Since the CFL conditionally awarded a franchise to Ottawa back in 2008, detractors, critics and trolls have all said the same thing, “Ottawa is not a football town.”
Even as fans sold out TD Place during the Ottawa Redblacks inaugural 2-16 campaign, doubters continued to say, “The CFL will never work in Ottawa.”
When a flurry of off-season additions came together and propelled the Redblacks to a 12-6 record and their first Grey Cup berth in 2015, some around the league, perhaps with a touch of jealousy, still joked that Ottawa would fold within five years.
To those living in the nation’s capital old enough to remember the Rough Rider and Renegade eras, such comments only proved one thing; that those making them just didn’t understand the city.
It’s no exaggeration to say that over the last 40 years, no fanbase in the CFL has suffered more than R-Nation. Since Tom Clements connected with Tony Gabriel in the dying seconds of the 1976 Grey Cup, Ottawa football fans haven’t had much to cheer about.
In the ensuing 40 years since that Grey Cup win, R-Nation watched its’ pro football teams muster a pathetic 157-297-1 record and fold twice. Ottawa’s teams were so inept that from 1980 until 2015, locals never saw a team finish above .500.
Those four decades featured a carousel of owners; some with good intentions but shallow pocketbooks, others who dated cheerleaders and fired GMs on the eve of training camp, to one who never even bothered to set foot in the city of the team he owned.
For those living in Ottawa, hearing outsiders claim that football could never work in the city was simply absurd. Despite all the bullshit, R-Nation has always supported its teams, even in the worst times.
During the Rough Riders’ 120th (and final) season, the team still averaged 16,846 fans per game. In the Renegade era when Lonie Glieberman was paying women a $1000 bucks to flash their breasts and collect beads in the upper South Side stands, or when he enraged season ticket holders by holding a $99 season ticket sale during the first week of the season, an average of 18,489 fans spent their hard earned money to watch the Renegades.
Sunday night’s Grey Cup win doesn’t magically erase all the sloppy football and poor ownership that fans in Ottawa have gone through, but it certainly does alleviate a good chunk of the pain.
For two generations, R-Nation has clung to the memory of feats accomplished by Frank Clair, Russ Jackson and Tony Gabriel like a drowning man to a lifeline.
Now, the children and grandchildren of those who grew up in the Rough Rider glory years can now relate to their elders when they talk of the days of winning football in Ottawa.
In addition to “The Catch”, a new generation of football fans in Ottawa have iconic moments to relive when they play in the park, thanks to Abdul Kanneh’s goal line ankle tap on Andrew Buckley and Ernest Jackson playing hot potato with the game winning overtime touchdown.
Frankly, it’s about damn time Ottawa natives added a new group of names to its pantheon of local sports legends.
The Redblacks’ Grey Cup win over the heavily favoured Calgary Stampeders wasn’t the eureka moment that suddenly proved Ottawa football is sustainable, but yesterday’s championship parade, one in which 40,000 people braved freezing rain and cold temperatures, once and for all ended the debate on if Ottawa is a football town. There’s simply no way anyone could’ve looked upon the exuberant sea of plaid clad fans packed under the shadows of the historic Aberdeen Pavilion and argued otherwise.
For many in the crowd, Tuesday’s championship parade through the Glebe (a symbolic route passing through the heart of where opposition to a renovated Lansdowne was at its highest), was a joyous moment and a reward for years of hardships endured. For much of R-Nation, it seemed like a day that would never come.
Watching from abroad, I have to admit that I was exceptionally proud of my hometown’s showing. The smiling faces and flags that lined both sides of Bank Street reflected my own happiness. At the same time, it was bittersweet because I would have given anything to take part in the celebrations with family and friends.
As took to social media to follow the celebration, I was struck by the bond a sports team provides its city and how the identity of such a large group of people is tied to its local sports franchise.
Here in Brazil, yesterday’s main news was the tragic story of a plane crash in Colombia that killed nearly every member of Chapecoense, a soccer team from a small city in the South that was traveling to compete for its first international title. As I watched the news and saw a city come to grips with the devastation of permanently losing not only its players, but its coach, trainers and the journalists who covered it, I was really struck by just how fortunate Ottawa was to have its team back.
Perspective can be a heck of a thing and I truly hope R-Nation cherishes this special moment. After all, it was a lonnng time coming.