June 12, 2014

Jonathan McLeod: The CFL pushed me away, but I’ll cheer for the REDBLACKS

By: Jonathan McLeod
Photo: Pat McGrath – Postmedia 

I was born 274 days before Tony Gabriel made The Catch in the 1976 Grey Cup, Ottawa’s last championship. Needless to say, I don’t remember it. I spent the 1980s and some of the ’90s rooting for perennial losers. Such was the fate of Ottawa fans of my generation, but, regardless, I was a fan.

When I was young, my father and I started going to a couple of games a year, eventually getting season tickets. We would sit there, game after game, cheering our hapless team; cheering for players like Patrick Wayne, Jim Reid, Skip Walker, Gerald Alphin, Anthony Drawhorn and Dean Dorsey.

As a teenager, I attended games with friends. We would head to Frank Clair Stadium, grabbing some tickets for the south side upper deck (where we would sit for a while before sneaking down to the lower deck). It was ritual.

As much as I loved CFL football, we eventually broke up. I watched CFL commissioner — and current Toronto mayoral candidate — John Tory scold fans for not supporting the team (even though we regularly outdrew the Grey Cup-winning Argonauts). I watched as former mayor Jim Durrell attempted to patch together a plan to salvage the team.

But there was no salvation. Ottawa had been a bad team for a long time, and financial troubles mounted. When the league couldn’t find responsible owners, it took over the team, completely bungling it.

So we lost them in 1996.

A little while later, it looked like football would return. The league dangled a new team and a new owner, Grant White, in front of the fans. It was great, until we realized it was just a gambit for the league to re-open the collective bargaining agreement. The union balked and Grant White withdrew. We were abandoned again.

A few years later, we would be awarded a new franchise, the Renegades. I cheered for them, but never with a full heart. The Renegades were always more of a marketing ploy inflicted upon Ottawa by Toronto carpetbaggers than it was an honest attempt at a football team. The ploy failed and ownership walked.

With a team without ownership, the CFL did what any responsible organization would; they turned to owners who had run two previous CFL teams into the ground, including the Riders. The Gliebermans returned to Ottawa and turned football into a circus no one deserved. After losing a few million dollars, they left. The team folded. Frank Clair Stadium sat empty again.

The CFL has done us wrong, repeatedly. We owe them no loyalty.

Regardless, when the REDBLACKS take the field this Saturday, I’ll be cheering. For maybe the first time, we have an ownership group with a sound track record and the appearance of competency. Led by Jeff Hunt, the REDBLACKS are doing everything right. They have found a face of the franchise, Henry Burris, who is proving to be the leader we need. The players are involved with the city, visiting schools and participating in community events.

It has been a long time since I followed the CFL with any real interest. I couldn’t tell you if the REDBLACKS’ roster looks good or if they will flounder like past Ottawa teams. But I know that I will be heading back to Lansdowne with my two girls this summer, just as I did with my Dad.

And we’ll cheer.