An entire city has gone nine full years without a reason to cheer a touchdown. Let’s just say the word ‘anxious’ just doesn’t quite describe the pent-up frustration of what was once Rough Rider Nation, briefly Renegades Nation, and is quickly becoming REDBLACKS Nation.
So as if the cheer wasn’t big enough for the REDBLACKS opening kickoff, imagine how many decibels the level of noise went up when Chevon Walker visited the Winnipeg Blue Bombers end-zone just 3:38 into the return of CFL football to the Nation’s Capital.
Walker, the onetime soccer player in South Florida and then a Hamilton Tiger-Cat, may as well have been Ron Stewart when he crossed the goal line to give the REDBLACKS a lead they would carry most of the game before dropping their opener.
More important than who crashed the end-zone was that football was back in Ottawa and nobody cared if the upstart bunch had to start on the road in Winnipeg and this week Edmonton, before finally returning home to TD Place, part of Lansdowne Live, in mid-July.
The Byward Market establishment Real Sports Bar & Grill was alive with CFL football frenzy again as the opening drive resembled what looked like a game-winning drive. And the fans could almost be heard from York Street to Winnipeg.
One kid at the restaurant had a homemade cardboard sign that read “CFL . . . Welcome Back . . . Ottawa” and he had to finish coloring in the letters on the table. The sign looked great incomplete and even better in full colour when it was finished.
“It’s just fun to see (Ottawa football) again,” said longtime fan Ken Lloyd, who attended his first Rough Riders game in 1970 when former NY Giants Gary Woods tried to replace the immortal Russ Jackson as Rider QB. “As long as the team is respectable . . . if they put a good effort in every game, I’m good with that.
“An expansion team should start with less talent. But if they can make up for some of that with sheer enthusiasm, I’m good with that.”
Lloyd, approaching 60, was a die-hard Riders fans as a kid.
“Unfortunately, I just missed the Jackson era . . . a little too young.”
He started attending young, first in the Northstand, before graduating to the more spirited Southside. Through the year, as ownership struggles challenged the CFL football spirit, Lloyd was one of those off and one season ticket holders.
“The new owners have the bucks and it’s going to be exciting.”
Fans at Real Sports were greeted by REDBLACKS cheerleaders and team mascot Big Joe arrived 15 minutes before kickoff and worked the room like he was looking for a forest to clear.
REDBLACKS staffers wore eye shadow, to dim the glare of the neon lights. Red and black flannel shirts made a fashion statement even if outside it was close to 30 degrees.
“We are,” chanted the cheerleaders.
“REDBLACKS, responded the fans in unison.
“Henry, Henry, Henry,” it went as the REDBLACKS quarterback Henry Burris too the field.
By the time Dobson Collins scored the REDBLACKS second touchdown, the place was rockin, with fist pumping and even a few drinks hoisted to the TV screens.
“I remember Super Season ’88 and the team going 2-16,” said REDBLACKS believer Mike Coldrey, 13 years of age in time for what wasn’t a super season. “I’m really not old enough to remember all the great Rough Riders days.
“But this is a whole new era. It’s like Ottawa football has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. That’s on the field and off. This thing is like night and day to what it was in the past.
“I do remember owners coming and going. The football was always fun. Going to the stadium was always fun. But this is totally different.
“Just seven or eight wins would be a tremendous success. That’s all we need.”
Lest we think Ottawa was the only city with a difficult past in the CFL, Joseph Cosgrove grew up in Montreal cheering for the World Football League’s Montreal Machine with Hull native and legend Chris Flynn part of the team.
Cosgrove’s beloved Alouettes had folded while he was still a kid so that was it for football in Montreal, other than NFL on television.
“I honestly wasn’t a super huge fan when I got to Ottawa in the early 2000s,” said Cosgrove. “I went to one game on Canada Day and it was an absolute blowout.
“But this is different now. If we can win just six games and not be blown out, if we can just be competitive. This is going to be fun.
“Montreal did it when it moved to McGill Stadium. Suddenly it was more intimate. Out West, the CFL is full of die-hards and that will happen now in Ottawa. It’s going to be everything everybody talks about. It’s going to be fun.
“This whole thing is exciting on the field and off. I called it right away when I found out the people involved. This time, I knew Ottawa (football) was going to be here for a long time.”