Saskatchewan·Point of View

After 21 years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, I'm mourning the season that could have been

Working with the Saskatchewan Roughriders for more than two decades has been more than just a job.

Working with the Riders has been more than just a job

Mike MacNeil started volunteering for the Saskatchewan Roughriders at eight years old. Now he has been with the organization for 21 years. (Submitted by Mike MacNeil)

I miss football.

Working with the Saskatchewan Roughriders for more than two decades has been more than just a job.

I grew up in a CFL family. We were all die-hard fans. 

I started volunteering with the Riders when I was only eight years old. My parents would drop me off after school. 

I would help the previous equipment manager with laundry and cleaning the dressing room. On game day, I would get to help on the field. 

Being part of a franchise and meeting all the players was so exciting. Just having the players say hi to me made me so proud.

A young Mike MacNeil poses while working as a Saskatchewan Roughriders volunteer. (Submitted by Mike MacNeil)

By the time I was graduating high school in 2010, I was working full time with the equipment staff.

Throughout the 21 years that I've worked for the team, I've created memories that will last a lifetime. 

Every spring I look forward to the players arriving in town for training camp. When it's over, we count down the days until the home opener and the first "Bring Em Out" of the season.

I still go to the stadium weekly, but the atmosphere is just not the same. It's hard to see the locker room empty. It's been eerie. 

Sometimes I feel like I'm mourning what could have been, especially since the Grey Cup game would have been in Regina.

2013 Grey Cup winning team

Nothing will beat winning the Grey Cup at home on Taylor Field. 

I'll never forget the looks on my parents' faces in the Riders dressing room as celebrations vibrated through the stadium. They were stunned. It was special being able to bring them in to meet the players and experience the celebrations with them.

Fans poured out onto the Green Mile in Regina on the bitterly cold night as I hoisted the Grey Cup over my head. 

This season would have featured the first Grey Cup at the Riders' new stadium, which would have been an incredible experience. The whole week builds up to the game. Family and friends come to town to celebrate. 

The team we had this year was good. There was a chance they could have been playing in that game. 

I know what it's like to win a Grey Cup at home. I was really looking forward to it in the new stadium.

Lifelong friendships

It isn't just what happens on the field that sticks out for me, it's the memories created in the dressing room and on road trips. 

My first day, I was greeted in the dressing room by Omarr Morgan. He shook my tiny eight-year-old hand and welcomed me to the team.

Omarr quickly became one of my favourite players. To this day, we talk weekly. My friendship with him is invaluable.  

Mike MacNeil stands with Omarr Morgan. MacNeil says he and Morgan have become lifelong friends. (Submitted by Mike MacNeil)

I've seen big-name players come and go: Ladouphyous McCalla, Omarr Evans, Darian Durant, Weston Dressler and Rob Bagg to name a few. 

Getting to know the guys on the team as more than just football players is one of my favourite parts of the job. For example, Odell Willis and Dwight Anderson were so different than what their personas were on the field. They were fierce between the white lines, but outside of that they were just regular guys that were great to be around.

I don't know what next year will look like, but whatever happens, I'll always have the lifelong friendships and relationships I've built with the players over the years.

COVID-19 impact

This year has been so different with our season being cancelled due to COVID-19.

It's been interesting watching other sports play inside bubbles and imaging that for the Riders.  In Rider Nation, the fans are as much as part of the team as the players. 

Not spending my summer at the stadium seven days a week, I have got to enjoy some things I haven't done in years. I had BBQs with my family. I went fishing and golfing with my friends.

But now, as the weather starts to change and Labour Day looms, I miss football. I'll never forget watching Kerry Joseph run it in as the clock wound down to win the 2007 Labour Day Classic.

I miss Dan Clarke and Brendan Labatte bringing in breakfast and coffee for equipment manager Gordy and I the day before the game. 

I'm disappointed I don't get to watch my cousin, Brayden Lenius, play for the team this year. 

It's been difficult not seeing the players and coaches preparing all week for game day.

I'm missing road trips and seeing the other teams' staff and former Rider players who now play elsewhere.

Mostly, I miss the buzz around the city and excitement on everyone's faces as they pile into Mosaic Stadium on game day. 

There is a sense of emptiness in the province without the Saskatchewan Roughriders and CFL.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Mike MacNeil has been the assistant equipment manager with the Riders since 2010. Before coming into this role he was volunteering with the team for 10 years. MacNeil was born and raised in Regina.


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