Mitchell: The riders are really coming back on a cold, rough day in Griffiths

“The road to the Gray Cup started today.”

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They left the practice field on Friday, slight shivering, whistling, stiff fingers.

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“It’s cold. May. That’s not right,” Saskatchewan Roughriders wide receiver Duke Williams said with a laugh after the team’s first outdoor training camp session in 2022 — one that was preceded by a short-lived player strike that saw the camp open delayed.

Griffiths Stadium has been plunged into sub-zero wind chill – a welcoming moment to Saskatchewan for players who have never been here before – but the team will have to adjust if they want to play the Gray Cup at home in Regina later this year.

“I’m happy to be back with my brothers and starting the season off right. It started today,” Williams said. “The road to the Gray Cup started today.”

The past week has been one of intrigue and controversy. The players trained informally in groups, detached from the usual structures and frameworks. They’ve reached a tentative agreement that could result in a lasting peace, but the men in helmets have yet to formally vote on whether it’s a deal they want.

In the meantime, they were playing the game — back in the pro-football flow, running and cutting for coaches, trying to put down a good movie and doing enough to stick around long enough for the weather to get hot.

“It was nice,” Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson said after practice. “We want to do that. We don’t want to be in the meeting room or in the boardroom all the time. Coaches like to do that. Players like to do that. So it felt good to walk around out there and watch the guys compete and work hard.”

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It was a welcome little show for the fans watching from the stadium stands: Cody Fajardo hit Kian Schaffer-Baker with a sideline shot; Godfrey Onyeka plays a pass during a practice session; Routes and roars, tracks and line work, all the sights and sounds of a football team on the go.

Of course, there was a struggle early on – offensive lineman Na’Ty Rodgers traded punches with defensive lineman Garrett Marino before teammates stepped in.

“It’s a bit like a pecking order,” Dickenson said. “We’re trying to figure out who the alpha males are, and every one of them thinks he’s that guy. The only message I have for the team is that we can take a few emotional outbursts on the field, but we don’t want them to spread in the dressing room. We talk about respecting each other in such a way that it ends when it ends, which is on the field, and then when we go to the dressing room it’s over and we move on.”

That locker room is in Saskatoon for the next few weeks, assuming players vote to accept the proposed deal. Then those who make the cut will make the big step down to Regina for a full CFL season.

In the meantime, Griffiths Stadium is his home, Windchills and all.

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