I remember the first time that I actually cared about sports.
For years I thought that football was the embodiment of the most primal elements of our human identity: brute force and fighting for dominance. The opening scene of 2001 A Space Odyssey would come to mind. I wanted nothing to do with it. But that all changed in the days leading up to my first visit to Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. That is, my aversion to football changed. I still think that it seems prehistoric, but now I embrace it - I am a human after all.
Prior to July 2007 I had never been to a football game. Ever. I had occasionally wandered by the TV as my dad sat transfixed by the last minutes of the Grey Cup unfolding, holding out hope for a turnaround until the very end. We'd lose. We always seemed to lose. Poor Riders. My dad had to scratch his head to remember the last time they had won the Cup.
When a few coworkers at the ATCO Gas office made plans to go to the July 20th Riders vs Eskimos (home) game, I was a little hesitant. Ultimately I gave in, figuring it would be a good bonding experience with my office friends from my internship posting. My boss was a Riders fan (originally a Saskatonian), as was another coop student from the U of S. A few days before the game, I started getting a bit excited at the thought of cheering on our underdog team amidst a sea of infidel Eskimo fans. Someone had to.
I'm not sure exactly what sparked it, but I really wanted to make a watermelon helmet. Perhaps I thought I may as well have some fun with it, even if the game didn't do anything for me. I spent a good twenty minutes at Safeway trying to find a watermelon big enough to fit my noggin. That night I set away at carving my helmet, referencing images and the team logo on the net to get it just right. It was a perfect fit, and I was pumped.
My enthusiasm changed when I remembered that I would have to wear this thing in public. Fortunately, one of my coworkers was also making a melon helmet, so I wouldn't be alone (I love how he put pineapple spines in a ridge along the top - pretty bad ass). Helmets donned, we boarded the LRT, and what a surprise we saw: the subway was crowded with Riders fans. A father with a little girl pointed our way and speaking to his daughter said "Now there's some real Riders fans." I'd never felt so proud.
We had cheaped out on tickets and were seated at the third highest row in the stadium. Our seats had a spectacular view of the entire field - and the crowd. I had heard that Riders fans were the most energetic and loyal in the country, but I had not appreciated how true that was until that day. The stand opposite us was a veritable green ocean, Riders fans outnumbering Eskimos by 2:1. All manner of grab could be seen on the 13th man and woman: green and white afro wigs, flags on 5 m poles, and Pilsner box hats galore (one was shaped like a combine!). There was also a few fellow melon heads. There were so many Rider supporters in the stands that the city actually ran out of green and white face paint - seriously, it was in the news. It felt like a home game (or at least what I could assume a home game would be like. Oddly enough, that July 20th game had the highest attendance of any game in the entire season (46,704), eclipsed only by the SK vs BC playoff finals (54,712) and the Grey Cup itself (52,230).
We got off to a great start. By the beginning of the third quarter we were leading 20 to 1. In jubilation, Rider Nation hijacked the Edmonton chant "Let's Go Eskimos", drowning it out with "Go Home Eskimos". A valiant fan wearing nothing but green and white paint from the waist up streaked across the field, making it almost all the way to the end zone before being tackled by three security guards. The crowd cheered as he was dragged away. The fanatic frenzy of the game sent raw emotions of excitement, empowerment, and courage welling up in me - I now understood what was meant by Rider Pride.
Then everything went to pieces. With less than two minutes left on the clock, the Eskies had recovered to a score of 21, while we had made no additional gains. Though we were ultimately defeated, I could appreciate the spirit of unshakable faith that my father would exhibit during every televised game - no matter how rough it got, they were the Rough Riders, and they were our team. Have-not province, have-not team, but both ours.
While we left the stadium with our pride intact, someone walking beside me asked if they could see my helmet. "Go right ahead! Keep it!" I generously offered. As I turned away I heard the heart-wrenching sound of melon rind rupturing on pavement. It had not occurred to me that the guy might not be a Rider kinsmen, but a soulless Eskimo fan. But I still had my pride - they couldn't break that over asphalt.
On October 26th, we had our revenge. Even though the fall chill had frozen my extremities, the heat of that next football battle kept me warm. We trounced the EE 36 to 29 and it was glorious - the first Rider victory I witnessed in the flesh. Everyone was saying how good the season was going, that we might have a good chance at the Grey Cup. Almost a month to the day later, I was glued to the TV, cheering on every pass, every field goal, every touchdown at the game that meant everything. When the clock stopped to seal our triumph, I shouted from my balcony onto the street "Riders win Grey Cup!" It was a moment of great celebration: sometime in my life, I got to see the Riders win the Cup. It was almost like seeing Halley's comet.
But something happened over the next six years. Even though the Riders were on the rise and were making in back to the Grey Cup with some regularity, something was different. The feeling was akin to beating that difficult final level of a video game: YES!!! … but now what?
What happened? Why was the spark gone? Was it because we actually won the Grey Cup? Was our glorious victory ultimately a silent defeat on a different field? Can I possibly ask any more rhetorical questions?
Dave's earlier post "Fanatics" delves into this with much better insight than I could hope to articulate. Thanks for that brilliant post - it gave me the inspiration for this one (memories of a different time). It is this change in the mood of the fans that you noticed that is reason for my melancholy.
In an attempt to end on a lighter note, here is a picture of me with a pumpkin on my head! (yes, it's real one).
In retrospect, 2007 was a good year for me carving out fruit/vegetables and sticking them on my head :)