Exactly 50 years ago, the Saskatchewan Roughriders made a bold dash up Highway 11.
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The 1972 decision to hold training camp in Saskatoon was unprecedented, and it prompted grumbles from Regina railbirds, who had grown accustomed to watching the boys — big linemen and speedy receivers from Alabama or Oklahoma, old hands or fresh faces from Alberta or Ontario — fight for roster spots right there at Taylor Field.
“We want to become the Saskatchewan Roughriders again in all respects,” said Roughriders’ president Alan Sangster, “and so far as fan interest goes, I think sometimes last year we were simply the Regina Roughriders.”
Sales of season tickets had been declining since 1967, and they were shooting for 10,000 this time around. They figured that increasing outreach to the northern and central parts of the province would prove beneficial, so here they were at Griffiths Stadium for two weeks — George, Ronnie and all the boys.
The Roughriders are back in Saskatoon in 2022, one of many training camps they’ve held in this city since that first one. It was an interesting camp half a century ago, with interesting people, and we tell the tale through eight trivia questions: One for each point of a converted touchdown, plus a bonus rouge.
1. Name three of the eight players at that 1972 training camp who played junior or university football in Saskatchewan. Hint: Three of them are inductees into the Roughriders’ Plaza of Honour.
2. This defensive rookie earned plaudits for his camp performance, and was rewarded with a starting job at cornerback. He ended the year as a West Division all-star and runner-up for CFL rookie of the year — not on defence, but as a receiver and running back. Who was he?
3. Roughriders newcomer Steve Taylor tangled with a tough veteran and 1966 Grey Cup champ during a Saskatoon scrimmage and never played football again. Who was the veteran?
4. The Roughriders had four quarterbacks at camp in Saskatoon in 1972. Name two of them.
5. Which of those quarterbacks intercepted Ron Lancaster in a game played three years later?
6. What was the per-diem for players attending training camp?
7. Six players at that 1972 camp landed in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. How many can you name?
8. Did the Roughriders return to Saskatoon for training camp in 1973?
1. Gord Barwell (receiver, Hilltops), Ted Dushinski (defensive back, Hilltops) and Wayne Shaw (linebacker, Hilltops) are Plaza of Honour inductees. Other names: Larry Giles (receiver, Huskies and Hilltops), Rob Pyne (defensive back, Rams), Steve Molnar (running back, Hilltops), Art Lord (defensive back, Huskies) and Don Bahnuik (defensive tackle, Rams).
2. Tom Campana, who played both sides of the football at Ohio State under Woody Hayes, joined the Roughriders as a defensive back and earned a starting spot on the right corner.
Bob Strumm of the StarPhoenix wrote that Campana is “a deadly tackler and is the fastest of the defensive backs in camp.”
He played Saskatchewan’s first two regular-season games on the corner, and — on a hunch by the coaching staff — went both ways in the third game, a 15-6 win over Toronto.
He moved to slotback and running back on a full-time basis after that, and finished the regular season with 74 carries for 365 yards, and 45 catches for 719 more. He scored Saskatchewan’s lone touchdown in that year’s Grey Cup game.
Campana played six seasons with the Roughriders and was inducted into the Plaza of Honour in 2008.
3. Taylor, a halfback, had a “bit of a disagreement” with seventh-year linebacker Wally Dempsey during a mock scrimmage.
“Taylor had a couple of words to say about Dempsey’s face-mask tackle,” reported the StarPhoenix, “and Dempsey came up swinging.”
Taylor went into sick bay right after that with a fractured jaw.
Taylor, an aggressive runner who could sprint 40 yards in 4.6 seconds, was frequently injured — a hit to the throat during his collegiate days at Utah State left him talking in a whisper for years afterwards, and while with the Dallas Cowboys he sustained a hernia and broken kneecap.
He told the Deseret News in 1979 that he didn’t have to pass a physical to get into camp with the Roughriders, so for him it was a chance to keep playing pro football — until the jaw broke.
“Team officials,” wrote Marianne Funk, “came to see him, bringing what they thought was good news: He could still play with a broken jaw.
“The team had rigged a special helmet for him. There was only one problem: If Taylor got hit in the stomach or felt nauseated, he had to get over to the trainer fast so the trainer could clip the wires in his mouth before he threw up.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I wasn’t in the NFL. I wasn’t in the United States. I wasn’t playing for a world championship. I was just a guy getting beat up in Canada. It’s time to get out.”
4. The four quarterbacks were Ron Lancaster, Bubba Wyche, Mike Junck and Bob Pearce.
5. Bob Pearce intercepted Lancaster in a 12-8 B.C. Lions victory over the Roughriders on Oct. 25, 1975 while playing defensive back.
The multi-talented Pearce caught balls for the Roughriders in 1970 and 1971, but it was no secret that he wanted to play quarterback. The Roughriders auditioned him there in Saskatoon, but ultimately kept him at receiver, where he scored eight touchdowns that season — though he also threw the team’s longest TD pass, 91 yards to Bobby Thompson, after taking a toss from Lancaster behind the line of scrimmage.
After getting released by Saskatchewan and resurfacing in B.C. as a defensive back in 1975, Pearce denied rumours that he couldn’t get along with Lancaster.
“The only problem I had with Ronnie was patterns,” Pearce told the Vancouver Sun. “I run a very fast cut and Ronnie never seemed to get set up in time to hit me. And he never could throw deep to me.
“Ronnie’s kind of receiver is Rhett (Dawson) or Tom (Campana). They run slow patterns and that’s Ronnie’s kind of game.”
6. Players received $3 per day, well below the $13 a day given to NFL players. Unlike their southern neighbours, players did not get paid to play pre-season games.
Strike talk percolated through training camp, but there were no disruptions. In 1974, players really did strike, wiping out 12 days of training camp before settling on a three-year agreement that included extra pay in the pre-season and post-season, an increased minimum salary, higher pension contributions and medical protection.
7. George Reed, Ron Lancaster, Ed McQuarters, Bill Baker, Jack Abendschan and Clyde Brock are Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductees. In 1972, their Roughriders went a disappointing 8-8 in the regular season, but an 8-6 playoff win over Edmonton and a 27-24 victory over Winnipeg got them into the Grey Cup, which they lost 13-10 to Hamilton on a 34-yard Ian Sunter field goal with no time on the clock.
8. No, they did not return to Saskatoon. Season-ticket sales lagged in the city despite camp being held there, so the Roughriders saved the money and stayed home. They sold 225 season tickets in the Saskatoon area in 1972, up just 17 from the previous year.
They’d targeted 10,000 overall in 1972, and sold just over 8,700.
“We didn’t really reap the benefits we expected in Saskatoon,” said general manager Ken Preston. “We also suffered from an interest void here in Regina. With training camp here at home, Reginans are always talking football. Last season, we didn’t have that in June and it took us a while longer to get the interest generated.”
And that ended the experiment until 1982, when the Roughriders packed up and headed north again.
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