Saskatchewan at the heart of Rider pride

Say “Ronnie” to a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan and there’s no question who you’re talking about, says a Red Deer historian who has tackled the phenomenon known as Rider Pride.

James Martens asks Saskatchewan Roughrider fans who owns team shares during his presentation on ‘Rider Pride at Red Deer College Wednesday.

Say “Ronnie” to a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan and there’s no question who you’re talking about, says a Red Deer historian who has tackled the phenomenon known as Rider Pride.

Decades have passed since quarterback Ron Lancaster and running back George Reed ­— who had both come from the United States — earned the hearts and minds of Saskatchewan football fans who were badly in need of some heroes.

Riders fans today still talk about Ronnie and George and the way they bucked the trend, staying in Regina when most other football players would do whatever it took to get out of Saskatchewan, says Red Deer College history instructor James Martens.

Rider pride is really not about football. It’s about Saskatchewan, Martens told a high-spirited audience of about 50 — most sporting Riders team logos and colours — during a public lecture at the college library on Wednesday evening.

Liberally salted with jokes and minus a few academic references, it’s the same paper Martens presented in Scotland recently at an international conference of sports historians.

He later said that the biggest difference between the two lectures was that the sports historians in Scotland didn’t get the jokes, including an off-the-cuff description of Taylor Field — home of the Riders — as the World’s biggest insane asylum.

Taking an occasional sip from a bottle of Pilsner beer while confessing loyalty to his hometown team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Martens described to his audience how Saskatchewan’s agricultural roots helped the Regina-based team build a fan following that turns other teams green with envy.

“It’s not just the game that unites the people of Rider Nation,” said Martens.

Rider Nation is not a geographic area, but an emotionally-connected community of people whose roots extend into a vision of Saskatchewan that exists mainly in their hearts, he said.

Lancaster and Reed came into Regina in an era when the Riders were doing as badly on the football field as their home province was doing economically. The team was denied a playoff spot for 11 years in a row while the province’s brightest and best were abandoning Saskatchewan by the thousands, he said.

Most went to oil-rich Alberta, where they found good jobs in a runaway economy. But they kept that one little bit of Saskatchewan dust close to their hearts and they and their children still work it for all it’s worth.

Martens relayed the story of one former Saskatchewan couple whose little girl learned the Riders’ fight song before she learned Canada’s national anthem. He spoke also of an elderly woman, living in B.C., who is a die-hard fan — but knows nothing about football.

The question and answer period after his talk brought out a series of testimonies from people devoted to their team, including a handful who own shares in the publicly-traded franchise.

Like the many fans Martens described, Denise Gagne and her husband, Ken Mildenberger had left their farm in Macklin, Sask. in 1991 to seek their fortunes in Red Deer.

Gagne said she was awed by the number of people wearing Riders jerseys at the West Edmonton Mall after the most recent game between Saskatchewan and the Edmonton Eskimos.

The sea of green came as no surprise to Mildenberger, who holds season tickets for the Riders and the Calgary Stampeders. He drives to Calgary to catch a flight to every Riders home game and attends the Calgary games whenever Saskatchewan is playing there.

No other fans know how to cheer a team the way the Riders’ fans can cheer, said Mildenberger.

Holding a season ticket to McMahon Field in Calgary will also make it easier for Mildenberger to get a spot at the Grey Cup, which the Stampeders are hosting this year, said Gagne.

And then there was Jennifer Thompson, who completed her Rider Pride outfit with a dainty pair of Rider green shoes.

Originally from Southern Ontario, Thompson was married in spring to a dyed-in-green Rider fan, Dallon Thompson, and has become a full-fledged citizen of Rider Nation. While they were wed in Ontario, the couple held their reception in Dallon’s hometown, Martensville, Sask.

It was an all-green affair, sponsored by Pilsner beer and attended by Riders mascot Gainer the Gopher as a surprise guest.

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