In 1988, the Ottawa Rough Riders promised their fans good things. The campaign was dubbed "Super Season '88," and was set to culminate in the 76th Grey Cup, to be hosted by the Riders at Lansdowne Park. Instead, the team was a train wreck. Its starting quarterback was one-time Ohio State star Art Schlichter, who'd been kicked out of the NFL as a result of his gambling addiction, and who'd brought to Ottawa his habit of passing bad cheques. Schlichter was injured in September, and released outright in October. The Riders finished the season 2-16.
It was reasonable, after such a disastrous year, for Ottawa football fans to expect that things couldn't get worse. Reasonable, but wrong.
While it's true that the Riders never again lost as many as 16 games, they would not have a winning season for the rest of their existence, which reached its unceremonious conclusion following the 1996 season. Thanks to the CFL's unique playoff structure, Ottawa made the East semifinal five straight years from 1990–1994, only to lose each time.
Off the field, things went from baffling to worse when the team was sold to Detroit businessman Bernard Glieberman, who promptly installed his son, Lonie, as president. The Gliebermans' rule proved both inept and mean-spirited—they continued to put a bad product on the field, then complained when crowds remained small, and soon were making noise about moving the team south. They eventually strong-armed the league into allowing them to split the team in two, and take one half to Shreveport, Louisiana, where they became the Pirates, part of the CFL's ill-fated American experiment.
The Gliebermans said plenty that didn't make sense, consistent with a long line of men at podiums promising change on the field, but ultimately producing more of the wretched same. In 1994, they sold the Riders to real estate grandee Bruce Firestone, who was fresh off delivering the reborn Ottawa Senators to the NHL. A year later, shortly after the club drafted a dead man in the dispersal draft aimed at redistributing the Las Vegas Posse's human assets, Firestone sold the team to Chicago businessman Horn Chen. Chen's ownership tenure is neatly encapsulated within the small factoid that he never once traveled to Canada to watch his team play. In the end, hobbled by successive decades of mismanagement and the resultant effect on the public's willingness to show up, the team, already on life support, was passed into the hands of the league, and pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
There had been better days, though. Football, or something like it, was first played in Ottawa in 1876; the club, a member of the Ontario Rugby Union, became known as the Rough Riders in 1898. Nine Grey Cup victories followed, and a roll call of Ottawa football greats reveals a trove of Canadian Football Hall of Fame members: Whit Tucker, Tom Clements, Soupy Campbell, Russ Jackson, Ron Stewart, Damon Allen, Condredge Holloway, and 16 other one-time Rough Riders, including Tony Gabriel.
Gabriel is the tight end who scored a game-winning touchdown pass from Tom Clements in the waning moments of the 1976 Grey Cup to defeat Saskatchewan. "The Catch," as they call it still on Bank Street, is such a pivotal bit of hometown sporting legend that as a child I believed local pizza chain Gabriel's to have been named in his honour. But that was the last championship for a team from Ottawa, and 1978 was the last winning season. The years thereafter proved a parade of failure and embarrassment so taxing that when the team finally folded, its departure was met with widespread ambivalence. Like it or not, a team's performance has a way of seeping into a city's psyche. Attending a football game in Ottawa had become an unpleasant act of public self-flagellation.
In 2002, the league—motivated by the notion that you can't really have a Canadian Football League without a team in the nation's capital—admitted a new entry. The Renegades played four unremarkable seasons before they too succumbed to financial woes and an inability to secure stable ownership. Once more shuttered, Frank Clair Stadium literally fell to ruin.
Revived once more by businessman Jeff Hunt—owner of the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's—and moved into new digs built on the same site as the old Frank Clair, the Redblacks debuted in 2014, and withstood the usual sort of pain experienced by expansion teams. As with the '88 Riders, they finished 2-16, led by quarterback Henry Burris, long in the tooth but game for the sort of punishment such an assignment entails. Despite the team's performance, local support was strong.
Then in 2015, something damn near miraculous happened. Burris, 40, against all prognostication and probability, had a career season and the Redblacks finished the year 12-6, winning their division and cruising to the East final. Up late over Hamilton, the Ottawa defence allowed the Tiger-Cats to tie things up. Burris went under centre with less than two minutes to play, needing something resembling a miracle to avoid overtime.
A 93-yard touchdown followed, with Burris hitting Greg Ellingson on a nearly broken play that became the immediate spiritual heir to "The Catch," and thereby awoke something so long dormant that it might as well be ancient: the feeling of victory in Ottawa.
The Redblacks will ride into Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Sunday as representatives of a city that hasn't had a rooting interest in the big game since 1981, and hasn't seen a win in 39 years. That's big. And while a victory would be cherished, this team has already given Ottawa fans a hope they haven't known in what feels like a lifetime.