansdowne, join the team here.
Atomic Energy OK’d that he could play football as well.
“I was working 8-4:30 at Atomic Energy, then I had to be on the football field from 5:30-8:30,” says Smale, who has four kids — Doug, Dawne, Karen and Randy. “I’d get home at 11 at night. We were raising a young family ... (my wife) Dot had to basically look after the family on her own for four or five months each year. I wouldn’t see the kids unless I had a home game on the weekend.
“At the time, football was primary for a lot of guys, but they’d get jobs in furniture stores or car dealerships. But a number of us were professionals, too. I made $4,050 as a starting engineer with Atomic Energy and I was making $3,900 as a starting defensive end with the Rough Riders. We could have lived off the engineering salary. The football money was extra. Looking back now, there are some things I’d like to do differently.”
Some investments went sour, right about the time he was offered an opportunity to kick in $10,000 and join a group including Michael Cowpland and Terry Matthews.
“I couldn’t do it ... I had just lost that much money in the market. And those guys went on to have a good run,” says Smale.
On the football field, things were good.
“The interaction between the fans and players was super ... there was the sight of the fans coming over the bridge on game days, Saturday afternoons,” says Smale. “People had their work week, but when Saturday came, everything stopped. It was time for football.”
With his family living in Carlingwood, often there would be a knock on the door and Smale would be outside playing football with a large group of kids. That’s just the way it was ... the players weren’t too big for their britches. They blended into the community.
When Smale decided to leave football, he became a fan.
“I figured I was going to be an engineer a lot longer than I was going to be a football player,” he says. “It was really tough the first couple of years away from the game. Sitting in the stands on game day, I’d get the itch. I was like a bear with a sore paw. But I know my wife was pleased I gave it up.”
Being a fan was good. The team was successful, well, until the 1980s.
“Football had always been an event here. But once we got into the 1980s, the instability of ownership caused major problems,” says Smale.
“When it died in 1996, (Riders alumni) would be talking to people in the Valley and the Seaway. And the reaction was, ‘If you guys were still playing, we’d be there. But the football club is ignoring us, so to hell with them.’ It was tough to see that there wasn’t going to be football here.
“Something I will never understand, Bernie Glieberman was a smart man and great to talk to, but when it came to his son, Lonie, he was blind. Giving out beads so girls would bare their breasts ... that wasn’t football. And it turned some people off. I just don’t understand how a businessman with such acumen could let the football team be run like it was a toy.
“Bruce Firestone had his own interests in mind. The initial stages with Brad Watters looked good, but that turned sour when they finally got the Grey Cup game here and left.”
It is a given that the new team will not be known as the Rough Riders — as a condition of voting yes for Ottawa’s return to the CFL, Saskatchewan made it clear that could not happen.
“There is a history behind the name and we’re not going to lose that,” says Smale. “The roots are still here.”
It’s those roots that will push the team ahead as it begins the two-year journey toward undoing the recent horror stories ... to regaining its fan base ... to that familiar sight of fans crossing the bridge in bunches.