To celebrate the 100th Grey Cup, TSN presents ‘Engraved on a Nation,’ a series of documentaries highlighting eight indelible moments in the history of the CFL’s ultimate prize. TSN.ca producer Shane McNeil presents a feature story on how each of these stories was brought to the screen.
Originally published on TSN.ca – October 8, 2012.
It’s still a topic that no one in Saskatchewan wants to talk about.
The 2009 Grey Cup ended in the most painful way imaginable for one of the CFL’s most rabid fan-bases and the wounds are still too fresh, too deep.
Yet in filming The 13th Man, a documentary that explores how a too many men on the field penalty cost the Saskatchewan Roughriders a Grey Cup victory, revisiting the nightmare was a task filmmaker Larry Weinstein had to undertake.
“When I was in Saskatchewan and I would tell people I was doing this thing called The 13th Man and they knew very well what that is – in both senses – and it was a painful thing, people would cringe and go: ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you bringing up this terrible story?'” said Weinstein, an Academy Award-nominated documentarian.
The memories were too vivid.
With zeroes on the clock, Damon Duval’s 43-yard field goal attempt sailed wide and right and a euphoric Roughriders team flooded the field, jubilant in bringing just the fourth championship to the province’s only professional sports franchise.
But another ending was yet to be scripted and after a penalty was called against Saskatchewan for having 13 players on the field, Duval was afforded a second chance and nailed the kick.
A 13th Man.
The very same terminology lovingly bestowed upon Rider Nation for the tangible energy the fans provide the players on the field.
“This idea of the 13th Man in Saskatchewan is a very powerful thing,” Weinstein said of the almost religious devotion to the Riders in Saskatchewan. “I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered this in other [subjects] that I’ve observed in my life as a documentary filmmaker.”
But to have the very emblem of team pride turned against you in a painful defeat?
“I think the irony of the term is almost too powerful for people to have been able to cope with.”
But out of the ashes of a heartbreaking loss, hope would once again eventually emerge.
After initial outrage and a hunt for someone to blame over such a poorly timed mistake, Rider Nation rediscovered its pride.
“It was a wonderful response, a very dignified response by the fan-base en masse to a situation that no one could have imagined,” Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone said of the ideological turn in Weinstein’s documentary. “It [became] almost like a badge of honour where fans would walk around with their chests puffed out saying ‘I’m the 13th Man!'”
The league’s smallest market found a way – as it always seems to do – to regroup and believe in its great hope once again.
That turnaround – the province of Saskatchewan’s ability to forget about tremendous pain and show unwavering support – is what Weinstein believes makes a misfortune like the 2009 Grey Cup resonate as a timelessly Canadian story.
“Canada identifies with that team, that whole idea of adversity and the whole idea of community,” said Weinstein. “It isn’t a game of ego. It’s a game of team and togetherness. We win as a team, we lose as a team.”
“It’s always just been about the love of the sport and the pure meaning of that sport.”
The story of The 13th Man, to Weinstein, is a romantic vision of how Canadians see themselves. More than being simply a “love letter” between the Riders and their fans, the story of picking themselves up and rekindling their Rider Pride is the ultimate come-from-behind victory.
“We love the team because it’s the underdog,” he said. “Canadians always think of themselves as the underdogs.”
The wounds will heal over time, but what the spirit of The 13th Man has proven is that the wounds have strengthened the resolve of Rider Nation.
“I interviewed people – men, especially – and talking about the game they would start to cry,” Weinstein said. “They would break down and lose their composure and I would think: ‘This is just a football game!’…but it’s so powerfully beyond that.”
More than being just a game, the 98th Grey Cup proved that the people of Saskatchewan and Rider fans across Canada are a fierce and devoted bunch… and they’re not about to let one loss change any of that.