Rider pride

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:39 AM ET

You'll find them at stadiums across the country, leather-lunged lunatics in green and white, their painted faces peering out from beneath a melon or a lamp shade.

Invariably, they'll be screaming something like, "Go Riders!" or perhaps singing their team fight song, a hokey ditty that begins, "Green is the colour..."

If you're at the Stadium this Sunday, you might be sitting next to one of these curiosities.

Instead of hurling an insult, though, you may want to pass on your condolences.

Because being a fan of the Saskatchewan Roughriders might be the most difficult pastime in all of sports.

Beaten down year after year, these people still manage to get their hopes up for no apparent reason.

You'd think the wear and tear of winning just two Grey Cups in their history -- 1966 and 1989 -- would have rubbed the shine right off Rider Pride by now.

But not only do the Roughriders continue to draw spectators in Regina, they, more than any CFL team, draw them to every stadium in the land.

Check out the stands here Sunday, and you'll see pockets of green and white -- Rider Nation, they call themselves -- clustered among Blue Bomber fans like mould in a basket of blueberries. And they're usually acting like their team is on a 30-game win streak and on top of the CFL West.

Problem is, Saskatchewan hasn't even finished as high as second in 18 years. You have to go back 30 years to find them in first.

Since then, the 'Riders have played host to a playoff game just once. During the same stretch, they've finished dead-last in their division 13 times.

Is there a better example of consistent futility in pro sports?

You could point to a team like the Chicago Cubs, still without a World Series victory in their history.

But the Cubs swim with the big fish, competing against dozens of teams in a sport in which it's difficult just to get into the playoffs.

The 'Riders are a small, easily-swallowed fish in a very small pond, having posted their record of mediocrity competing in what has usually been an eight- or nine-team league, in which six make the playoffs.

Heck, Paris Hilton could run an organization and still stumble into a championship once every few decades, couldn't she?

And somebody called this Canada's Team?

What they've done to deserve that moniker is curious, to say the least. Unless the name panders to our national inferiority complex. Then the fit is perfect.

How the Roughriders keep getting their fans to come back for more is as bewildering a question as the origin of the crop circle.

And that's where you have to go to begin to explain the lure of the Green and White: to the fields and back roads of rural Saskatchewan.

This is where boys learn to idolize 'Rider legends like George Reed, Ron Lancaster and Roger Aldag. And it's not just young boys, either.

Grandmothers like Betty King of Eatonia, Sask., a town of some 600 near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, is a proud member of Rider Nation. Just like her father was, her son is and her grandson will be.

"They're not just a football team," King said. "They're a positive force for the province. Even when times aren't easy."

On this day, King is in a Dairy Queen parking lot just off the Trans-Canada Highway, on her way to the Labour Day game with the rest of the family: son, Jeff, his wife, Michelle, and their son, Benny, a toddler who already wears green and white.

"He's going to be a 'Rider fan," Michelle smiled. "He's already being brainwashed."

Down the road, in Moose Jaw, a boy named Scott Schultz grew up worshipping at the Church of the 'Riders.

Today, Schultz is living every Saskatchewan lad's dream, as a starting defensive tackle for the team he's always loved.

"Rider Pride is unexplainable, unless you experience it," Schultz told CFL Magazine. "You get it when you're one day old, it builds and it builds until it's like a religion.

"You go to Vancouver, you see it. You go to Calgary and half the people are from Saskatchewan. You see it on licence plates, on flags. Rider Pride is believing in your team even though they've won only two Grey Cups."

The man charged with making it three is new general manager Eric Tillman.

A Mississippi native who's been associated with the CFL for some 16 years, Tillman is well aware of the phenomenon he's now leading.

"It's amazing," Tillman told Home Turf. "This franchise reminds me of the Green Bay Packers. Down there it's a state-wide passion. Here it's a provincial passion."

Tillman first became aware of the magnitude of Rider Pride when he was GM of the B.C. Lions, from 1993-95.

"Every time we played Saskatchewan, it was just amazing to see the large number of people in the stands wearing green," he recalled. "And the noise they made. Then when I went to Toronto I found out it wasn't just a western thing -- it was in the East.

"This is a special place ... with a unique passion for football."

The smooth-as-silk Tillman took over the GM's post from the abrasive Roy Shivers last month.

Shivers, fired midway through his seventh season, fell short in his promise to deliver a home playoff game and long-awaited Cup appearance.

Just as damning was the record of his players in the community.

Under Shivers' watch, a 'Riders arrest was more commonplace than a playoff victory.

Tillman refused to be critical of the past regime, choosing instead to look ahead to the kind of image he'd like the organization to cultivate.

"I have a well-documented history of putting a premium on character," Tillman said. "It certainly will be emphasized here. We want to have a team that this community can embrace and feel good about on the field and off the field."

The way Saskatchewan fans already embrace their team, it's difficult to fathom what would happen should the 'Riders become Grey Cup contenders on a regular basis again, not to mention model citizens.

In recent years, the team has at least shown signs of becoming a perennial playoff performer, the first time since the mid-1970s.

Unlike Shivers, Tillman won't make any bold promises. Other than to do his best.

"You don't tell people," he said. "You show them.

"This organization has a chance to successful at the highest level. We want to bring another championship to the good people of Saskatchewan."

One thing is certain.

The leather-lunged lunatics who make up Rider Nation are behind him all the way.

Win or lose. Again.


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