March 25, 2024

Tom Shepherd is “still in love with my Riders”

Tom Shepherd, a dear and devoted friend of the Riders, remembers how his football fandom was fuelled.

“In 1951, when I was eight years old, Glenn Dobbs was our quarterback,” Shepherd recalls.

“Everywhere you went, it was, ‘Dobbs, Dobbs, Dobbs,’ and Regina was known as Dobberville.

“I fell in love with Dobbs and the Riders.”

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the passion still burns for someone who was the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ President, founded the Friends of the Riders Touchdown Lottery, and served his beloved Green and White in myriad ways.

“I can recall missing only three Roughriders home games since 1951,” says Shepherd, 81.

“One of them was during COVID (in 2021) because my daughter, who’s a doctor, wouldn’t let me go. Another time, I had to attend a board meeting in Phoenix. And there was the time that my family, much to my complaining, went on a holiday (that coincided with a Roughriders home game), so I missed that one, too.”

In other words, Shepherd has been present for 638 of a possible 641 Roughriders home games — including regular season, the playoffs and the 2013 Grey Cup — since 1951.

The frequency of attendance: 99.5 per cent.

He likely had a comparable success rate when it came to selling lottery tickets.

Beginning in 1986 and continuing for 33 years, the lottery raised $22.6 million that went directly to the bottom line of the Club.

His sales pitch — “I had a dream!” — was as familiar as it was effective.

“That money went a long way to getting us going and keeping us going,” he says.

Shepherd’s fascination with finances led him to study commerce at the University of Saskatchewan. Little did he know that his career goals would be the ticket to a long and legendary link with the Roughriders that went beyond being a fan.

“In my graduating year, I was going to interview for jobs to get my Chartered Accountant degree and be an accountant,” he remembers. “There were offers from all over, but I only wanted to be in Regina.

“W.E. (Bill) Clarke was a long-time treasurer of the Roughriders and he was a Chartered Accountant. In 1966, he came to Saskatoon because he was recruiting people to work in Regina and Saskatoon for Clarkson Gordon.

“He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to be the treasurer of the Roughriders after you.’ ”

Yes, he had a dream …

And it came to fruition.

Shepherd was hired by Clarkson Gordon in 1966 and moved back home to Regina.

“The first thing I was assigned, because I could never hide my desire to do it, was to become the auditor of the Club in 1966,” he says. “That was the first year of auditing the Club and the $100 dinner.

“At the time, the Riders’ office was on the second floor of the Hill Avenue Shopping Centre. I would sit in there and (General Manager) Ken Preston would have his door open, so I could hear what he was saying as I was doing the auditing. I was always hoping that I could hear some inside information.

“It was all a labour of love — and it grew and grew.”

It grew to the point where Shepherd joined one of the Roughriders’ Special Activities Committees (Executive Game Plan) in 1977.

Not long after that, he was invited to join the Management Committee (now the Board of Directors). Serving in that capacity, he saw double duty as the Roughriders’ treasurer.

In 1985, Shepherd was named the Roughriders’ Vice-President. He ascended to the Presidency two years later, succeeding Keith Critchley.

As the President from 1987 to 1989, Shepherd experienced both extremes.

In mid-June of 1987, a 16-hour, province-wide telethon raised $1.4 million to rescue the community-owned team from dire financial straits.

“We had no money,” Shepherd says. “We were minus-money.

“With the telethon, we made a lot of money that allowed us to continue operating.”

The Roughriders not only survived, but thrived, during Shepherd’s tenure as President. His term concluded on Dec. 13, 1989 — just 17 days after Saskatchewan won the second Grey Cup championship in franchise history.

“That year, we were only 9-and-9 in the regular season,” Shepherd says. “We played Edmonton, which was 16-and-2, in the West final. One of the Edmonton players was yapping all week, saying, ‘Why should we even play the game?’ Everyone thought it was going to be a slaughter.

“There wasn’t one person in Saskatchewan, including Tom Shepherd, who thought we’d be able to go to the Grey Cup by beating Edmonton.”

So, naturally, the Roughriders won 32-21 at Commonwealth Stadium and advanced to the CFL’s championship game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“In the space of a week, it seemed like half of Saskatchewan came to Toronto for the game,” Shepherd marvels. “Extra planes had to be chartered. People took buses to Toronto or drove there themselves.

“On the day of the game, we had a rally at Maple Leaf Gardens. It really was something.”

A few hours later, the Roughriders rallied from an early 13-1 deficit and defeated Hamilton 43-40 at SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre). Dave Ridgway kicked the game-winning field goal, a 35-yarder, with two seconds left in the fourth quarter.

Barely two years removed from near-bankruptcy, the Roughriders were champions.

“The whole thing was just a miracle,” Shepherd says. “I’ll never forget it.”

But, as the 1990s progressed, the Roughriders — and the entire league, for that matter — began to encounter more difficulties. Hence the need for another telethon.

“Financially,” Shepherd says, “we were at the low point of all time.”

With the franchise $2.6 million in debt and the line of credit fully extended, a plan was announced to sell 200,000 game tickets by March 15, 1997.
“As the deadline approached, it looked like it was going to be mathematically impossible for us to meet our goal,” Shepherd says. “Then I got a call from Hugh Campbell.”

Campbell, a legendary Roughriders receiver, was Edmonton’s GM at the time of the 1997 telethon. Moreover, he was an influential figure within football circles.

“Hughie called and said, ‘How’s it going?’ ” Shepherd recounts. “I said, ‘Terrible.’ He said, ‘Can I tell you something? I can help.’

“He swore me to silence and then said, ‘Would $500,000 in cash help you?’ I told him that would be more than enough for us to meet our goal. He said, ‘Fine, but you can’t tell the public.’ ”

The night before the telethon, the Roughriders had sold 134,223 tickets — 65,777 short of their objective.

Then came an announcement by Shepherd, on the morning of the telethon, that a “consortium of private companies” had donated in the neighbourhood of $500,000.

That money — which turned out to be the Roughriders’ share of an interest-free loan extended to the CFL by the NFL — was converted into tickets, totalling 29,412, and the Green and White ended up exceeding its goal by 15,222.

And it got better. The 1997 Roughriders ended up reaching the Grey Cup Game — once again upsetting a strong Edmonton team in the West final at Commonwealth Stadium.

As the years went on, Shepherd’s inexhaustible efforts on behalf of his favourite football franchise led to personal recognition.

He was inducted into the Regina Sports Hall of Fame (in 2006), Canadian Football Hall of Fame (2008) and Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame (2009).

A life member of the Roughriders and Regina Rams, Shepherd has also received the CFL’s Commissioner’s Award, which recognizes dedication and significant contributions to Canadian football.

And, of course, Shepherd is also enshrined in the SaskTel Plaza of Honour. He was recognized in that fashion in 1995, when he joined a shrine that included his first football hero, Glenn Dobbs.

“I never could have imagined it,” Shepherd reflects. “I never would have saw what was coming. My thought at first was that I would take over from Bill Clarke as the treasurer. I never thought there would be all the other things, like the Plaza and the lottery.

“The lottery was never like a job to me. I loved every second of it. It was all for my 100-per-cent enjoyment. I couldn’t have been happier when I was doing it.

“Now I’m laid-back and retired, but I’m still in love with my Riders.”