It wasn’t quite Labour Day, yet.
It never is when the Saskatchewan Roughriders play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the ‘Labour Day Classic’ on the Sunday before Labour Day Monday.
The Labour Day classic in the 90s was the closest thing Saskatchewan had to a home playoff game.
‘The Catch’ by Tony Gabriel that broke prairie hearts far and wide in the 1976 Grey Cup launched a dreadful stretch for the Riders that would last 30 years. Not only did the club miss the playoffs 60 percent of the time, but it failed to finish in first place even once and hosted only one playoff game in 1988 (a 42-18 loss to the Lions).
It meant a generation of Saskatchewanians grew up without ever seeing their team host a playoff game. For that generation, my generation, our playoff game was the Labour Day Classic.
Too many great games stand out to choose just one but on the first Labour Day weekend of our lifetime without CFL football, I can’t stop thinking about the 1994 confrontation between Ray Jauch’s Saskatchewan Roughriders and Cal Murphy’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Riders of the early 90s were very much inferior to the Blue Bombers.
Under Murphy, Winnipeg had built itself into a superior franchise and a transfer to the weak East Division in 1987 helped the team feed off easy opponents.
By 1994, the Bombers had won three of the previous ten Grey Cups and were coming off back-to-back appearances in the big game in 1992 and 1993.
They were stacked with future Hall of Fame offensive linemen Miles Gorrell and Chris Walby up front, star receivers Gerald Wilcox and Gerald Alphin, and another Hall of Famer in Matt Dunigan at quarterback. And that doesn’t include one of the greatest sack-masters of all-time in Elfrid Payton.
Winnipeg was motivated to prove they had one more championship left in that core after being robbed of one the year before when Dunigan suffered a season-ending Achilles injury at the end of the regular schedule long after securing first place.
The Bombers came into the 1994 Labour Day Classic at 6-2, cruising to a third consecutive first-place finish in the East. Saskatchewan, a perfect 4-0 at home and 0-4 on the road to that point, was led by quarterback Warren Jones at the beginning of what would brew into a quarterback controversy with the Riders’ other starter, Tom Burgess.
Lucky for the Riders — and those of us wearing green and white in the stands at Taylor Field — Dunigan was on crutches again due to a knee injury and his backup, Sammy Garza, was out, too.
It was all left up to third-stringer Keithen McCant to come into Regina and take away our moment. Rider fans were still stinging from the last-second Troy Westwood field goal that had spoiled our Labour Day party the year before.
An over-flow crowd of 28,738 filled into Taylor Field including a few hundred with lawn-chairs pouring into the open-air grassy knolls bordering the north and south end-zones, hoping to grab a few high-fives from any touchdowns score by their beloved Roughrider receivers.
Saskatchewan’s first two drives would end in touchdown scores by Mike Saunders along the ground and Don Narcisse through the air. Another Narcisse touchdown would propel the Riders to a 29-4 lead just before halftime.
The Riders were capitalizing on what would be five Winnipeg turnovers on the day. Bombers’ running back Blaise Bryant accepted the blame for his two costly fumbles, both of which led to Saskatchewan touchdowns. And with an inexperienced QB at the controls for the other side, it appeared that we living in Riderland were on our way.
But in the final minute of the first half, Winnipeg blocked a punt and linebacker Greg Clark returned it 47 yards for a score, closing the gap to 29-11 as the teams hit the undersized and outdated Taylor Field locker rooms.
Bryant told Darrell Davis, then of the Regina Leader-Post, after the game that he and his Winnipeg teammates agreed to quit jawing at each other at halftime and to settle down to play their game.
The third quarter swung momentum the other way, however, with McCant tossing touchdowns to Alphin and Wilcox, closing the Saskatchewan lead down to a 32-26 advantage by the end of the quarter.
Suddenly we, in section seven behind the Rider bench, weren’t feeling so confident.
Saskatchewan’s Dave Ridgway and Winnipeg’s Troy Westwood would trade field goals early in the fourth quarter and Saskatchewan coach Ray Jauch chose to concede a safety touch for field position late. The score was 35-31 for the Roughriders going into the final minute.
McCant led a drive past midfield and into Rider territory.
The stadium, which had been roaring with noise to help the defence stave off any last-minute heroics, went silent. You could have cut the tension with a knife.
And then, it happened!
Scrimmaging first-and-ten from the Riders’ 51-yard line, McCant took the snap and rolled to his left where he was met by Roughrider defensive lineman Lybrant Robinson. Flailing and struggling to avoid a sack, the rookie quarterback used his left arm to unload an underhand lob toward the home sideline.
Rider linebacker Dan Rashovich, who had yet to score in his eleven-year career, leaped just high enough to snare the ball out of mid-air like a loaf of bread and galloped down the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown score to seal the game.
The park went B-A-N-A-N-A-S!
42-31 the Riders would win it, giving us back our Labour Day weekend celebration we had been robbed of the year before.
Rashovich would later admit to always dreaming about scoring a defensive touchdown but never actually living out the fantasy until that moment.
21 years later, in 2015, I was recruited as a volunteer at a football camp Don Narcisse ran for years in Regina.
In helping out with the linebackers (like what the hell do I know about teaching linebackers, or any player, anything?), I had the good fortune of meeting Rashovich and watching him teach younger players how to play the position when one kid asked, ‘Did you ever score on a pick-six?’
Rashovich hesitated to recall details and answer the question when I impatiently interrupted and told the entire story, sparing no detail.
The kids ate it up and Rashovich’s eyeballs blew up like saucers as he glanced over and said, “Yeah! That’s exactly how it happened.” He was amazed at my total recall of this moment that had meant as much to me, or maybe even more, as it had to him.
The Riders would finish a respectable 11-7 that year, good enough for fourth in the West and a playoff loss to Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders. Labour Day would indeed prove to be not just our home playoff game, but our Grey Cup, that year.
We didn’t have much to celebrate from our football team in those days but we could always count on that weekend. That’s what the Labour Day Classic was to me, the Riders, and so many others.
Every team settles for something less than a Grey Cup most years. But Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Winnipeg or Saskatchewan normally get a Labour Day.
COVID-19 has claimed many a casualty from the sports world, but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than missing out on whatever Labour Day Classic the football gods had in store for us in 2020.