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Thanks again, Troy

Winnipeg owes debt of gratitude for successful Banjo Bowl

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/9/2013 (1417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The date was Sept. 9, 2005, the day before the second annual Banjo Bowl, and Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Danny Barrett -- who absolutely loathed the "Banjo" handle right from Day 1 -- was making his pitch to the Winnipeg media to change the name of the game from Banjo Bowl to "Prairie Bowl."

"It's something that, when it was first brought up, was given the wrong moniker from the start," Barrett intoned. "Because one of these days (Troy) Westwood is going to be out of the game and what are you going to do then? Still give him credit for something?"

Troy Westwood poses with a banjo at Investors Group Field.

Troy Westwood poses with a banjo at Investors Group Field.

You've got pluck, former Bomber kicker Troy Westwood (shown in 2004).


You've got pluck, former Bomber kicker Troy Westwood (shown in 2004).


Barrett, of course, is long gone from the CFL these days. And Westwood has been retired since 2009. But the annual clash in Winnipeg between the Blue Bombers and Roughriders that Barrett believed would never outlast the former wisecracking Bombers placekicker not only lives on, it is thriving like never before.

Consider: Sunday's annual clash in Winnipeg between the Roughriders and Blue Bombers will be the 10th renewal of a multimillion-dollar revenue generator that began with nothing more than a three-word insult Westwood directed at Roughriders fans midway through the 2003 season -- "banjo-picking inbreds."

Since then, and with the lone exception of the very first Banjo Bowl in 2004, the last nine games -- including this year's -- have been a sellout, becoming Winnipeg's emphatic answer to Regina's annual Labour Day Classic against the Bombers the weekend before.

Indeed, the game has become so successful that even the people it lightheartedly mocks -- our friends with the questionable lineage to the West -- have long ago stopped fighting it and fully embraced Banjo Fever themselves.

And that includes Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who released a very funny 20-second video on YouTube Thursday.

The video opens with Wall in the Saskatchewan premier's office, playing a banjo and wearing a Roughriders jersey. Wall spins around, faces the camera and says, 'Oh, hi! I was just playing the banjo. You know, it's funny -- I practise a lot. It just turns out I'm not very good at it. Kind of like the Bombers -- and football."

Annnnnnnd, scene.

Not to be outdone, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger hit back hours later Friday with a tweet to Wall that served as a backhanded compliment by dredging up the infamous "13th man" on the field that cost Saskatchewan the 2009 Grey Cup:

"Well-done video," Selinger tweeted to Wall. "How many takes? I'm betting 12... or was it 13? #flagontheplay #GoBlue"

And so put it all together and you've got a game in the Banjo Bowl that annually fills a stadium, attracts the attention of even the highest offices in the land and gives the people of two provinces a chance to good-naturedly poke each other in the eye once a year.

And to think it's all because Troy Westwood just couldn't keep his mouth shut that one day in 2003. Or actually two days.

It's a historical quirk of this Banjo Bowl story that Westwood's original quip in which he uttered those now infamous three words -- "banjo-picking inbreds" -- didn't actually attract much attention initially. In the Free Press, for instance, it was a small item buried deep in the sports section the next day.

It was only later in that same 2003 season that the whole banjo thing took on a life of its own, when Westwood -- forever the troublemaker -- decided to try again in advance of a November playoff date with the Riders, this time summoning the media around his locker so he could issue a "statement."

"I had referred to the people of Saskatchewan as a bunch of banjo-picking inbreds," said Westwood as the media hovered. "I was wrong to make such a statement, and I'd like to apologize.

"The vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo."

Wade Miller, then a lowly special-teamer but now the Bombers' CEO, sat in the locker immediately adjacent to Westwood's that day, his mouth agape.

"I said, 'Just stop for a second,' " Miller recalled. "I said, 'Troy, do you understand what you're doing right now?' And he said, 'Yes, I understand what I'm doing, Wade.'

"So I said, 'OK, have at it.' "

The rest, of course, is history. Sensing immediately a hook to secure an annual box-office bonanza for Winnipeg akin to the one played in Regina on Labour Day every year, media mogul David Asper and Bombers CEO Lyle Bauer teamed up to pitch an annual "Banjo Bowl" to be played between Saskatchewan and the Bombers in Winnipeg every year a week after Labour Day.

The Riders, not surprisingly, hated the idea and only acquiesced after Asper added a charitable element to the game and hired a local polling firm to prove to the Riders their fears of a backlash from their fans were unfounded.

Asper was proven right when the result of the survey showed only one in 10 Saskatchewan adults said they would be personally offended by a "Banjo Bowl."

And so flash forward 10 years and the only lingering question in hindsight isn't whether a Banjo Bowl was a great idea, but rather that there was ever anyone who thought otherwise.

Prairie Bowl? Dolt.

And Westwood? Well, these days he's the co-host of a sports radio show on TSN 1290 and the very rarest kind of Bombers alumni -- a former player who continues to generate more money for his former team in retirement than he ever did by kicking footballs through the uprights.

"I'm still waiting for the team to erect my bronze statue," said Westwood with a laugh earlier this week. "It kind of warms my heart, for sure. It's pretty neat, and as each year goes by, it kind of makes my heart glow a little bit to know that in some small way I had a small part in helping to revive -- and maybe even keep safe -- that fierce rivalry we have with Saskatchewan."


Read more by Paul Wiecek.


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