Redblacks' rise reflects how Ottawa's football love is deep

Nearly 25,000 fans filled the new TD Place for the Redblacks home opener.

I was headed up to the video store — that was a thing then — in Simcoe, Ont., on a gloomy winter afternoon nearly 11 years ago when the car radio relayed that the Ottawa Renegades had got the kiss of death.

That bit of news, of course, was that Brad Watters' ownership group, after hosting the 2004 Grey Cup, had cashed out by selling the 'Gades to Not Them Again, AKA Bernie and Lonie Glieberman of early 1990s Rough Riders and Shreveport Pirates infamy. On the lulz end, it worked like a dream. The late great Earl McRae was wont to calling the younger Glieberguy "Cuddles" in columns. A sweet piece of much lower-hanging fruit was How do you spell Lonie? With one N and a lot of L's. A year and a bit later, within a month of your agent moving to town, the 'Gades were gone, and the city had gone two and out in the CFL.

Please excuse leading into this with a first-person pronoun. (What would Milt Dunnell think if he was here?) From the perspective of someone who loves Canadian football and resides in the national capital region, but grew up elsewhere, cheering for other teams, that is the only entry point vis-à-vis the Redblacks representing Ottawa-Gatineau in the Grey Cup for the first time since 1981. Tony Gabriel's last-minute touchdown catch that won the 1976 Grey Cup occurred six weeks before I was born. Redblacks wide receiver Greg Ellingson's dramatic touchdown last Sunday did not evoke memories of J.C. Watts connecting with Pat Stoqua in another East final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. There is no personal experience with what it how people here in Ottawa turned away from the cash-poor Rough Riders of the later 1980s and '90s, when the CFL collectively frayed under a skein of bad blackout-happy commissioners and Ottawa's football faithful turned away in an embodiment of that REM lyric that "withdrawal in disgust is not apathy."

Not knowing all of that, the Bytown-as-bad-sports-town narrative was a solace to a certain newcomer a decade ago. Ottawa let the Renegades and the International League's Lynx, who were the last Triple-A baseball franchise in Canada before moving to Allentown, Pa., in 2008, fade away without much of a fight.

That made the labelling easy: bad sports town, no interest in football.

In retrospect, of course, that snap judgment came before getting to know Ottawa, which is hard to get to know if one lives here but doesn't work in the federal government. This is a city of reasonable accommodation, recreational opportunities galore — does any other CFL city offer a 'pregame yoga class on the field' promotion to help fill seats for those tough-sell summer games? — and having fun within reason. (Overheard in the gym locker room earlier this week, from a middle-aged guy in ridiculous shape: "I bought a house in Toronto for $220,000 in the early '90s, but if I hadn't moved up here, I'd be dead.")

People here are doers. We also, true to the stereotype of punctilous civil servants, tend to be conservative spenders with our own money.That latter collective trait works against sports success.

So marrying that with a string of out-of-town ownership groups that didn't radiate trust — the Glieberguys, Horn Chen, the Watters group and the Glieberguys redux — was a perfect storm for the first two teams' failure. Perhaps it was provincial to instantly distrust an owner that didn't have roots, but that is  Ottawa. It sort of comes with being the big small town that is bracketed like a receiver in double coverage between Montreal's Gallic élan and Toronto's frenzy.

Time moves a little slower here. Part of the trade-off of loving Ottawa is never having to say you're sorry if that agrees with you. Football, from the grass roots up to Henry Burris' hopeful Redblacks, is a piece of Canadiana within a shrinking world that fits with all of that very well.

'15,000 people who will sit on tacks'

Ottawa-Gatineau boasts the country's largest amateur football league, the National Capital Amateur Football Associations. The city is one of the few with two teams, the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee-Gees, competiing in Canadian Interuniversity Sport. The Carleton-Ottawa Panda Game last month drew the largest crowd, 17,500, of the CIS season, surpassing the total for Saturday's Vanier Cup national championship in Quebec City. One of the starting quarterbacks in the CIS championship, the UBC Thunderbirds' 19-year-old Michael O'Connor, is from the suburbs of Orleans.

Scott Bradley, a lifelong Ottawa football fan, embeds a 1976 Canadian silver dollar in the asphalt at midfield at the new home of the Ottawa Redblacks CFL football team, TD Place at Lansdowne, with Gerry Organ, left, a player on the 76 Ottawa team, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, and Jeff Hunt, right, , president of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), the owners of the new team, Thursday, May 29, 2014 in Ottawa. The last time an Ottawa team won the Grey Cup was in 1976. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Patrick Doyle)

The seed always laid there through the CFL-free years in the capital. In Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, with president of sports Jeff Hunt's immortal words, uttered in 2008, the region has "15,000 people who will sit on tacks to watch CFL football."

As for getting the other 9,000 fans needed to make Team 3.0 a go, it needed to be monetized properly. The OSEG group are not saints for reviving the CFL and taking a kick at soccer. They are businessmen who saw a good investment opportunity, and also had the good fortune that the Redblacks' launch timed up with the league being financially flush thanks in large part to the TSN/RDS deal that runs through 2021.

While the stadium was new and the name was new, the revelation when the Redblacks kicked off last season was how organic and insta-permanent it all seemed. One minute there was scarcely any CFL interest in a team without a team. The next there was a one of the league's loudest and rowdiest crowds. Unlike with the Senators, where the crowd plays Beat The Traffic midway through the third period, people congregated early for games, and stayed around afterward.

"It reminds me of when I was in college," Redblacks middle linebacker Damaso Munoz, a Rutgers alumnus, said late this season, and anyone who has watched a NCAA game knows that isn't faint praise.

Sustained success is hardly a given in the CFL, as the No. 2 sport in a country where Big Sport pushes hockey first and always. The Redblacks are in their honeymoon phase where the new-stadium whiff is still fresh. In reality, the nation's capital is oversaturated with sports with the Senators, Redblacks, North American Soccer League's Fury, two major junior hockey franchises and the Ottawa Champions minor-league baseball team. Not all of them are going to succeed.

The CFL is facing challenges with declining attendance. plus football as a sport has an uncertain future regarding whether public tastes catch up to Dr. Bennet Omalu's discoveries about football's effects on the human brain, specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

That is the uncertain future talking.

In the present, where Ottawa-Gatineau lags behind the curve in our little bubble, the Redblacks reaching the Grey Cup in their second season has been a trip. Football, with its large rosters, coaching and training staffs, is the North American sport that plays the most on a sense of community, even though it has exclusionary elements.

The Redblacks tapped into that, and not necessarily just by winning. National Hockey League players have more of a separation from the populace. With CFL players, the Our Guys vibe rings truer, whether it's a flashy import such as wide receiver Chris Williams, a long-time luminary such as Burris or the Canadian contributors with local roots such as guard Nolan MacMillan and reserve deserve end Justin Phillips who have roots in the area.

Ottawa cannot keep up the big small town facade forever, but a Grey Cup appearance offers a convenient illusion to keep us rooted. It's also a nice thing to share with the CFL-watching portion of the country. 

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.