Saskatchewan Roughriders fans cheer during the first half of CFL football action against the BC Lons in Regina on Friday, August 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kayle Neis

Saskatchewan Roughriders deliver hard-fought victory before sold-out stadium

REGINA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders delivered a 33-29 victory against the BC Lions in their first game in over 600 days, a hard-fought triumph for Saskatchewan’s beloved football team.

Hours before the sold-out game began, fans in bright green jerseys, wigs, body paint and all manner of beads, capes and other accessories lined up at the stadium gates, eager to return to the home of Rider Nation.

Watching the crowds arrive, longtime fan Chelsea Gosling said she felt “awesome.”

“I like to see everybody out,” she said. “It makes me happy. A nice sea of green.”

David Starkell was equally eager to get back into the stadium.

“I’m pumped,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. I can’t wait. I want to see them play, I want to see all the fans – I’m ready to go. My heart’s pounding. It’s going to be great. I’ve wanted this from day one. Can’t wait to be back at it.”

Some fans showed their enthusiasm with more than words – Duane Leicht arrived at the game in a chainmail Roughriders jersey, which he said contains about 75,000 rings and took him approximately 600 hours to construct.

“Several years ago, I saw someone from Edmonton make a jersey out of tabs from energy drinks,” said Leicht. “And I figured us Riders fans are one step crazier, so I can do it one step better.”

Fans were also particularly pleased to see “The Pirate” – a regular fixture of the games, known for his dyed green beard and elaborate pirate costume – strolling through the crowd.

“The Pirate’s back?” said Gosling, who had been looking out for him. “We didn’t know (if he would be), with COVID, since he’s an older gent.”

Although Friday night’s game was the first in the CFL season where fans were not required to be vaccinated, and most members of the 30,000-strong crowd went unmasked, the evening was full of quiet reminders that the pandemic is not over.

Staff at a pop-up vaccination clinic outside the stadium said a “handful” of people had stopped by to get their first or second dose Friday afternoon.

Before the start of the game, players and fans stood for a moment of silence to honour those who have died of COVID-19, and also applauded the many health-care workers who attended the game as guests of the Riders.

Leicht, who wore a mask under his Rider-green chainmail coif, said he had been vaccinated and was not worried about the virus for himself – but was still choosing caution.

“I’m masking up tonight because of my grandchildren – I don’t want to carry anything home to them,” he said.

Heather Hand, a lifelong Riders fan, said being back in the crowd had her “99 and a half per cent excited,” though she still worried about getting sick.

“There was some trepidation about whether or not to come,” she said. “I’m disabled from a fall and I’m also immune-compromised. But I’m comfortable with the people that are around me, and I’m going to be careful. I’ve got my mask for when I’m in a situation where people are close to me … I know the people beside me.”

But even reminders of the virus could not dampen fans’ enthusiasm – most of the stadium crowd was on their feet and cheering for a solid minute before the athletes ran out onto the field.

The Riders gave the crowd plenty to cheer about in a dominant first half, scoring a series of early touchdowns which put them ahead 31-6 lead at halftime. The Lions fought back in the second half, but ultimately could not overcome the Riders’ lead.

After the game, Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo thanked the fans for coming back in force.

“Having a sold out Mosaic really helped us win that football game,” he said.