When Mario Smith broke Jeff Garcia’s nose, Rider Nation rejoiced

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Growing up in Saskatchewan during the 1990s was awful.

The weather was always off, no matter the time of year. Our provincial government was drowning in debt. Low grain prices made lots of farmers go broke.

The Sandra Schmirler curling dynasty was taking shape, but it was little consolation to everything else collapsing around us.

All of our young people were moving west to Alberta. And to top it off, our football team sucked, too.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders were still in the throes of a 25-year wasteland, which saw our beloved green and white miss the playoffs 18 times between 1977 and 2001. But for some strange season, the Riders usually seemed to put a up good fight whenever the Calgary Stampeders — led by Doug Flutie or Jeff Garcia — came to town.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

This was a particular oddity, given the fact that lesser quarterbacks such as Kevin McDougal, David Archer, Chris Vargas or Reggie Slack seemed to roll right into Taylor Field and win without too much trouble.

And so, when Garcia’s 9-3 Stamps showed up in Regina to play Slack’s 3-9 Riders for a match in late September 1998, no joy in Mudville was expected to come out of that chilly Sunday afternoon.

Most of the world was focused on Mark McGwire hitting his final two home runs of a dream season, breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record with 70 home runs.

There wasn’t much attention, even on the prairies, being paid to a Riders season clinging to life support on a collision course with a Stampeder team in cruise control to yet another first-place finish in the West Division.

I remember dad and I loading up the old brown station wagon in Kipling, Saskatchewan, population 1,200, so he could drive me the 90 minutes from the farmhouse to Taylor Field in downtown Regina. Bundling up for one last fall afternoon in section seven, fully anticipating yet another loss for our beloved Roughriders.

Then Mario Smith happened.

The Riders used an American safety that day, Smith, which was pretty rare back then. But his hard-hitting style — that was still encouraged in those days — was too energizing to ignore.

The five tackles and one interception he put up on that glorious day were one thing. What he did to Calgary’s star quarterback early in the third quarter gave me and the 26,144 other fans in attendance as exciting a football memory as our sad-sack Roughriders would give us that year.

The Stamps’ offence was still warming up and trailing 17-9, beginning their first drive of the second half. Many of us predicted at halftime that the Riders’ defence would be hard-pressed to avoid another of their patented second half meltdowns, which had become commonplace for defensive coordinator Greg Marshall’s men that year.

A quarterback draw was radioed in from the sidelines from Stampeders’ offensive coordinator George Cortez. Through a headset, a third-string quarterback no one had ever heard of named Henry Burris heard the call.

Garcia took the snap in shotgun formation and after hesitating for a moment as if to trick the Rider defence into expecting a pass, he took off running. After galloping for a few yards, he spotted a missile coming into his field of view — a green jersey with No. 22 on the front.

Realizing his run was about to end one way or another, Garcia tried to slide at the defender at, ironically, the 22-yard line before being lit up by Saskatchewan’s safety with a bone-crushing thud.

“I knew if I wasn’t going down sliding that I was taking a risk,” Garcia recently recalled from his home in north California where he now works as a San Francisco 49ers analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

A big WHACK could be heard from sideline to sideline — the kind that makes a politically correct mainstream audience cringe today.

“He timed it perfect and caught me on the top of my helmet. It came down and cracked me on the nose which added to my list of scars on my face,” Garcia said.

Garcia’s nose was broken. The old park erupted with joy!

19 years later, I, along with thousands of others, watched Taylor Field’s grand-stand topple to the ground and thought, “I haven’t seen the old girl shake like that since the day Mario Smith broke Jeff Garcia’s nose.”

Garcia had to leave the game and in came a little-known and inexperienced backup by the Dave Dickenson. The drive stalled and the Stamps had to settle for a 12-yard Mark McLoughlin field goal.

Calgary’s offence never did get it going that day. The predictable late game collapse from the Riders didn’t materialize. A final score of 27-22 was enough to make us all feel like our team could still make the playoffs and that somehow the trip into the city had all been worth it.

Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader Post had the line of the year in the next day’s edition of the newspaper: “Mark McGwire was Sunday’s best hitter. But several Roughrider defenders were worthy of honourable mention — especially Smith.”

Super Mario became an instant legend around the Wheat Province and his photo was even printed on a game ticket for the following season. Jerseys with his number and nameplate were being ordered at a rapid pace in the week to follow.

But the bubble wouldn’t take long to burst and this newfound rock star would turn out to be a one-hit wonder. The Riders would finish 5-13 and miss the playoffs with the worst record in the CFL west, costing head coach Jim Daley his job.

Smith would get cut early the following season and wouldn’t be around to play for Saskatchewan in the game which had his photo on the ticket stub. He didn’t show up for practice when the team, under new head coach Cal Murphy, wanted to sit him down for a game.

“Young and not really understanding the game, I made a bonehead decision,” Smith said from his home in Miami, Florida where he now trains athletes in a lot of different sports.

He would get a cup of coffee with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats later on during the 1999 season. After that, he never played again.

The Stampeders, meanwhile, would go on to finish 12-6 and grab a thrilling Grey Cup win over the Ticats in Winnipeg that included Garcia winning the game’s MVP award.

It would be Garcia’s final season in Canada before embarking on an NFL journey that would net four Pro Bowl selections and considerable celebrity status in the United States.

All these years later, Garcia swears he harbors no ill-will toward to the thousands of hillbillies, like me, who celebrated his broken nose in a moment that today would be considered bush-league.

“We always had great games and the Rider Nation were very impactful,” Garcia said.

“Always loved the Rider fans. They love their team no matter what and I don’t despise them at all. Happy to have brought a memory back to them even if it wasn’t positive for me.”

So, what do these players who crossed paths on that fateful autumn day in Regina before going in completely different directions have to say about the other today?

“Let him know I was rooting for him whenever I’d see him play in the NFL. Great competitor,” Smith said.

Garcia, who insists it was a solid hit and not a cheap shot, remembers his assailant from way back when.

“Mario was a tough competitor and a hell of a hitter. We knew that about him and I felt it,” Garcia said with a laugh.

Sad as it may sound, Sunday, September 27 was Saskatchewan’s happiest day of 1998.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.