Given the overwhelming success of U.S. cable-sports network ESPN's innovative 30 for 30 series, it was only a matter of time until its Canadian cousin, TSN, took an aggressive run at producing its own collection of offbeat sports documentaries.
And if the first couple of instalments in the new Grey Cup-inspired series Engraved On a Nation are any indication, TSN really has -- to employ an entirely inappropriate wrong-sport metaphor -- knocked it out of the park.
Like 30 for 30, which was produced a couple of years back as a celebration of ESPN's 30th anniversary, this new north-of-the-border series is intended to commemorate a sports milestone -- in this case, the 100th Grey Cup game, which will be played in Toronto next month.
Engraved On a Nation is comprised of eight films, covering a wide variety of topics and more than 70 years of CFL history. Like the 30 for 30 experiment, the emphasis here seems to be on unearthing fascinating, lesser-known stories rather than revisiting the more obvious and oft-told ones.
The series kicks off on Thanksgiving Monday (6:30 p.m., after the Riders-Argos tilt) with The 13th Man, an affectionate examination of Saskatchewan's enduring love for its CFL team and an in-depth dissection of the too-many-men penalty that robbed the Riders of a Grey Cup win in 2009 and tested the resolve of the team's faithful fans.
Produced by Winnipeg-based Frantic Films and directed by Larry Weinstein, The 13th Man -- which, in this context, refers to both the rabid fans' symbolic role in Rider victories and the extra player whose presence gave the Montreal Alouettes a second try at a game-winning field goal -- is so well presented that even a hard-core Blue Bomber fan would have to admit it's a great hour of TV.
In describing the province's all-encompassing infatuation for the Riders, journalist Eric Anderson offers this:
"It sounds so bad, but it's all we have. It sounds so pathetic, because ... maybe we should have other things. Maybe we should have an NHL team, or maybe we should have other stuff. We have potash, but you can't get behind potash. So we get behind the Riders -- everybody in this province."
And by everybody, he really does mean everybody -- from supermarket manager Brent Kaminski, who explains that his dutiful staff will help Rider fans pick just the right watermelon to turn into a game-day helmet, to a Regina nun named Sister Rosetta, who has a greenish-hued interpretation of God's divine plan.
"I think God really loves the Riders," she says. "Now, we know that God loves everybody, so he loves every team. But God does have a green and white Rider shirt on."
It's a charming film that becomes wrenching when the focus turns to the 2009 Grey Cup, which reduced grown men -- in the stands, and in the Riders' locker room -- to tears.
The second film in the Engraved On a Nation series, which airs Friday (approx. 9:30 p.m., after the B.C.-Hamilton game), is Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story. It's a much more serious offering than the Rider-fan fest, but is equally worth watching.
Stone Thrower profiles former CFL quarterback Ealey, who arrived in Canada in 1972 after having achieved the near-impossible by assembling an undefeated record (53-0) as a starting QB in high school and college. Despite having been the best at his position, he was passed over in the NFL draft because that league's owners and coaches were still some years away from accepting the notion that an African-American could play quarterback at the professional level.
The film (whose title refers to the fact Ealey, as a youngster, used to practise his passing accuracy by tossing rocks at moving trains) actually focuses mostly on his difficult upbringing and high-school/college career; only his cup-winning rookie season with Hamilton is mentioned, and the rest of his CFL career (including two seasons in Winnipeg) is ignored.
But given the story that led him to Canada, it isn't an unfair omission. Stone Thrower is an inspiring film that will leave gridiron-inclined viewers anxious to see what the rest of Engraved On a Nation has to offer.
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Engraved On a Nation
The 13th Man -- Monday at 6:30 p.m.
Stone Thrower: The Chuck Ealey Story -- Friday at 9:30 p.m.
4 stars out of 5