Get ready for the oddballs

December 5, 2012

We had barely parked the car when we met our first one.

He was bare-chested and painted blue on Front Street in downtown Toronto, howling support for his beloved Argonauts, despite the temperature hanging around the freezing mark. He wore a homemade tinfoil helmet that looked like he was expecting a call from outer space at any minute.

He had that crazy look in his eyes, the I’m-not-quite-sure-where-I-am look. But this guy wasn’t some kind of escaped lunatic. He was a ticket-holding fan who had come here for the 100th annual Grey Cup, the biggest game in the Canadian Football League. An hour later, we saw him again in the stands of the Rogers Centre, his voice a little more hoarse, and a little more wobbly, but still shouting like a broken record.

In the same section, three rows down, a group of female Saskatchewan Riders fans in green wigs were jumping up and down and screaming like contestants on a game show. One section over, two men had carved out watermelons and were wearing them as helmets, blowing on horns. Kickoff was still 45 minutes away.

Diehards from Winnipeg had shown up in their own leatherhead helmets, looking like they’d taken 10 too many bumps on the heads. A guy from Edmonton was walking around with a colour co-ordinated coconut bra. Fans from Calgary brought their own horse and stood around laughing while the animal relieved itself on the rubber mats at the edge of the playing field.

Everywhere we turned, there were more of them — fans who looked like strange comic book superheroes that had just walked out of a recording session with funk legend George Clinton, or at least a really cool Halloween party. They had us surrounded.

The Canadian Football League has a way of bringing the weirdos out of the woodwork. Guelph will get a taste of those oddball fans next season when the Hamilton Ticats move 40 minutes up Highway 6 to temporarily make Alumni Stadium their home in 2013.

CFL fans are unlike fans in any other pro sport — they revel in their weirdness and celebrate the eccentric. Oddballs are clearly welcome. Although some in Steeltown are already turning up their noses at the idea of watching pro football in our quirky little town, let’s embrace our inner oddball and lay out the red carpet for those freaks who do come north.

Some Hamilton supporters seem ready to uproot already.

“Bring Guelph the Cup! Bring Guelph the Cup!” shouted a couple kilt-wearing Ticats fans, well lubricated after a long night at the Rogers Centre.

The Grey Cup is obviously not your typical CFL game — and Justin Bieber will mostly certainly not appear at Guelph games in his leather onesie and Gordon Lightfoot will not be cryogenically unfrozen and propped up onstage at half time.

But the fans are still the same outcasts who go to most regular season games, and we’re lucky we’ll get to glimpse them in all their weirdness.

Granted, the crowds at Alumni Stadium won’t be nearly as big as the 52,000 who piled into the Grey Cup. But we ought to revel in, and even be proud of, our rare little moment in the CFL spotlight.

This game these oddballs love is distinctly Canadian. Our brand of football is played in no other country in the world. It diverged early on from its roots in British rugby and became markedly different from the game played in the U.S., right down to the size of the field, number of downs and players, kicking rules and the amount of money generated and spent.

We took a foreign game and infused it with Canadian values. Let’s not forget black players were welcome in the CFL long before its American counterparts put an end to their bigotry.

Forget hockey or lacrosse or basketball or any other sport tied to Canada’s identity. The CFL is exclusively for Canucks.

It’s our game, and it’s as quirky as the fans who love it. So when the CFL brings all the weirdness to Guelph next year, let’s bust out the kilts and watermelon helmets and face paint and let’s celebrate.

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