Like most residents of New England, I spent Sunday night watching football. However, unlike most residents of New England, most of my attention was not focused on the Patriots and the Broncos. Given how badly the Pats played in the first half, it was probably just as well that I missed that portion of the proceedings, as they were losing 24-0 at the half. (I did finally tune in early in the fourth quarter right before the Pats took the lead before winning 34-31 in OT on a field goal by Steve Gostkowski.)
I spent most of the evening watching the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League (CFL) championship game (which was broadcast on the NBC Sports Network). The Grey Cup was named for Albert Grey, the Fourth Earl of Grey who was Canada’s Governor General when he commissioned the cup in 1909. (If you’re wondering about the tea, the Earl Grey in question is his grandfather, Charles Grey. Before becoming the Second Earl of Grey, he served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland and oversaw the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. But I digress.)
There are some significant differences between the CFL and the NFL. CFL fields are both wider and longer including the end zone. In Canada, 12 players are allowed on the field, instead of 11 down here. There are only three downs. So you will hear football broadcasters in Canada say, “Two and out.” Sportswriters put the “c” in CFL by describing the offence and the defence. Then there is the three minute warning. There are also a lot fewer commercials, which makes it so much easier for me to follow the game.
Speaking of commercials, the Super Bowl might be the most watched sporting event in the United States, but the Grey Cup has been around more than twice as long. In fact, the matchup between the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the Saskatchewan Roughriders was the 101st edition of the Grey Cup. Championship football in Canada has now entered its second century.
As it happened, the game took place in Regina, Saskatchewan, much to the delight of the hometown crowd. The Roughriders ran roughshod over the Ticats, 45-23, to win only their fourth Grey Cup.
Roughriders running back Kory Sheets was named the Grey Cup MVP. Sheets ran for two touchdowns and rushed for a Grey Cup record 197 yards. Forty-two of those yards came when Sheets caught a ball that was knocked loose from Riders QB Darian Durant. Sheets shattered the record set by Johnny Bright, who rushed for 169 yards for the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1956 Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes.
For good measure, future CFL Hall of Famer Geroy Simon also caught two TDs. Simon is the CFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards and pass receptions.
The Roughriders’ fans were also a huge factor in the game. They covered Mosaic Field in a sea of green and zoned in on Tiger Cats QB Henry Burris. It should be noted here that Burris used to be the Roughriders’ QB, but fell out of favor when he signed a free agent contract with the Calgary Stampeders almost a decade ago. Rider Nation shouted, “Henrrry!!! Henrrry!!!” and got inside the head of Burris. On two occasions, Burris dropped snaps and the Tiger Cats could not deliver on offense. Er, I mean offence.
Without a doubt, the Roughriders have the most passionate fans in the CFL. I would dare say that in Saskatchewan the popularity of football eclipses that of hockey. Rider Nation has known more bad times than good, but fans have stuck with the team through thick and thin.
Perhaps the worst of times came during the 2009 Grey Cup against the Alouettes. The Roughriders had a 17-3 lead at the half, but Montreal stormed back. It appeared that the Roughriders received a reprieve in the final seconds of the game when Alouettes’ kicker Damon Duval missed a field goal. But the Riders were called for having too many men on the field. Duval got a second chance and this time the kick was good. Final score: Alouettes 28, Roughriders 27.
The Roughriders aren’t the only team to have known Grey Cup heartbreak. Just ask J.C. Watts. The future Republican Congressman was the quarterback of the now defunct Ottawa Rough Riders (as opposed to the Roughriders) when they reached the Grey Cup in 1981 despite a woeful regular season record of 5-11. The Rough Riders would face the heavily favored Eskimos who had won three consecutive Grey Cups and were led by future NFL quarterback Warren Moon. Surprisingly, the Rough Riders had a 20-1 lead at the half.
But Ottawa could not hold on. Rough Riders tight end Tony Gabriel would make a spectacular catch late in the fourth quarter, but was controversially penalized for pass interference. The Eskimos got the ball back and would win the game 26-23 on a field goal. Despite losing the game, Watts was named the Grey Cup MVP. Although I’m sure Watts would trade that MVP award for a Grey Cup ring in a heartbeat.
I had the opportunity to see a few CFL games when I lived in Ottawa in the 1990s. But by this time, the Rough Riders were considered a joke and they would eventually disband. Next year, Ottawa football fans will be treated to a new CFL team known as the RedBlacks.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy watching NFL games on TV and root for the Pats, especially when Tom Brady bests Peyton Manning. But I prefer the faster paced Canadian game. Besides, I don’t think I will ever see a Tim Horton’s logo near at the 50 yard line at Gillette Stadium.