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Football’s wildest, proudest and most passionate fans: Saskatchewan’s Rider Nation loves their CFL team

This story originally appeared this week in The Dallas News travel section.

REGINA – The third quarter of the football game has just finished and the crowd at Mosaic Field rises in unison to sing.

“And it’s ho-hey, hi-hey, Farmers bar your doors, When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores.”

Grown men in deep green Saskatchewan Roughrider jerseys and long, brilliant green wigs dance and sway as the tune bounces along. Men and women with carved watermelons on their head belt out the lyrics. I can’t see them in the stands, but I’m pretty sure the father and son in matching green Hawaiian shirts that I interviewed prior to the game are raising a cup of the prized local pilsner beer to the local pirates.

For folks who don’t have a degree in Canadian geography, let me point out the Regina is just about due north of the North Dakota/Montana border and roughly a 1,000 mile drive to the Pacific Ocean. But this is a Saskatchewan Roughriders game, and the team’s legions of half-crazed fans play by their own rules and sing their own songs. They want to be pirates, so pirates they shall be.

From Hawaiian shirts to Mexican wrestling masks, there’s no shortage of costumes that appeal to fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the most beloved team in the Canadian Football League.  – JIM BYERS PHOTO

In Toronto, the local Canadian Football League team, the Argonauts, are lucky to draw 12,000 fans. It could change next year now that the Argos’ are defending CFL champs, but Hillary Clinton 2016 election night parties are usually more boisterous than an Argos game. Things are different in Saskatchewan, where the CFL is the only major sports league in town (they do have minor league hockey and recently got a team in the National Lacrosse League). So on a visit to Regina this summer I took in a game at the new Mosaic Field, a sparkling, $200 million Canadian playground that glimmers and gleams as much as any NFL stadium I’ve seen.

It didn’t take long to find out that prairie football fans are entirely wacky, impossibly silly, ridiculously dressed folks who decorate their entire bodies – and often their homes – in Rider green and that they are incredibly and indisputably dedicated to their team. It’s fantastic.

I made it to the first pre-season game of the year, which also was the debut of the new stadium. I think the fans, accustomed to their former dump of a home across the street (Taylor Field) were more than a little overwhelmed by the space-ship shine of their new digs. But their pride was out in full force.
Steven Cormons is a retired businessman who dresses up like a green Johnny Depp, with a fluorescent green beard and green tri-corner hat and green, navy-style jacket, with his green and white-striped pants tucked into dark black boots. Cormons, who calls himself Captain Harvey Rider, is retired and drives down from North Battleford for each game; a 250-mile trip.

Captain Harvey Rider, aka Steve Cormons, is a fixture at Saskatchewan Roughriders home games. Never mind the nearest ocean is a two-day drive from the province. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“I love the Pirates of Regina song and I thought they needed a pirate in the stands,” Cormons, I mean Rider, told me prior to the game. “I was wearing a cowboy hat that day and thought, ‘Why not a pirate costume?’

“I got my wife to make one for me and now my goal is to get everyone in my section of the stadium to wear an eyepatch.”

I commented on his natty attire and Rider smiled.

“You think the costume is something, you should see our living room. The walls are green like the grass. We even painted yard lines on the wall.”

“There was a guy named The Flame who used to go to the games and shoot a flame through the top of his hat when the Riders scored,” said Riders’ fan Paul Chicoine, who also runs Rebellion Brewery in town. “One guy dresses as The Joker from Batman.  Another guy has a chicken outfit and dances around. One time he was dancing really hard and shaking so much he broke his arm,” and isn’t that an emergency room visit you’d love to see on YouTube?

Watermelon hats have been a signature of Rider fans for years. Melons are purchased a few days prior to the game and the pink fruit is carved out (and presumably eaten), leaving a green and white rind that plunks down perfectly on the head of a prairie football fan.

The story goes that when Saskatchewan journeyed to Calgary a few years ago to play for the CFL Championship, known as the Grey Cup, one of the local grocery stores had to buy thousands of extra watermelons to keep Riders’ fans in their favorite fruit.

Booker Wills, left, and Luke McWilliams demonstrate the proper way to wear a watermelon on one’s head at a Saskatchewan Roughriders’ game in Regina. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“Ideally you buy the watermelon the day before and let it dry out a little,” melon-hatted fan Luke McWilliams tells me as he wanders the stadium at halftime. “It’s kinda gross if it’s wet.”

I tell a group of crazies I’m interviewing that I’m doing a story for a newspaper in Dallas.

“I don’t think people in the US have any idea how crazy we are here about football and about the Riders,” says season-ticket holder Lance Hackewich, who’s at the game with his son, Nelson. They’re dressed in matching green Hawaiian shirts, along with snazzy white fedoras with green trim. “But players who have come up here from the States get it. Doug Flutie gets it. Jeff Garcia gets it.”

I ask Nelson why Rider nation is such a devoted bunch.

“We don’t have anything else,” he replies in a matter-of-fact voice.

That’s not quite true. Regina will never be mistaken for Paris or Denver or Dallas. The more northerly Saskatchewan city of Saskatoon has a prettier setting and a stronger reputation for the arts. But Regina, which is the province’s capital, has a lovely lake and a nice farmer’s market, as well as one of the most striking provincial buildings in Canada. Better still, the people are down-home, hard-working middle of the country folks who don’t take themselves the least bit seriously, and they’re ultra-passionate about their football team.

“A lot of former players stay here in Regina and sell cars or work at restaurants,” says super-fan Nathan Clearihue. “They stay because they’re so well-loved.”

Saskatchewan Roughriders fans are acknowledged as the most enthusiastic fans in the Canadian Football League, often travelling hundreds of miles to get to their games. PHOTO COURTESY SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

That list includes Don Narcisse, who was born in Port Arthur, Texas and played college football at Texas Southern. He wasn’t a star coming out of school but latched on with the Riders, becoming the Canadian Football League’s all-time leading receiver at the time of his retirement in 1999.

“The fans around here embraced me like you can’t believe,” said Narcisse. “These might be the best and most loyal fans in sports.

“They’re loud in Seattle and Green Bay but this is a pretty amazing place,” Narcisse told me.
They certainly love to wave the green-and-white flag. The store at Mosaic Field is filled with hundreds of Riders’ items; everything from flip flops to earrings to baby lotion. There are even green Rider champagne flutes.

Lance and Nelson Hackewich have taken a bedroom at their suburban Regina home and turned it into a shrine for all things Riders; everything from autographed Grey Cup footballs (alas, the Riders have only won Lord Grey’s trophy four times in the CFL’s 100-plus years: 1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013) to Roughrider cribbage sets to watermelon candies.

A Boba Fett costume from Star Wars is the perfect color for wearing to a Saskatchewan Roughriders’ game. PHOTO COURTESY SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

One of their prized possessions is a Riders cigarette lighter from the 1950s.

“They certainly don’t give those away anymore,” Lance tells me. “George Reed (a former Riders’ star) tells stories of how he would run off the field at half time instead of walk because that way he could have two cigarettes before the start of the third quarter instead of just one.”

Lance takes me to their living room and shows me photos of family members holding the green Saskatchewan flag in front of the Eiffel Tower and at the lip of the Grand Canyon.

“I was in China once at the Great Wall and had my flag and someone yelled, ‘Go, Riders.’ Saskatchewan fans are everywhere.”

ROUGH RIDERS INFO

The season is over for now, Saskatchewan having been vanquished in the playoffs by the Toronto Argonauts. The team’s official website is www.riderville.com.

OTHER CANADIAN FOOTBALL TRADITIONS

OTTAWA During the first time-out of the third quarter of every home game in Ottawa, fans of the Red Blacks shout “Shoe Beer, Shoe Beer, Shoe Beer.” A long-time season ticker-holder then gets out a shoe that’s been fashioned into a drinking receptacle, fills it with beer and gives it a chug as his fellow fans shout encouragement.

WINNIPEG Here’s a fun tradition: fans at Blue Bombers games have been known to collect all the plastic beer cups they can (are you sensing a theme here?) and stack them one into the other until they form a meters-long, writhing collection of cups affectionately known as a “beer snake.” One wildlife group in Canada declared it an official species of reptile.

CALGARY This being the city that hosts the annual Calgary Stampede, you know horses have to enter the equation. Sure enough, after every touchdown a female rider named Chelsea Drake (she took over for her mom just recently) races down the sidelines on a horse called “Quick Six,” six being the number of points you score on a touchdown in American and Canadian football. Alas, the horse doesn’t drink a beer after his run.
 
 
 
Email: jim@jimbyerstravel.com

Twitter: @jimbyerstravel

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