February 19, 2023

Mom’s The Word: Rob’s Rider Journey

I attended my first Saskatchewan Roughriders game in 1963. I was born in 1964.

That is a line I have used many times, many ways — in conversation, on the pages and properties of the Regina Leader-Post, and even in a book.

But it is brand new to Riderville.com, as am I.

Nearly 37 years into a writing career, I am about to become a wide-eyed — albeit wider-bodied — newbie.

My second dream job — senior journalist and Rider historian — is in its embryonic stages. The same was applicable to me way back on Nov. 11, 1963.

For reasons that were difficult for many people to comprehend at the time, a pregnant Helen Vanstone dutifully embarked for Taylor Field in order to witness the finale of a two-game, total-points Western Football Conference semi-final between the Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders.

Just two days earlier — yes, dear reader, it was a different time — the Stampeders had routed the Roughriders 35-9 at McMahon Stadium.

In other words, Saskatchewan had to win Game 2 by at least 27 points. Good luck with that …

Only a few thousand devotees were in the stands when the football was kicked off, shortly after 8 o’clock on a chilly Monday evening, but Mom was among them.

Saskatchewan’s scorching start to the game quickly seized the attention of the no-shows and non-believers. Mom told me many times about the endless procession of vehicles she saw speeding toward the stadium, which was full by halftime.

Long story short: The Roughriders won by the requisite 27 points — 39-12 — to engineer what was quickly and enduringly dubbed “The Little Miracle of Taylor Field.”

Milliseconds after the frenetic final play, Roughriders fans streamed on to the field to celebrate with the players.

Mom joined the throng, but her arrival was delayed a tad when something went wrong.

While scaling a fence, she caught a heel and took a great fall — landing flat on her stomach.

(My sentiment at the time was some variation of “Ow!”)

Amid the merriment, Mom was mortified. She had miscarried several times before I became a prospect and, after taking a tumble, was almost resigned to the apparent reality that motherhood was less probable than, say, the Roughriders defeating Calgary by 27 points.

First thing the next morning, she was at the doctor’s office. When the rather jarring events of the football game were recounted, the kindly practitioner chuckled and said: “Well, what you did before wasn’t working. Maybe this will help.”

That is still debatable, because the result of it all was me.

I arrived on March 30, 1964 — “a little miracle” in my own right, I suppose, and an ardent follower of the Roughriders by birthright.

Further back than I can remember, Mom took me to games. So many games.

My first Taylor Field memory emanates from the creaky south-end bleachers, where I wailed and whined and whimpered until, finally, Mom agreed to buy me a hot dog that effectively functioned as a tranquilizer. Until I wanted popcorn.

By the early 1970s, I was fascinated by all things Roughriders. I remember getting the autographs of Ron Lancaster, John Steele and Silas McKinnie after begging Mom to take me to the airport on a Sunday night to welcome home the Roughriders from Winnipeg.

My first plane ride was on Nov. 19, 1972, when the Roughriders met the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Western final. We left in the morning, attended the game, and flew back that night.

It felt like a futile journey when the Blue Bombers assumed a 24-7 lead, but Ronnie and George rallied the Roughriders and eventually played integral roles in the visitors’ classic, down-to-the-wire 27-24 victory. (Somehow, Mom refrained from running on to the field.)

Four years later, Mom and I were airborne again for another football trip — to Toronto for the Grey Cup. If you have read this far, (a) Thank you, and, (b) You probably don’t need to see more than “Tony Gabriel” to comprehend the sheer horror that unfolded.

That was our first of five Grey Cup trips within a span of six seasons. During that time, mother and son also travelled to virtually every game the Roughriders played in Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg, thanks to Dave Ash and Dash Tours.

My favourite game ever, Grey Cup victories included, was Ron Lancaster’s farewell performance — at Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 29, 1978. The Little General orchestrated one more fourth-quarter comeback victory, as only he could, and suitably received a standing ovation from the Edmonton fans, one week after being booed in his final game at Taylor Field.

It was the ultimate storybook ending. And I was there. Thanks, Mom. (And thanks, Ronnie.)


All those memories, and so many others, came flooding back on Feb. 2, when I visited Mosaic Stadium for the type of interview that I never could have envisioned.

I sat down and chatted with Anthony Partipilo (the Roughriders’ chief brand officer) and Arielle Zerr (director of communications) about the possibility of actually working for — writing for — the team.

Keen intuition told me that I would have to sell them on what I wanted or hoped to do. As it turned out, though, I just sat there and salivated as they outlined a job description that I could not have written better myself.

On the way home from the stadium, I felt the impulse to call Mom and tell her all about what had just unfolded.

But we lost her just over three years ago — on Dec. 11, 2019 — so I pulled over and sniffled a little. Then I finished the journey to my south Regina non-estate and basically bounced off the walls, the floor, and the ceiling as I told my wife about this new and unexpected opportunity.

An offer soon followed. The deal was signed — in green ink — on Feb 6 at approximately 3:23 p.m.

I basically tap-danced out of the stadium, got to the car, and then realized that I would have to make the toughest call of my working life. Uh oh.

I cried a little, again, before touching base with the Leader-Post’s newly appointed managing editor, Colin McGarrigle, and shakily informing him that I had signed the offer and that, yes, I would soon be … (gulp) … (deep breath) … leaving.

Colin could not have been nicer or more congratulatory. He has been first-class throughout this process. I cannot thank him enough for making this much easier than it would otherwise be.

It has been the honour of a lifetime to work for the Leader-Post. I grew up reading the paper and wanted nothing else but to join the writing staff. I also grew up watching the Roughriders and wished to be in their employ — ideally as a slotback, a la Joey Walters.

Due to osteoarthritis, I doubt that I will be able to pass the physical, but I am nonetheless poised to join the payroll. 

Saturday, when the Regina Pats played host to the Winnipeg Ice, was my last day at the Leader-Post. Tuesday will be Day 1 of Chapter 2.

In the days and weeks ahead, I will dive into columns, features (such as an upcoming two-part epic on newly signed quarterback Trevor Harris), newsy stories, retrospectives, statistics (old and new) and even some video projects.

With the latter concept in mind, I have already had two preliminary conversations with the Roughriders’ digital media producer, Blake Tiedeman. I could not be more excited.

In a sense, I have been preparing for this role — Dream Job 2.0 — since, well, Nov. 11, 1963.


The kid who filled scrapbooks (remember them?) with football-related Leader-Post articles (thank you, Bob Hughes) and kept his own stats at all Roughriders games is now blessed with a mandate to revel in all of it, once again, but this time for a living. 

It is still too much to process. The goofy grin that would not leave my face during the introductory chat with Anthony and Arielle has yet to disappear. That tells me something.

It will be a change to write solely for online — nobody could have imagined the Internet when I debuted at a print-only Leader-Post on May 12, 1986 — but the rudiments are the same. 

(I never thought of this until Chryssoula mentioned it the other day: “Your  mom would have had to buy a computer.”)

As one who has always been fascinated by green-hued nostalgia, the “Rider historian” part of the job description still knocks me back in my seat.

Even though I have treasured my association with the Leader-Post, I realized that I could not possibly turn down an offer that wasn’t even remotely foreseeable when February dawned. All of this comes as a shock.

Will I miss the Leader-Post? Of course. Dearly. Daily. But my subscription will ensure that the relationship endures. I wish my successor as the sports columnist the best of luck. I promise to be a loyal reader, although the days of inveterate scrapbooking are in the past.

Is there an element of apprehension after making a vocational transition at a time when many people my age — I fully intend to turn 59 on March 30 — are enjoying or contemplating retirement? Naturally.

Nicely into this whirlwind of a February, I am poised to begin only the second full-time job of my life, having spent the past few days tending to all sorts of paperwork while consigning my paper work to the past.

Is it scary? At times, yes. Change can be terrifying, especially when all you know is one job — the one you always wanted, and the one you loved.

However, the energy infused by this move convinces me that the transition will be mutually beneficial for the Leader-Post and myself. I will appreciate the fresh perspective on the local sports that I thrived on covering and I implore you to do the same. 

My approach will not change from one job to the next.

I will do my best, every minute of every day, to prove to my employer and to readers such as yourself that the investment of your time and the company’s resources is worthwhile. I hope that my passion for the Roughriders, past and present, will help to fuel yours.

But, yeah, I’m nervous — although it is reassuring to know that even if I do fall flat on my face and land with a resounding thud, it won’t be the first time.