Former Riders’ running back Kenton Keith says team faced racism in Regina

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Former Roughriders’ running back Kenton Keith believes his response to the racism he experienced while playing in Saskatchewan may be a contributing factor to why he has not been allowed to retire as a Rider.

Keith, who last played for the franchise in 2006 and hasn’t been under any professional contract since 2010, has long campaigned for the opportunity to formally retire as a member of the RoughridersIn an interview on 620 CKRM’s The Sportscage, the longtime ball-carrier said he has had conversations with former teammate and current Riders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day about that possibility but has been turned down due to his time with the franchise not being long enough for consideration.

“It kind of hurt me because Saskatchewan’s the place that gave me my start, it gave me my boost in my career and gave me a platform to be able to showcase my talent,” Keith confessed. “Even before I met my wife and started my family up there, I just felt that I’m a loyal guy. When it comes to my team, my coaches, my players, that’s really all I think about. So when I think about Saskatchewan and those times that I was up there, I just felt like I was a part of a bigger situation.”

However, when asked if he believes a lack of “maturity” during his tenure in Regina contributed to the club’s unwillingness to bend the rules for his retirement, Keith agreed — though he did dispute the perception of his behaviour while with the Riders. Often the subject of controversy, he believes the public never got the whole story about incidents he claims weren’t his fault.

“I could have spent a lot of time trying to prove to the fans and prove to people those situations [weren’t indicative of me] but I did that in the [general manager’s] office,” Keith shared. “Every little incident that ever popped up about me, I had to come to the office, speak about it because I had to prove that it wasn’t me or that it was something that was mishandled or something like that. But that situation never gets to the public.”

That includes a high-profile altercation at a Regina nightclub in 2006, where Keith was charged with assault after allegedly injuring a man in a brawl. The charges were later stayed after a provincial court judge deemed the Crown’s case wasn’t strong enough to be taken to trial, leaving Keith with no regrets.

“Even in that situation, if I had to do it again, I would do the exact same thing. People don’t understand, as Roughriders at that time — I’m just speaking on that time and I don’t want this to go too far — we were dealing with a lot of different things,” he explained.

“There was a lot of racial slurs. We weren’t allowed certain places because of who we were. There was a big community of bodybuilders out there that didn’t like us that we would all get into it with and sometimes, that wasn’t egged on by us.”

He notes a distinct difference in the way players are treated by Rider Nation now as opposed to his playing days, something that contributed to the team’s poor reputation during that era. He suggested that simply engaging in regular activities posed a risk to players.

“We’d just try to go out and have fun and we’d get called N-words and all kinds of different things. Some of us are coming from places where that stuff goes on and you have to defend yourself,” Keith recounted. “You’re still dealing with a whole bunch of young kids. I mean, yeah, we’re playing football but at the same time, we’re only 21. We had a lot of mistakes to make in life anyway; unfortunately, some of that stuff had to happen up here.”

“But, like I said, if I was put in the same situation that I was back then, I would still do the same thing because people don’t understand that I had to defend someone. I had to help someone out of a situation where they could have probably been killed.”

Despite the difficult situations off the field, Keith became one of the most exciting Riders in franchise history. In four seasons as the team’s top running back from 2003 to 2006, he carried the ball 610 times for 3,811 yards and 21 touchdowns, while catching 126 passes for 1,175 yards and eight majors.

Named a West Division all-star in 2004 and 2006, Keith jumped to the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007. He carried the ball 121 times as the back-up to Pro Bowler Joseph Addai, racking up 533 yards rushing and three touchdowns to go along with 77 yards receiving and one score through the air.

Keith finished his career with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, playing parts of one season before being released due to injury.

Now 42 years old, Keith does not regret his departure for the NFL and the brief success he experienced there. However, despite the ugly incidents he experienced in Regina, he wishes he had stayed in Saskatchewan to be able to hoist the Grey Cup with the team in 2007.

“That’s the only thing that I really didn’t get in my whole career, was a championship. That being said, I probably would’ve stayed in Saskatchewan one more year, if not two, just to go ahead and ride the plan out with Saskatchewan,” he admitted.

“I feel like the recruiting that Danny Barrett and Roy Shivers were doing and the building that we did for those three or four years I was there, that next year when they got fired and I left, I feel that we all felt like that was gonna be our Grey Cup year anyway.”

The ability to retire with the team would have been a welcome consolation prize, but not one that appears to be coming anytime soon. In the end, he finds the club’s refusal to do so incredibly disappointing.

“I gave everything that I had to Saskatchewan. I gave my heart. I played with my heart, blood on my shoulders — everything,” Keith said. “I gave everything that I had every play and I just wanted that in return.”