For fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the team’s 54-20 drubbing at the hands of the rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers during Saturday’s Banjo Bowl was a hellish nightmare.
That result didn’t hold a candle to the horror taking place behind closed doors in the Riders’ dressing room.
“It started with walking into the locker room and it looked like a triage in there,” quarterback Cody Fajardo told the Regina media post-game. “The amount of guys that were sick, throwing up, coming out both ends; it was pretty ridiculous.”
Shortly before warm-ups, word broke that the Riders were experiencing what was believed to be an outbreak of stomach flu, placing the status of several players in jeopardy. The effect the illness would have on the game was not known at that time but as the exhausted and dehydrated team left the field, there was no downplaying the ravages of the virus.
For head coach Craig Dickenson, the first sign of trouble began shortly after dinner on Friday night. Having just enjoyed a delicious burrito, something felt off.
“I walked home at about nine o’clock, I knew something was not right. So I thought maybe I got something bad and I went to the bathroom and threw up,” he recalled at the podium. “But then once I did that for the fourth and fifth times in the evening, I knew it was a little more than just food poisoning.”
A call to the team’s training staff revealed that he was far from the only Rider in gastrointestinal distress. While Dickenson managed to recover somewhat overnight, others were not so lucky, including backup quarterback Mason Fine.
“Mason was my roommate and they had to move me rooms,” Fajardo said. “He was down pretty bad and I got to watch it firsthand and it did not look pleasant.”
Fine was the first player to be officially ruled out for Saturday’s game and the Riders were able to arrange for third-stringer Jake Dolegala to fly in last-minute as a replacement. As the situation grew more dire, other reinforcements were not so lucky.
Team president Craig Reynolds was enlisted to drive defensive back Blace Brown and offensive lineman Diego Alatorre-Montoya nearly six hours from Regina to Winnipeg in his personal vehicle. The group arrived late to the stadium, reportedly nine minutes after kickoff, but were spared from some of the worst of the situation as a result.
“There was about 20 guys that were not feeling right and the bathroom in there, there was only two stalls and it was filled up for every second of the pregame,” Fajardo noted, painting a disturbing picture of the locker room.
Dickenson said that roughly 15 Riders players were down with the illness, as well as seven or eight coaches. Along with Fine, the team scratched defensive back Jeremy Clark and fullback James Tuck prior to kickoff but other players were forced to dress to meet roster requirements despite being violently sick.
Four players were simply unable to play from the opening snap, including star receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker, while two more were ruled out by half-time. The offensive line, in particular, was struggling to keep themselves upright.
“They were in big trouble. They had like two or three guys out and [right tackle] Kooper Richardson was sick the whole time, he was throwing up in the bus on the drive over and played the whole game,” Dickenson acknowledged.
“I have a lot of heart for those guys,” Fajardo said, grateful to have only been sacked four times. “Our entire offensive line was sick and they went out there. They were giving them IVs just to get them on the field. We didn’t have anything else to do. There are a lot of guys that gutted that game out for us to perform as well as we did.”
The situation affected the Riders’ game plan right from the beginning. With some players still in the locker room hooked up to fluids, Dickenson wasn’t even certain which offensive players would be available to his team at kickoff. He chose to defer the coin toss as a result and the Bombers got off to a hot start on the opening drive, one that never seemed to dissipate.
The defence allowed 415 yards of total offence and 54 points on the evening, while Fajardo’s group mustered a respectable 251 yards considering the circumstances. Even though he was not one of those making heavy use of IG Field’s limited restroom facilities, the quarterback does believe his play was affected by the bug.
“I just felt kind of weak out there. My stomach was okay, I didn’t puke or anything, but just didn’t feel like I quite had the energy and I know a lot of guys felt the same way,” Fajardo said. “If you guys had seen what the locker room looked like before kickoff, I think you would be proud of how this team fought.”
The team believes that the virus was contracted back in Regina, as several practice roster players still at home have reported similar symptoms. The illness is expected to pass through the team in the next 24 to 48 hours and Dickenson is ordering much-needed rest and hydration for his players once they get home, before preparations will begin for next Friday’s game against Edmonton.
He credits athletic therapists Ryan Raftis and Trevor Len, along with team physician Dr. Mike Nicholls, for somehow pulling the team through the unprecedented situation.
“They did a great job, short staffed and they were up all night to try to take care of all of these guys, including myself, with some pills and just some stuff to try to get us through the night,” Dickenson said. “They did a great job and we appreciate it.”