The rich history of football in the Ottawa-Gatineau area can be traced as far back as the year of Confederation, as the earliest game on record played in the region was on September 16, 1867, when two non-organized clubs, the Rough Riders and the Senators, clashed on the pitch. Records vaguely seem to indicate that the Rough Riders were named for the lumberjacks who rode down the rapids of the Ottawa River. It must be assumed that the Senators took their name from the governmental body.
On September 19, 1876, a meeting was held at the Russell Hotel to form the Ottawa Football Club. The club was initially run by the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association, yet it would be another 21 years before a proper nickname would be chosen. Four days later, on September 23, 1876, Ottawa FC, dressed in cerise (moderate red), French grey, and navy blue colours, played their first game, which was held at Jacques Cartier Square against the Aylmer Football Club. However, it was not until the following year (May 12, 1877) that Ottawa would host its first game against an outside team, when the Britannia Football Club of Montreal visited the nation's capital.
On January 4, 1883, the Ontario Rugby Football Union was formed (ten days before the birth of the Quebec Rugby Football Union), with the Ottawa Football Club as one of its charter members. Ottawa FC, also known as Ottawa City, made it all the way to the first ORFU championship game, after defeating both Queen's University (18-2) and the Hamilton Tigers (14-9) – known today as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – in each of its regular season contests. In the title clash, City was edged 9-7 by the visiting Toronto Argonauts on November 10, 1883. The teams were to meet again in 1884 in the ORFU final, but the Argonauts were declared champions following Ottawa City's forfeit.
It was on September 9, 1897 that the Ottawa Football Club was re-christened the Ottawa Rough Riders, adopting their now-famous red and black colour scheme, in honour of the Canadian regiment fighting in the Spanish-American War. The club, which had played in the QRFU since 1894, returned to the all-familiar ORFU in 1898, where it would earn its first title chance since 1885. The Rough Riders went all the way that year by defeating the University of Ottawa 11-1.
The Rough Riders returned to the CRU final in 1899, but the Kingston Granites closed out the century by shutting out the Ottawa 8-0 in Toronto. Redemption time came the following year, as the Rough Riders returned to the top of the mountain by defeating the Brockville Football Club of the QRFU by a 17-10 score. They added another crown two years later, defeating the University of Ottawa, the defending champions, 5-0.
Following the Rough Riders' final pre-Grey Cup national championship, the club promptly bolted back to the league across the river, playing in the Quebec league in 1903. It was there that they would earn another national championship game berth in 1905, but the University of Toronto ended those aspirations with an 11-9 win.
On September 13, 1907, the Rough Riders, after having merged with the Ottawa St. Patrick’s, joined the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, along with the Montreal Football Club (QRFU), as well as with the ORFU's Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tigers. The clubs were to be known as the Big Four.
On December 11, 1909, following an invitation from the New York Herald Newspaper, the Tigers and the IRFU-champion Rough Riders played an exhibition game of Canadian Football in New York City's Van Courtland Park. The Tigers took the game 11-6 before 15,000 screaming fans. It was the first Canadian rugby football game played in the United States by top-level clubs.
The Ottawa Rough Riders changed its nickname to the Senators following a merger with the St. Bridges Club in 1925. It was that same year that Ottawans would celebrate their first Grey Cup championship, as the Senators defeated Winnipeg Tammany Tigers 24-1. They successfully defended their crown the following year, capping off a glorious season with a 10-7 victory over the University of Toronto. Apparently, superstition was not an issue as the Senators reverted back to the Rough Rider nickname in time for the 1927 season.
After two failed attempts in the Grey Cup game in 1936 and 1939, the Rough Riders returned to Canadian football’s summit in 1940. Following another Grey Cup championship in 1951, the 1960s proved to be the golden age of football in the nation’s capital.
Led by Hamilton-born quarterback Russ Jackson, the Rough Riders would play in the title game four times in the decade, winning the Grey Cup in 1960, 1968 and 1969. Jackson was named the league’s top player three times in 1963, 1966 and 1969, throwing his last career pass in the 1969 title game.
Success would continue in the 1970s, as the Rough Riders would sip from the Grey Cup again in 1973 and 1976. In one of the more memorable plays in Grey Cup history, Tony Gabriel caught a 24-yard touchdown with 20 seconds remaining to give Ottawa a 23-20 win over Saskatchewan.
The 1981 season would mark the last time the Rough Riders appeared in the championship game. Following a 17-year period in which the Rough Riders did not have a winning season, the club ceased operations after 1996.
Long-suffering professional football fans in the nation's capital were given another team to cheer for as on October 17, 2001, as a group led by sports entrepreneur Brad Watters were awarded a Canadian Football League franchise for the city of Ottawa. Six days later, Eric Tillman was given the reigns as the club's first general manager, and on November 17, former Rough Rider quarterback Joe Paopao was named the franchise's first head coach. Ten days later, running back Sam Zanders, who had played with the Toronto Argonauts the previous season, would become the first club's player as he was signed as a free agent on November 27.
Finally, following a name-the-team contest, the Ottawa Renegades Football Club was born, winning out over other contenders, such as Rivermen and Beavers. The famed mammal would not be shut out, as Ruffy the Beaver would become the club's official mascot.