Thursday, November 29, 2012

Birthdays, football, and being a Canadian...

When I was growing up, I thought that I was the favourite child/grandchild/niece because my entire family always came over to our house for my birthday weekend. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents - they were all there. They weren't always there for my brother or sister's birthdays. No siree! But they were always there for mine. It was ME they loved the most.

Then one day, when I was about ten or so, I realized that there was always a lot more beer at my birthday party that at any other kid's party. And that somewhere around the middle of the afternoon, all of my uncles would stop playing with me and gather around the television set. And that from that point on, there was a lot of yelling and swearing coming from our living room. Not to mention a lot more beer drinking.

So being the naturally curious wee thing that I was, I snuck into the living room, tugged on my Dad's t-shirt, and said, "Hey, what's going on in here?"

To which he responded, "Shh!!! Don't bother us right now!"

More than a little hurt, I said, "But Dad, it's my birthday and I want to play with my uncles!"

"Go play with your sister," he said. "We're watching football right now."

And not just any football game. The Grey Cup. You see, my birthday falls at the end of November. Right around Grey Cup weekend.

So my parents weren't even throwing a birthday party for me at all. They were throwing a Grey Cup Party.

(Insert giant sad face here)

As a consequence of this betrayal, I spent years H-A-T-I-N-G football. With a passion. I couldn't even stand to hear the word. CFL, NFL, college football, it didn't matter. If it was on, I would squeeze my eyes tight shut, cover my ears, and run screaming from the room.

Then I went away to university. And I became friends with two guys who, in their spare time, did nothing but drink beer and watch football. Often, the two of those activities occurred at the same time. And even though I didn't love the football part, I loved them. And the drinking beer part. So I hung around with them and watched football. A lot of football. And drank beer. A lot of beer.

When you watch that much football, you can't help but start to develop an appreciation for the game. The hot men in tight pants, the strategy, the athleticism, the hot men in tight pants, the big hits, the excitement of taking the risk on the final down, the hot men in tight pants, the hail-Mary-laying-it-all-on-the-line-to-get-the-win plays. I mean, it's exciting shit! After awhile, you can forgive your parents for pretending they were throwing you a birthday party, and appreciate just why they wanted so badly to throw a football-watching party!

So, I started watching football again, even when the guys weren't around. Their league of choice was the NFL, but as a stalwart Prairie girl, I turned my attention to the CFL. After all, where I come form, it is a religion. My interest in the game really picked up in 2001, when my hometown Blue Bombers took it all the way to the Grey Cup. I fell in love with Khari Jones, who happened to be the league MVP that year, and I was devastated when he and the blue-and-gold lost the Cup to Calgary. The next year, I hopefully watched every single Bomber game of the 2002 season, witnessing one of the most notorious passing/receiving duos in league history in the form of Khari and Milt Stegall. In 2003, I moved to Yellowknife for the summer to be with my not-yet-then Hubby, and because he didn't have a t.v., I spent hours at the Boston Pizza bar watching every Bomber game. In 2004, Khari Jones was traded to the Calgary Stampeders, and I fell apart. I went through a couple of seasons of mediocrity under the new quarterback, Kevin Glenn, but faithfully stuck by my team, until they once again pulled off a good season and made it to the Grey Cup in 2007, which just happened to be in nearby Toronto....

... And of course, I just had to go. I had to!!!! I mean, my team was in the big game! And Toronto was oh so close! And my team was in the big game!!!!!!!

So I did what all good wives would do. I nagged and nagged and nagged and nagged and nagged and nagged and nagged some more my non-football loving husband until out of sheer exasperation, he called a friend of his who was on the organizing committee for the Grey Cup that year and got us two tickets.

Toronto 2007 - Winnipeg vs. Saskatchewan
Way the hell up in the nosebleeds...

We played Saskatchewan that year, our most fervent rivals. And even though we were in Toronto, the entire province emptied out and made its way to this game. We were absolutely surrounded by green. And with the crowd decidedly pulling for the Riders, and with Winnipeg's quarterback on the sidelines because of a shoulder injury, well, we lost. I'm smiling in that picture, but it was right after the game and I was really, really devastated.

We went alone to the Grey Cup that year, but after the game, we hooked up with another couple who were also there so that I could drown my sorrows in a bottle of scotch. As we were leaving, they asked us, "So, want us to get you tickets to next year's Grey Cup in Montreal?"

And so marks the beginning of what has become a tradition: a yearly pilgrimage to the Grey Cup with my new football family. It doesn't matter how the season unfolds for my Blue and Gold (and believe me, there have been some particularly bad seasons). It doesn't matter who winds up playing. It doesn't matter if the game is going to be in an outdoor or an indoor venue, if it will be rain or shine, cold or mild. Every year since 2007, I don my Bomber jersey (and a pair of long underwear) and take in the Grey Cup with friends and family.

This is, indeed, the weekend that I look forward to the most every year. And not because it's the weekend right before my birthday. And not only because, no matter who is playing, football is an incredible game to watch. But because:

  • ...I have carte blanche to eat as many hot dogs as I want! And I love hot dogs. Which I'm not supposed to love because I am a healthy person. But on Grey Cup weekend, I eat hot dogs. Lots of hot dogs. And hot dogs go well with...
  • And believe me, there is a lot of beer at a Grey Cup Festival. This year, I even saw someone checking into his hotel, the Delta Chelsea in downtown Toronto, with a beer in his hand (he was probably a Rider fan...). Admittedly, I am more of a wine drinker myself. But when you are watching a football game, there is nothing in this world more satisfying than a cold beer. It is also pretty fun to try to build a beer-a-mid when you are at one of the...
  • ...parties. Every team has its own sponsored parties. Saskatchewan has Riderville. Hamilton has Tiger Town. The Bombers have the Blue and Gold room. B.C. has the Lion's Den. You can pick one and stay there all night, or you can bounce from one to the other, as long as you are willing to pay the price of admission. Really, it's not much more than a dark room with a live band and way too much high-priced beer. With the occasional player thrown in to get the crowd revved up. And some cheerleader demos for all the horny boys. But hell if it isn't the most fun that I have in a year! And of course, it is where you meet some pretty incredible...
  • ...people. Which is what the Grey Cup is really all about. The fans. Some of them are certifiably nuts, getting all dolled up in weird costumes, funky wigs, and face paint. But most of them are pretty tame people, who, like Hubby and I, are looking for one weekend a year to let their hair down and have some fun with tens of thousands of other football fans. This year, I hung out in Riderville (a dangerous thing when you are wearing a Blue Bomber jersey), where Hubby and I met this great group of guys from Melfort, Saskatchewan, and one of them taught me to two step. We spent the night drinking beer, dancing, and laughing with our new friends. (Which rather unfortunately led to a monster hang over the next day, but that's seemingly also part of the experience).
But the thing about the Grey Cup that I love most of all is the overwhelming sense of Canadian-ness. I know, I know.... We are a hockey nation. And we only have an 8 (sometimes 9) team league. It's hardly our national sport. But I believe that the Grey Cup is our national event. It absolutely is. There is no other like it, that brings Canadians from every province together for one single event. And if you don't believe me, try it sometime. Head to the downtown core of a Grey Cup city, and watch as people from all over the country take over the restaurants and the bars, sporting their teams colours. Listen to the stories of the people who come to Grey Cup every single year, and who have been doing it for far longer than Hubby and I have. Take the opportunity to get to know some of these strangers; who they are, where they come from, what they do for a living. Go two-step with a guy from Melfort. Take in the Vanier Cup with 12-year old girl who is watching her big brother play in the game. Hang out around the TSN booth to get a chance to meet Jock Climie or Milt Stegall with the thousands of other people in the line before you. And then try to tell me that you don't feel connected to them in some way.

Nope. There is nothing that makes me feel more Canadian than the last Sunday of November.

So here's to Regina in 2013. May the tradition continue!

Grey Cup in Calgary - Riders vs. Alouettes, 2009

Meeting a legend. Me and Milt Stegall - Calgary, 2009 

A sea of green in Calgary, 2009

Me and my uncle with the Cup, Calgary 2009
A little colder in Edmonton 2010

Craig being interviewed by the Edmonton Sun after the Als beat the Riders, in Edmonton 2010. Wearing MY jersey... 

Bad picture, but getting his pic taken with two of the Alouettes in a bar in Edmonton after they won the Grey Cup. In MY jersey...

Vancouver 2011 - Meeting Andre Druri 

Vancouver 2011 - Meeting Pinball Clemons

In Vancouver 2011 - the Bombers vs. the Lions. So excited to see my team. Too bad we lost. 

Kidnapped and taken to Riderville, Toronto 2012

And forced to wear Riders tattoos...

Building a beer-a-mid in Riderville, Toronto 2012

Self-portrait at the Grey Cup, Toronto 2012

With our collectors edition tickets for the 100th Grey Cup, Toronto 2012 

One of my new Rider friends from Melfort