Kind of a Loner

“The closer I get to a game the less I want to be around people” — Ron Lancaster

JACK LUDWIG October 1 1974

Kind of a Loner

“The closer I get to a game the less I want to be around people” — Ron Lancaster

JACK LUDWIG October 1 1974

Kind of a Loner

“The closer I get to a game the less I want to be around people” — Ron Lancaster

JACK LUDWIG

It’s 92 in Regina, too hot for Ron Lancaster and his wife, Beverley, to sit around their small swimming pool. Inside their house a fan (electric, not football) tries to stir the hot dry Prairie air. It’s a slow time, the end of Canadian Football League exhibition play, the beginning of the CFL’s 1974 season. Ron slumps down in a chesterfield, Bev relaxes in an easy chair. Bev looks up.

“You ever seen anything uglier than that chandelier?” she asks.

“Yah,” says Ron, “that is really ugly.” “I hate it,” Bev says.

“Not anymore than me,” says Ron. “I’ve hated it from the day we moved into this place,” says Bev. “I’ve seen some really beautiful chandeliers. Since 1965 I’ve been planning to get rid of the monstrosity.”

“We’ve never changed it,” explains Ron, “because we never figured on staying in Regina this long.”

He sits up, looks down at his sandaled feet, tanned legs — as if examining himself for injuries.

“I never considered football too safe to plan on staying in one place too long,” Ron says. “I’m a kind of loner. I keep my bags packed. They could trade you in a minute. Security isn’t anything you’re gonna find in sports.”

The man speaking was no rookie, no third-stringer, no enemy of the system, no big-city dude fretting in a small city like Regina.

“Hell, Regina’s no big change for me,” Lancaster says. “I’m used to being in a smaller town.”

He was born near and grew up in Clairton, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles outside of Pittsburgh — “a real small town.”

That July afternoon, with the CFL’s 32-player limit hanging over almost every player’s head and the cut deadline less than 20 hours away, Ron Lancaster ate the Roughriders’ pregame meal at Luther College on the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina campus in company with several men who knew this was, in a way, their last football supper. The usual jock jokes seemed to lack gusto. A

columnist in the Regina Leader-Post had published a perfectly accurate list of Roughrider players on waivers which Lancaster, the players and the Saskatchewan coaching staff looked on the way Richard Nixon appreciated the publication of the similarly accurate Pentagon papers. Earlier in the day I had stopped in at a drugstore near the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ headquarters to get a notebook. The clerk, a woman in her forties, was close to tears.

“I can’t hardly bear to turn the radio on,” she told another clerk. “I just hate to hear about all those cuts.”

At my hotel, where every guest had that wonderful kind of farm complexion — whole-radish-red cheeks, cut-radishwhite forehead — speculation fixed on what Regina was going to do with five or six quarterbacks.

“Ron don’t hardly get hurt,” said one.

“He gets younger every year,” said a woman.

“He ain’t what you could call a scrambler now,” said another woman. “He most nearly sats in the pocket and throws.”

Football is Regina’s shorthand.

“If there were no Saskatchewan Roughrider team,” Lancaster told me, “it wouldn’t only hurt Regina, it would hurt the province. We don’t have anything else.”

Ken Preston, Saskatchewan’s general manager, went even further. “Football,” he said, “is the only sport that ties Saskatchewan in with the rest of Canada.”

Signs identify Regina as “the home of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.” It’s the smallest city in the CFL. All by itself it couldn’t hope to support a franchise and stay competitive with other CFL teams. Now, in addition, the newly formed World Football League will try to snatch up draft picks and cuts left by the National Football League in the U.S.A.

To stay even marginally competitive the Roughriders have had to enlist the support of Saskatchewan residents as far away as North Battleford, Prince Albert, and Weyburn. At least 5,000 fans from outside Regina attend the Roughrider

home games; somewhere between 200 and 300 out-of-Regina supporters pay $100 to attend an annual fund-raising bash intended to help make up the Roughriders’ annual deficit. All over the Regina area people tithe part of their income to the Roughriders much as one would tithe to a church. I was told of a young couple, used to an annual “splurge” in the U.S.A., who had, in a demonstration of support for the Roughriders, converted their “splurge” money into two season tickets to the football games.

Fan identification is an amazing phenomenon all over North America. People scrimp, save, sell raffles, badger friends, cook, bake, wash cars, sponsor bazaars, knit, embroider, tat, mow lawns so that a band can put on ill-fitting militaristic paraphernalia and out-of-step to the tune of Age Of Aquarius in the highest traditions of a banana republic. People will tax themselves so a local high-school band can rumble tunelessly, through a distant drumming Grey Cup parade. Montreal almost bankrupts itself to get the Drapeau fixings — Expo, the Expos, the Olympics. Parents cut down on food and clothing essentials so a kid can get a pair of tasseled boots, a spangly baton, a silvering of sequins, and a squeezed-in kick slot.

Marc Lalonde probably scored well with our most dedicated nationalists by borderwalling the WFL’s Toronto Northmen out of Canada, but he might check his ratings on the sports-nut scale.

He will find himself vying with such international talent as Bunny Ahearne and Alan Eagleson for the number one killjoy niche. Keeping Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield out of Canada was a denial of Big Time football status for the nation and, in addition, robbed the £ sports nut of the pleasure he would dej* rive from taking off the NFL’s chamS pion Miami Dolphins.

National and international status is more easily established by sports than £ by educational institutions, business eng terprises or governmental achievement, ? Time and again people in Regina told £

“At heart, I’m just a steel mill hunky”

me that the “Roughriders were the winningest team in the CFL over the past 10 years,” a period that almost coincides with Ron Lancaster’s tenure as number one quarterback.

Regina is still, however, a cheap-shot target for eastern journalists and American city slickers: the standard jab says Regina is a nothing place 500 miles due north of nowhere.

Making a life, as Ron and Beverley Lancaster have discovered, means using Regina as the only existential arena available to them at this given time. Human definition is as simple or as complex in Regina as it is in Montreal, Yellowknife, Moose Jaw, or Flin Flon. Some players have perhaps chosen Regina; others may have had Regina thrust on them by trades or circumstance.

“The kids love it here,” says Beverley. “We don’t mind the intensity of the winter. It’s the length. Snow kept falling this winter. The backyard was full —over our heads.”

“She’s in a much better mood in summer,” Ron says, winking.

“I was stuck in the house 11 straight days,” Bev says. “Apd Ron gives up teaching school, so I have him around...”

“I was a grouch,” Ron admits.

“That and the thousand'feet of snow,” says Bev.

“It’s just that I got bored,” Ron says.

“And picky picky,” Bev says.

“It’s her sitting there reading books,” says Ron. “To me it doesn’t make sense. The only thing I really enjoy is sports. I don’t think I’ve read one single book straight through, except The Godfather, and that was only because every man on the team was talking about it. And oh yeah, George Allen’s The Future Is Now.

I finished that. I thought of writing a book myself, but I don’t know what I’d write it on. My life is so boring. I hate anything you have to concentrate on — except football. I love to hit the movies. I guess I’m just a steel mill hunky at heart like my father and my brothers. Maybe I could write about my big disappointment in life — not getting to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When I was a kid — and even now — I thought I would get to play baseball with the Pirates. Hell, I’m so dumb I even cheer for those lousy Penguins.”

“When we go east,” says Bev, “I want to dress up and do a few night clubs.”

“Me, I never want to leave the hotel room, so long as there’s TV and lots of movies on lots of channels. When I’m through with football I want to live in only one place — Ancaster. You’re like 10 minutes from Hamilton. I don’t even

“I got nothing against football or management,” said Lancaster. “All they got to do is pay me what I’m worth or trade me ”

notice the steel town side of Hamilton. I was raised breathing coal dust. You need it in your lungs. Makes you feel good.”

“Oh sure,” says Bev. “Our buddies Len Chandler [a former CFL player] and Pat Marsden [a* sportscaster] call us this past May and say ‘Hey, come on down to the banana belt.’ We go, escaping all this Regina snow, and what do we hit? A freak May blizzard.”

“I used to tell Ken Preston, ‘Trade me to Vancouver, or pay me what I’m worth,’ ” Ron says, “but on the West Coast it rains all winter and if there’s anything I really hate it’s rain.”

I asked Ken Preston how Lancaster’s worth to the team translated into money: he responded with two fairly relevant statistics: first, the Roughriders have a higher salary scale than the average for all teams in the CFL: but second, given the average home-game attendance of around 20,000, and the limit of about $725,000 for what the club calls “Player Costs — Salaries, Bonuses and Allowances,” there’s no way “Saskatchewan can bid for a [Joe] Theismann, a [Johnny] Rodgers, or a [John] Musso.” Applied to Ron Lancaster, Preston’s explanation means that the club in upping Ron’s salary also upped his “productivity”: that is, Lancaster was expected to function as a kind of assistant coach. Head Coach John Payne and Assistant Coach Don Powell both consider Ron a “good film man,” who can analyze offenses and take apart defenses as well as anybody coaching in the CFL at the present time. Ron studiously avoids taking part in any personnel decisions the coaching staff must make. He does recruiting and scouting for the Roughriders in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and, if the Roughriders are exploiting his talents by underpaying him, Ron accepts his situation, though grudgingly, because every move he now makes adds to his experience and preparation for a full-time coaching spot once his playing days are over.

“There’s another side to this salary thing,” Ron told me. “I’ve always considered myself lucky to play at all. First I played just to get myself an education. You’ve got to hit the right place at the right time. In Ottawa [Russ] Jackson wasn’t established yet. Here, Frank Tripucka was on his way out. ‘Hey,’ he used to say to me before every practice, ‘don’t get hurt.’ If the coach wanted to put Frank in he’d say, ‘I’ve only got three throws left in this arm. You want me to get rid of them all at once?’ ”

• “Look at him,” Bev cut in, “so sweet.

so reasonable. He’d come home after the pregame meal and invariably we’d have a fight.”

“She’s right,” said Ron. “Since ’61 I go right to the locker room after the pregame meal. The closer I get to a game the less I want to be around people. Some of the guys told Bev, ‘Your husband isn’t the nice guy you think he is.’ ”

“Since when did I think you were a nice guy?” Bev said.

“The guys said, ‘Ron doesn’t care what shape your body’s in out there. He uses you.’ They’re right. I don’t play anything for fun. My kids [Lana, 14, Ron, 11, Bob, six] play anything I expect them to win. I’ll say things during a game. I don’t like mental mistakes. But I’m gonna tell you something: I wouldn’t ever want to be anything else but a quarterback. Jim Warden used to say, ‘You guys who can’t run, tackle, kick, catch, block, go over there and be quarterback.’ With my size I’d hate to be trying to make it as a quarterback for the first time right now. That’s what I mean by being in the right place at the right time. Now they’re looking for stand-up quarterbacks six-feet-four and over. Me, I’m what 1 call ‘under six feet.’ I mean a good three inches under.”

“Today,” said Bev, “he doesn’t look like a worrier, but he’s a worrier.”

“Sure,” Ron said. “I still get worried about a ball game, but my worrying stops the instant I see what defense I’m up against — that’s the fun. That’s the game. Trying to beat a defense. Trying to solve the adjustments. To me it’s still exciting. For the rest of it — the socalled freedom issue down in the States — I’m against it. It goes through and the good players will flock to the richest team which will end up having all the horses. I don’t see anything that wrong with the draft system. Or the option system. If a guy wants to play out his option let him take a 10% cut for that year and get it over with. Hell, I’m in favor of blackouts. I’m no rebel. I got nothing against football or management. All they got to do is pay me what I’m worth or trade me the hell away.”

Since the Maclean's press gang conscripted me for sports duty early in 1972 I’ve spent time with such widely different individuals as Derek Sanderson, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Turcotte, Ken Dryden and the rest of Team Canada, Gordie Howe and his family, the top moneywinners on the pro golf tour. Probably none of those people earns less than $100,000 a year, and some make two or three times that much. Ron Lan-

caster’s house could have been dropped in one small corner of Gordie Howe’s in Houston; Ron’s Regina swimming pool could have served as a wading pool for the huge expanse the Howes were constructing on their patio.

“If I played in Toronto, or even in Vancouver,” Ron said, “I could get endorsements and maybe make a pile. But operating out of Regina I’m no name in the big cities. To be somebody in Toronto you have to play for Toronto. So it’s not only that they can pay bigger salaries and bonuses. They can guarantee a man all kinds of fringes that don’t even exist out here.”

Ron led me to his front door and showed me the station wagon.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “Till a couple of years ago nobody asked me what I was driving or said a word about providing me with a car. I don’t know a guy in the other cities in my position who hasn’t had a car to drive. You know who provides this car for me? A dealer from Winnipeg

A player who had dropped in on the Lancasters nodded his head.

“Our directors,” he said, “have a kind of grudging penny-pinching attitude toward us. The ones in the automobile business won’t provide any of us with cars but they get pissed off when a dealer from Winnipeg gets just a little bit generous.”

“During Grey Cup I tried to get a car for Bev,” Ron said. “These guys here wouldn’t do it. Now wherever I go, all I do is call the guy in Winnipeg and there’s a car waiting for me when I get off the plane. And they don’t care how long I use it or how far I drive.”

Structurally, I suppose, it’s a form of noblesse oblige. Management playacts being an aristocracy grandly handing out food scraps to the generally undeserving poor. Single-owner franchises and community-owned clubs differ little in their attitudes toward players. The result is, of course, a gulf between management and player. Not even Ron Lancaster can pretend he is more than a chattel with little or nothing to say about when or where he might be traded.

Before the last Roughrider exhibition game (against the Toronto Argonauts), I went with Ron Lancaster and Tom Campana to the dressing room right after the pregame meal. We weren’t the first to arrive. Some of the injured players had already been in the whirlpool bath or had their limbs taped and wrapped in elastic bandage. The dressing room had a perfunctorily whirring fan on one wall but the place was terribly

The clerk at the drugstore wept for the cut and departed, then turned to the task of cheering on Lancaster and the Roughriders

hot, airless, sticky. The cut deadline ticked away with every move of clock hands. Close to game time almost everybody was dressed or dressing. George Reed, the Roughriders’ star fullback, was one of the last to arrive. One leg was completely taped. George is associated with a brewery — the same one Jean Béliveau worked with in the east; the difference between big-city Montreal and small-city Regina could be demonstrated by contrasting their respective jobs. Béliveau was basically a show man, in public relations, who wore a tasteful blazer with the firm name minutely showing on his breast pocket; George Reed, for his part, does a lot of selling. He travels all over Saskatchewan, often on the days he has practice. If he were in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, Reed, like Lancaster, would probably be able to make endorsements.

“This town,” he told me about Regina, “is a lot better now than what it was. You’ve got bars with entertainment. Some of the acts that come through are pretty good. When I got here Regina was dead.”

The use of the past tense, to a mere passer-through like me, was reassuring.

While I was talking to Reed, the dressing-room phone rang. It was for Ron Lancaster. The caller was Ted Dushinski, a Roughrider who had wanted to be traded to Vancouver so badly that he quit the team and moved to Vancouver — without being traded. Dushinski wanted to know what Lancaster knew about trade plans involving him.

“Ted, why don’t you call John Payne — he’s in his office — with the deadline he must be doing some fast talking...”

“Hey, Ron,” somebody hollered, “who’s on the line, Dushinski? That poor bastard.”

“I don’t know, Ted, you better ask Payne,” Ron said. “I’m sure Preston wants to help you. He’ll trade you. But if he’s giving up a starter he’s gonna have to get a starter. And you’re a Canadian, Ted. That’s something he isn’t going to find laying around any old place.”

Steve Molnar, a back, raised his head off the bench on which he lay reclining.

“Not even the Players’ Association can help Dushinski,” Molnar said. “A man can play out his option, but there’s no way you can sit out your option. If the club won’t trade Ted he’s just stuck.”

Earlier, while I was in talking to Ken Preston, his phone rang. The caller then wasn’t Dushinski but the subject was: Preston listened to Jackie Parker, calling from, of course, Vancouver, Dushinski’s version of Ancaster. Naturally, I won’t

tell you who Parker was offering Preston in trade for the hung-up Dushinski. I will let you in on Preston’s response. Parker quickly laid out the qualifications of his swapping candidate ; Preston didn’t interrupt.

“What you’re telling me is this, Jackie,” he finally broke in. “The guy’s not good enough to play. He’s only good enough to get beat with and you want to get rid of him so you can get someone better in there. That’s what he’d do for us — get us beat.”

Parker, I gathered from the expression on Preston’s face, was going through the usual spit-and-I-hope-todie routines peculiar to general managers and other con men. Again Preston interrupted:

“If he’s that good why don’t you use him out there, Jack? You know the type I like? Right? They’re a little more stable. And remember our man’s a Canadian. You’re gonna have to come up with something better, Jack.”

Now, in the dressing room, five or six players — Campana, Al Ford among them — gathered around Lancaster, anxious to have a word with Dushinski. The men on the waiver wire or those who feared the cut deadline just lay where they were, athletic muscle, athletic flesh, athletic bone, human minds, human consciousnesses. To be cut by the CFL before you have established yourself as a player is to be totaled. A Sanderson, a Jenkins, a Dryden, a Howe, a Turcotte, a Reed, a Lancaster had shot free of the deterministic level shared by their high-school contemporaries. On straight money terms each of these individuals earned perhaps 10 or 20 times the wage or salary average of his high-school contemporaries. By noon the next day the dream of leaping free would have dissipated. Good-bye glamour. Good-bye travel. Good-bye freebies — or delusions of freebies.

“Okay, Ted,” Lancaster said, handing the receiver over to a teammate, “just as soon as you get off, call Payne. You be straight with him and he’ll be straight with you. Yah. So long, Ted.”

By noon the next day two men on the Roughrider waiver wire had been dropped. By noon the next day a third man, Jim Lindsey, had been traded away to Toronto. By noon the next day Saskatchewan, like every other team in the CFL, was down to its 32-player limit. And by noon the next day the clerk at the drugstore wept her last for the cut and departed, then turned to the real task of cheering on Ron Lancaster and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Ted

Dushinski waited in Vancouver for a move that might never come. The players who had been cut could invoke paranoid explanations or pray for catastrophic injuries to everyone occupying their positions. After a groveling phone call from the Roughrider coaching staff begged a man to come back, he would be swamped with TV commercials and a chance to go into partnership with Joe Namath in a go-go, topless bar.

The night before, while these doomed men still wore their green and white uniforms, Prairie football conditions prevailed. Thunderheads over 40,000 feet high massed black and menacing above Taylor Field. Fans with those white foreheads and red cheeks lined up for tickets several hours before game time, dressed in Saskatchewan or Prairie summer issue I, a Winnipegger, knew so well — men in straw hats, shortsleeve shirts, and, the new touch, wash-and-wear plaid trousers. A few wore both belt and braces (or, as the labels say, “suspenders”) as insurance against an errant pants drop. The women invariably wore white enamel snap-on earrings with white enamel spray pin to match — and, in daring instances, picked up the white theme with matching white enamel necklace, white plastic bag, white plastic shoes. In short, it was summer.

Flying in from Calgary the day before I had been amazed by winter’s markings still obvious all over the flat prairie — scars left by snow that took too long to melt, flood signs. The Saskatchewan River was murky from the air, the earth looked stained, slopped over, puddled like linoleum under water patches. During Saskatchewan’s exhibition game against the Toronto Argonauts those thunderheads suddenly unleashed sound, flashes of light. Six minutes before game end lightning struck Taylor Field and knocked out all the power. It was a dramatic farewell for those playing their last in a Roughrider uniform.

Before I left the dressing room I looked at the floor, now littered with taped ankles, bound knees, sweaty torsos, shower-wet hair, and playing gear.

“Al Ford tells me,” Ron Lancaster said, “ ‘Ron, you don’t have any close friends.’ I guess that’s right. Once a loner always a loner. Anybody calls me knows: I hate the phone. Hey, you want to know what kind of place Regina is? I’m listed in the directory.”

Ron got up off the floor, stood before a mirror shadow-throwing long bombs with an imaginary football.

“Feel pretty good,” he said. “This might be the year we take it all.”