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Roughriders on a Plane

A story about flying around with a childhood hero.

By John Oliver SmithPublished about a year ago 11 min read
Whoa!! Breaking the sound barrier and some airplane crackers with George Reed.

Two of the earliest sports heroes in my life, were members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders - a team in the Canadian Football League since 1910. The first, George Reed, was a young American fullback with the Washington State Cougars, who, in 1963, came north to play professional football in Canada. As luck would have it, Ron Lancaster (a second hero of mine), made the move from the Ottawa Roughriders to Saskatchewan at roughly the same time. The rest was history. The Roughriders had a lot of successful seasons starting that year and on into the next decade. Reed and Lancaster were two of the main reasons why the team enjoyed such success and why they won the Grey Cup in 1966. Every kid in Saskatchewan wanted to be either #23 (Ron Lancaster) or #34 (George Reed). They were both so much bigger than our own tiny little lives at the time.

George Reed takes a handoff from Ron Lancaster

I attended several CFL football games in old Taylor Field when I was a kid. At that time, spectators were allowed to run around on the playing field at the completion of the game. The players as well, would mingle about with fans and opponents during this post-game meet-and-greet. On one such occasion I ran around and through the fans and players and accidently bumped into George Reed as he was making his way to the locker room. It was an uneventful bump for the most part. However, I will remember that physical exchange of time and space for the rest of my natural life. Sadly, George Reed didn’t pay much attention to it at all. And, I know that from first-hand experience, as I will allude to in the unfolding of the remainder of this particular chronicle involving commercial air travel in Western Canada.

The plane ride I am referring to, started in Vancouver, and ended in Calgary. In the mid-1980s, at the time of this flight, I was not an experienced flyer, and in fact, had probably only flown a handful of times on short excursions from the prairies to the West Coast and once from Sudbury back to Saskatoon. I was always sort of nervous when I flew in those days – not for the typical reasons of dying in a plane crash, but rather because I was not 100% aware of all the norms, mores and protocols associated with booking flights, buying tickets, check-ins, boarding, seating, and disembarking plane flights. I always wanted to at least appear to be knowledgeable about such things. I never wanted to seem green at anything.

By Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

In those days, it was necessary to purchase an actual physical ticket which entitled a passenger to exchange for a boarding pass during the process of registration. I managed all of this, and after clearing the security check, I sat in the waiting area until the announcement was made to board our flight. While I waited, I looked around at the crowd of people who would be flying with me on that day. One of the little rituals I have always gone through before boarding is to look for children that will be flying with me. I wanted to believe (and still want to believe) that a “Higher Power” would always look after flights that had a least one small child on board. On seeing a few children in the waiting areas of my flights I could breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I would likewise be spared on that particular journey. And now, hundreds of flights later, I can say thankfully that it has always worked. I have always been lucky enough to fly with children on board – sometimes even lucky enough to have them right beside me – with noses running and sippy-cups overflowing and fingers sticking – or in the seat behind me, kicking and screaming for the duration of our time in the air. Nevertheless, I have always been grateful to see them on board. They haven’t failed me yet.

My Good Luck Charms

Anyway, while looking about the waiting lounge area, in search of small children (I know how bad that must sound if taken out of context), who should I see, two rows ahead of me? – None other than George Reed! The George Reed! The one and only George Reed! My hero, George Reed! George Reed was going to be on my flight! I thought to myself, “Having George Reed on board my flight will be like flying with a hundred children.” There is no way that God, who was also a dyed-in-the-wool Saskatchewan Roughriders football fan, would ever let George Reed’s plane go down in a flaming crash. Not only would I be spared from annihilation that day, but I would also co-navigate the Rocky Mountains in the same cabin, breathing the same recycled air as my hero – George Reed! How could things get any better than that? It seemed now, that there was indeed a Lord on High beaming brightly down upon me from above.

The boarding announcement was made and some parents with their small charges got up first and made their cluttered and over-packed ways to the boarding gate. I held back until I spotted George Reed getting up and ready to go before falling into line. I swooped swiftly in behind him three or four passengers back. I almost felt like I was stalking him. There was a bit of a hold-up in the line after he filed past the flight attendant at the gate, so the rest of the line was put on hold momentarily. I watched as he disappeared down the tunnel toward the entrance to our plane. Finally, the line resumed movement and by the time I scurried down the hallway and turned the corner, he was gone and obviously already on board. Once greeted by the flight attendant at the door, I made my way down the aisle, waiting patiently as passengers ahead of me stowed their carry-on bags and boxes into the overhead bins. I glanced up every so often to see if the seat numbers on the console matched those on my boarding pass. I also looked around occasionally to see if George Reed was anywhere nearby. When I got to my assigned row, I checked the row number above and then looked down into the aisle seat beside me, and there sat . . . George Reed. It is truly quite possible that I may have involuntarily whimpered or shrieked or something at that point, I can’t really remember. Neither could I remember how to breathe or initiate simple speech. Since I was to be sitting in the middle seat of that row, I was also going to be stationed right beside my bigger-than-life childhood (and adult-hood) hero – George Reed.

Roughriders on a plane

Once I came back to my senses and realized over whom I had climbed to get to my seat, I asked the only question I could get out of my throat and over my teeth and through my mouth – “Are you George Reed?” (Even though I knew exactly who he was). He answered affirmatively and shook my hand. I introduced myself and assured him that I was nobody of any reputable note. The conversation just sort of went on from there. In contrast to my first meeting with George Reed, this flight was much more eventful – at least from my perspective. And how could it not be eventful, with me sitting next to one of my childhood heroes. As the plane reached cruising altitude, I had the opportunity to get down to some serious talk with the gentleman. I asked him if he remembered me bumping into him on the playing surface at Taylor Field way back 20 years ago in 1964 or thereabouts. He didn’t recollect that he did and laughed as he thought about the question and possibly about how dorky I was for even asking it in the first place. But then again, this was George Reed after all and I'm pretty sure he was used to seeing those around him reduced to blubbering idiots in his presence. I knew somewhere deep inside that he would forgive me.

By Weston Eichner on Unsplash

We, of course, talked a lot about football – his career and my career. My entire high-school football tenure consisted of only three very short stories - so short in fact, that they rolled nicely into one tale only slightly longer than a limerick. The stories of George Reed’s life and his life in football consumed the better part of the hour that we rode through the sky together, side-by-side, captively held as each other’s audience.

Every so-often I escaped the moment I was in that day with George Reed, and reflected on the life-altering situation I was actually in the middle of.

He had the aisle seat, so he should have been able to avoid any serious encounters with the overhead luggage compartments, however, on at least one occasion he managed to stand quickly, only to sustain a mighty blow to the old melon. I contemplated offering to “kiss-a-boo-boo,” but I quickly regained my senses, thinking better of it - as he had, only recently and within the last several years, been awarded with the “Order of Canada” no less, and inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Such forms of medical attention on my part may have been deemed inappropriate.

One of George Reed's many humanitarian awards

At the time of this meeting, George Reed was retired from the playing field but, as I was made aware that day, still active with the CFL Player’s Association. He was also associated with several charities, Saskatchewan Gaming and Molson’s of Canada as a sales representative or something similar. Because of his part with Molson's and because the airline we travelled on that day also served Molson’s products, he was able to secure these products at a substantially discounted price. He asked if I would like a beer. Being nearly noon, and considering who had made the offer, I relented, with almost no further contemplation. And, since that day, and forever after I have been able to, and will continue to recount to others, that George Reed once bought me a beer and listened to my story about recovering a fumble when I played high-school football.

The conversation got around to his early days living in Regina and playing football in Canada. He said there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in things on the field in the CFL from his playing days in college - maybe a few minor rule differences. “At first,” he said, “we didn’t have a lot of black players on the team, but that wasn’t so bad. The real problem stemmed from the fact that, I was part of, what may have been, the only black family living in Regina at the time. It was a tough job finding a place to rent. A lot of apartment owners didn’t want to let out a place to a black person.” I was sadly disappointed to hear about that sort of thing happening in my life-time in my home province to someone as popular and important as George Reed.

One of, if not the most popular Roughriders ever

I had been to a Sportsman’s Dinner in my hometown on an occasion before that, and Ron Lancaster – George Reed’s teammate for many years – was the Keynote Speaker. After the speaking part of the program was over, a few of us had the opportunity to chat with all of the guest celebrities. I had the privilege of being allowed into the Green Room to chat and rub shoulders with these special guests. I met Ron Lancaster and asked him a few questions, hoping to stimulate a story of some sort in the response. I asked him if playing football was a better paying job than teaching school (which he also did)? He laughed, and told me, “During the time I played football in Regina, both George (Reed) and I got paid so little that we were actually able to go and cash our Game Cheques at the confectionary store on Dewdney Avenue.”

We all wanted to be either George Reed or Ron Lancaster

Remembering this story from a few years earlier, and while discussing the more amazing things in life with George Reed at 30 thousand feet, I asked him if what Ron Lancaster had said about the paychecks was true. He replied, “Well, I don’t recall actually going to the store on Dewdney, and I know that Ronnie would never let the truth get in the way of a good story. If anything though, I would have been the only one who was able to cash my cheque, because Ronnie got paid a lot more than me – too much for that convenience store to handle.”

As the plane touched down in Calgary, I felt a wave of sadness in the fact that I would likely never have the chance to ‘bump’ into George Reed again in my life. But for that day at least, I was the lucky one. I got to spend one of my 700 000 hours on the planet, talking to one of my childhood heroes. So, I also felt great excitement – great excitement in the fact that I somehow had fallen luckily into that situation. I would now to boot, also have the best STAR story in my family or amongst my friends for the foreseeable future, possibly forever. We shook hands again as he got up, he being careful not to bump his head again. I told him it was great to meet him and he responded with, “Likewise, for sure.”

At this point in the recounting of my story I would like to pause for reflection on the fact that George Reed did, at one time, express at least some pleasure (perhaps only in that moment) in meeting and chatting with me.

He retrieved a bag from the overhead bin and made his way down the aisle toward the exit door. One or two passengers ahead of me, I kept him in sight for as long as possible until finally he was again gone from view, and indeed, out of my life – but not forever.

But alas, some of us could only be fans!!

Many years after the flight I took with George Reed, I attended a football game at Mosaic Stadium (originally named Taylor Field) in Regina. Prior to the game, as was my spending ritual, I bought a program. I then proceeded to find a sales person from whom I could purchase a 50/50 draw prize ticket. As I approached the salesperson, two other clients stopped at the same time. And who should those other clients be but – George Reed, and his wife. As we arrived at nearly the same time and because of the amazing gentleman he was /is, he insisted that I be allowed to buy my ticket ahead of him. But I thought that, being who he was, it would be luckier for me at least, if I purchased the tickets that were sold right after George Reed’s tickets. He laughed and wondered aloud, “Maybe I should get your phone number in case one of us wins and money needs to change hands or something.”

Again, let me pause here to reflect on the fact, that at least once in the unravelling of the universe, George Reed did in fact, and maybe only jokingly perhaps, but nevertheless suggest, that him and I should exchange telephone numbers. Whoa!!!

We never did exchange phone numbers though and, as far as I know, neither of us won the 50/50 draw that day. Neither did I bring up our previous encounter of the plane trip from Vancouver to Calgary. Maybe I should have - I don't know. Up to now, that was the last time I ever had a chance to talk with George Reed. Even so, I still look for him each time I’m in an airport waiting room, hoping that maybe our conversation from that plane ride could somehow be continued on another flight to somewhere.

Until we meet again - George Reed


About the Creator

John Oliver Smith

Baby, son, brother, child, student, collector, farmer, photographer, player, uncle, coach, husband, student, writer, teacher, father, science guy, fan, coach, grandfather, comedian, traveler, chef, story-teller, driver, regular guy!!

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