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  10 Years After

by Paul Yanko

In the greater scheme of things, it was just a football game. But to the people of Saskatchewan, the 1989 Grey Cup game was a fairy tale 23 years in the making. It was on a crisp, late-November afternoon that that fairy tale, and a piece of Saskatchewan history, were written. And Dave Ridgway wrote both pieces - with his foot.

Dave Ridgway, alias 'RoboKicker'.
- courtesy John Sokowlowski
Dave Ridgway, alias 'RoboKicker'.

It's a beautiful and hot summer day as Dave Ridgway and I pull up to Taylor Field in Regina to chat about what has become known simply as 'The Kick' (this story was written in 1999). We'd barely made it a few steps from the car when 'Ridge' is recognized by a couple of Saskatchewan Roughrider players headed toward the dressing room to get ready for practice.

'Hey Ridge', they say, and alter their course to shake the hand of an old friend.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries, which include questions on the whereabouts of former teammate and Moose Jaw native Dallas Rysavy (whom they refer to as 'Rice Krispy'), we head into the dressing room.

Ridgway retired from the team at the end of the 1994 season after playing 14 years in the Canadian Football League (CFL). It's been six months since last he visited Taylor Field, athough you'd never know it.

Choruses of 'Hey Ridge' and 'What Up?' arise from former teammates who are still with the Green and White. From the rookies, who know him only through his legendary exploits as one of the finest kickers ever to play the game, he gets respectful nods.

Rider Head Coach Cal Murphy, leaning against a wall and talking to a player, interrupts the conversation briefly to nod and say 'Hi Dave'.

Don Narcisse, one of the few players remaining from the '89 squad, bounces up to him excitedly, shakes his hand, and the two step aside for a brief chat.

Then Ridgway spots longtime equipment manager, Norm Fong.

"Hi Norm," says Ridgway, but in slightly more colorful locker-room jargon. He strolls confidently into Fong's small office.

"You here to kick?" asks Fong, unfazed by Ridgway's unexpected appearance.

"I will be, unless he gets better," quips Ridgway, nodding toward Rider kicker Paul McCallum, who's on a couch in the corner eating soup from a styrofoam bowl. McCallum's nursing a groin injury.

They all share a hearty laugh.

"I miss the guys, I miss that sort of camaraderie," Ridgway tells me later, once we find a quiet place in the stands on the west side of Taylor Field. "I don't miss the game."

Comfortable in retirement: Ridgway with his boys (l to r) Christopher, Drew, Derek and Bret.
Comfortable in retirement: Ridgway with his boys (l to r) Christopher, Drew, Derek and Bret.

It's ironic that Ridgway should even talk about missing anything. During his time in the league he amassed 10 CFL records, including all-time-field-
goal-accuracy leader (78.2%), longest field goal (60 yards), and most consecutive field goals (28). During the 1993 season Ridgway booted a nearly impossible 90.6 per cent of his kicks accurately. No wonder everyone outside the dressing room called him 'RoboKicker'.

Yet despite these tremendous accomplishments, Ridgway is best remembered for only one kick. The kick.

"I still get people coming up to me and telling me they remember exactly where they were and who they were with," says the 40-year-old Ridgway, who now works for provincial phone utility SaskTel. "This province must have been a pretty quiet place that Sunday!"

The Rider's 1989 regular season was an up and down affair that saw the team finish with a 9-and-9 record, good enough to earn them a playoff berth. In 1988, the Riders made the playoffs for the first time since appearing in (and losing) the 1976 Grey Cup. But in '88, they bowed out after only one game, losing to the B.C. Lions.

This year was going to be different.

"We are not just going to the Grey Cup, we are going to win the Grey Cup," a focused Rider Coach John Gregory told the media, immediately after securing the team's spot in the championship game by defeating the heavily-favored Edmonton Eskimos.

"We can't be satisfied with just this."

The Riders were set to face the Hamilton Tiger Cats at SkyDome, in Toronto. Ridgway recalls the week leading up to that Grey Cup Sunday as a whirlwind of activity, and one in which the pressure was building with every passing day.

"Normally we would get into town and have 24 or 48 hours to kill before a road game," Ridgway explains. "So after three or four days of practicing it's like, 'let's just get going!'. I was getting particularly owly."

The torturous days of practice finally yielded to the Game Day that Ridgway had eagerly anticipated.

A couple of quick Hamilton field goals gave the Tiger Cats a six to zero lead and cast an air of uncertainty over the jubilant Saskatchewan fans, thousands of whom had made their way to SkyDome to cheer on their beloved team.

For years Rider fans have faithfully supported their community-owned team through the good and (mostly) bad times, developing, in the process, something that has become known far and wide as 'Rider Pride'. This sense of undying loyalty earned Rider fans the reputation of being the greatest in the league, and it helped give their team the unofficial title of 'Canada's Team'.

By the middle of the second quarter the Riders had begun to show signs of offensive life. Quarterback Kent Austin had completed touchdown passes to slotbacks Ray Elgaard and Jeff Fairholm, and it was becoming clear that Hamilton would not be allowed to walk away with the Grey Cup. Not without a fight.

Ridgway's first call to duty came on the last play before half-time, a 50-yard attempt.

"It was my first field goal attempt in a championship game and I missed the thing," he recalls, the displeasure still evident in his voice.

The half ended with Hamilton up 27-22.

By the end of the third quarter the Riders had moved into the lead, 34-30. With just under two minutes left to go in the fourth the Riders were still ahead 40-33 after Ridgway kicked his third field goal of the day. The stage was set for one of the most exciting finishes in the history of football.

Hamilton quarterback Mike Kerrigan marched his team down the field in a drive that not only ate up a good deal of time, but also allowed the Tiger Cats to tie the game on an acrobatic catch by Hamilton wideout Tony Champion.

"That was a brilliant catch by Champion, one of the best I've ever seen in the game of football," recalls Ridgway. "But at that moment I knew that Kent would get us into field goal range."

And Austin didn't disappoint.

The drive began with 44 seconds left on the clock and included passes to Ray Elgaard and Mark Guy. A final pass to Guy, who stepped out of bounds at the Hamilton 26, followed by one 'kneel-down' to position the ball for 'The Kick', left nine seconds remaining on the clock. The crowd was electrified.

Saskatchewan flags were waving, people were standing and cheering and Dave Ridgway jogged onto the field to attempt the greatest pressure kick of any kicker's career.

"Just before the kick you get into a zone, and I was there," says Ridgway. "I was ready to do the job."

But Hamilton Coach Al Bruno wasn't about to let Ridgway do his job, not just yet. He called a time-out to give the kicker a little more time to mull over the situation, which Ridgway admits is a sound strategy that works.

During the time-out, Ridgway recalls going over to talk to teammate Glen Suitor, who held the ball for him for years (the two remain best friends). Ridgway asked Suitor to talk to him about something other than football.

In the past Suitor had, under similar circumstances, asked his kicker if he'd seen the latest Robert Bateman print - they're both collectors. On this day Suitor spoke of an upcoming camping trip the two had planned. He also asked whether Ridgway had noticed a rather attractive woman seated near their bench.

"I knew he was focused, I just wanted to make him smile. And he started laughing," recalls Suitor from his home in Vancouver, where he now works as a CFL commentator for TSN. "Whenever we lined up for a kick we felt we could make it - we had that kind of chemistry.

"But what's really funny is that all of a sudden we had 10 kicking coaches out there on the field. I looked over at Dave and half the huddle is circled around him giving him advice like 'keep your head down', and 'remember to follow through'. And I just told everybody to get lost - we've kicked a few of these before."

Suitor holds as RoboKicker nails The Kick to win the 1989 Grey Cup.
Suitor holds as RoboKicker nails The Kick to win the 1989 Grey Cup.

The kick, of course, was good, giving the Riders a 43-40 victory and the Grey Cup for only the second time in the history of the team.

"I remember watching it sail through the uprights and feeling like my eyes were huge," recalls Ridgway. "I think I said something like, 'oh my God, we did it!'"

Suitor was equally moved.

"I didn't know what to do with myself. You feel relieved, you feel excited - there's just a flood of emotions that hit you," he said. "We had worked so long and so hard to get to that moment. Through all the practices and all the weightlifting and all the politics, you dream of this moment. And we had finally achieved it.

"We've always said that game, the season, the championship, was all for the fans. But that brief moment when we realized the kick was good, that was for the players because that's what we'd committed ourselves to and we'd finally done it."

Despite being called the game's hero, Ridgway is quick to share the accolades.

Once more, from a different angle. Rider fans wonder whether they'll ever again see such a happy day.
- courtesy John Sokowlowski
Once more, from a different angle. Rider fans wonder whether they'll ever again see such a happy day.

"Football is the epitome of a team sport," he explains. "Mine is the last piece of the puzzle, but everybody has to do their jobs equally well in order for me to succeed."

Immediately following the game, Ridgway used a national television interview to dedicate the win to the people of Saskatchewan.

"During the 80's both football and farming in Saskatchewan became synonymous with futility - there were very few people who prospered at either," says Ridgway. "Hey, we didn't solve all the world's problems or create world peace. But I think we helped the people of Saskatchewan band together and feel good about something, and they sure deserved it.

"The fans have always been there for this team."

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