An oral history of the Banjo Bowl

A few years after he had put his last kick through the uprights for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and before he had career-shifted into a sports radio host on TSN 1290, Troy Westwood received what was both a strange and unique request.

“I can’t remember which town it was now – I think it was Yorkton – but I got a call from someone there asking me to come to their town for their annual parade and sit on a float with six banjo players and wave to people.

“I was like, ‘Are you serious?!’ So I drove out there and they’ve got this fancy trailer with bales of straw everywhere and six dudes on them… I’m sitting there in my old jersey waving at people with these banjo players on the float like I was the queen or something.

“Ahhh, that was funny. It’s crazy stuff, man. Just crazy.”

How and why did the Blue Bombers all-time leading scorer – he’s also a member of the Winnipeg Football Club’s Hall of Fame – find himself on the back of a trailer somewhere in Saskatchewan surrounded by banjo players and waving to the masses?

This is the oral history of the Banjo Bowl and how the biggest event on the local football calendar and the most-unique game on the Canadian Football League schedule was born…

BACKGROUND:

The Bombers have been travelling west to Regina for an annual Labour Day showdown with the Saskatchewan Roughriders dating back to the late 1940s. This year would have marked the 56th time the two rivals would have met for the ‘Classic’ but, alas, the Coronavirus has led to the cancellation of the entire 2020 season.

Just prior to the 2003 Labour Day Classic and, as is tradition in both Winnipeg and Regina, beat writers, columnists, radio hosts and TV types quiz players from both teams about the annual matchup, poking and prodding for something that could fire up the masses.

Westwood, always willing to participate, referred to Roughrider fans as a ‘bunch of banjo-pickin’ inbreds.’

And we’re off…

WESTWOOD: I had that quote in my head for months before that. We were in B.C. for a game before the Labour Day. Bob Cameron and I are eating breakfast in Vancouver and I was reading the paper and one of the writers out there called us, the Blue Bombers, ‘banjo-picking inbreds.’ I thought it was funny and pointed it out to Bob and we laughed about it.

The way my head works, I just started thinking about it and when Labour Day came around, well, I was always trying to figure out ways to insult the fans of Saskatchewan. Remember, my mom’s family is there… my grandmother and my aunt were both diehard Rider fans and we always went there for a big turkey dinner before the Labour Day game. I would always bet a loonie with my grandmother for every Labour Day game.

My shots were directed precisely at those two – my aunt and my grandmother.  Sure, I was addressing all the Riders fans, but specifically it was for those two sets of ears.

Every year I’d beak off a little bit and when I called them banjo-pickin’ inbreds before the Labour Day game there was barely a blip and we moved on.

DOUG BROWN, defensive tackle 2011-2011: Well… maybe it happened in the years after that, but I remember Troy being a bit uneasy and nervous about what he said and the reception he might get in Saskatchewan. I think he got death threats or was legitimately concerned about his well-being going into that game.

BRENDAN TAMAN, GM, 1999-2008: For whatever reason, I flew to Regina that year for the Labour Day game. When I landed in Regina I turn on my cell phone and I have a voicemail from my boss, Mr. Bauer. He had read the quote and wanted me to talk to Mr. Westwood (laughs).

I won’t tell you the actual wording in this voicemail, because it wasn’t pretty. Lyle told me ‘to go buy a (deleted) newspaper and read it for your (deleted) self!’ I told whoever I was with when I got there, ‘Uh-oh… I gotta read a paper. It sounds like our kicker opened up his mouth…’

I called Lyle back and he was like, ‘Did you read it? Did you read it?’ And I said, ‘I’ll handle it.’ It’s like two hours before the game and it’s the kicker. I mean, am I supposed to go, ‘Hey Troy, can I speak with you for a minute?’ But what’s he going to do, apologize right before the game? You’ve got let it go and obviously I had to talk to him afterward.

That’s how I first became aware of the ‘banjo-pickin’ inbred’ quote. That’s not the most-ideal way to find out.

THE ‘APOLOGY’

Months later the two teams were to meet in the West Division Semi-Final in Winnipeg. It was Halloween – three days before the playoff game — when Westwood called a couple of reporters, including yours truly, over to his locker.

“I had referred to the people of Saskatchewan as a bunch of banjo-pickin’ inbreds,” began Westwood with a glint in his eye and while stifling a grin. “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.”

WESTWOOD: I don’t know how to explain it… it’s the winds that blow around in your mind and I came up with the quote. I thought it was really funny and I kept it to myself for a long time. And then as the weeks went on I had the quote and I ask Bob, ‘How funny is this? What do you think?’

He said, ‘DON’T EVER SAY THAT.’ That will be front-page news right across the country. Don’t say that.’ I said, ‘Bob… it’s too funny to keep to myself. I can’t not share this.’ Again, he says, ‘DON’T DO IT.’

There’s never been anything that Bob Cameron told me not to do that I didn’t listen to. It saved me and kept me out of a lot of trouble as a young player, for sure. But this time I didn’t listen to him.

I can remember calling everyone around in the locker room, the media, the day before the game. It was to have fun with the fans in Saskatchewan. I wasn’t trying to motivate the fans in Saskatchewan, that’s for sure. So, I gather everyone and make the statement and there’s a lot of laughter.

LYLE BAUER, Bombers President and CEO, 2000-09:  I actually loved the ‘apology.’ Football is a tough game and Troy was a professional. There was method to his madness and it created a great atmosphere and upped the rivalry.

WESTWOOD: I can remember the next morning it’s on the cover of The Sun and it’s being presented in a malicious way. I remember you writing ‘said Westwood, tongue firmly planted in cheek.’ But not everyone presented it that way.

I believe it was Brian Williams who was hosting the game on TSN then and he wouldn’t even mention it because he thought it was such an appalling statement. I’m like, ‘What?! What’s wrong with everybody? How can they possibly be taking this in a serious way?’

The Riders themselves… I can remember they’d sack us and then they’d be doing a banjo dance or something. It wasn’t intended for them. Looking back on it now, to say that before a playoff game, well, it was a funny time to do it. But I was just talking to all of the fans like I do before a Labour Day game.

BROWN: So much stuff comes in and out of locker rooms. It’s one thing if it’s directed toward a team or specific individuals. This was jawing or jousting with a fan base and that made it different.

I remember a few of us raising our eyebrows and saying, ‘Wow, this will make for an interesting reception for Westwood going forward.’ Nobody said to him, ‘Hey, man, why are you stoking the fire?’

A lot of time when you are playing there are words traded. It’s a game we’re playing and there are obviously a lot of people watching us play this sport. But every now and then something like what Troy said happens and you realize this is more than a game for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who have something invested in this. A lot of people took that REAL personally. That’s what surprised me.

I mean, what did Peyton Manning say back in the day about their ‘idiot kicker running his mouth off’? There’s a lot of personalities on a football team and Troy was one of the bigger ones with us. Guys say stuff all the time. But the reaction to this one is what caught everyone off guard.

WESTWOOD: No one said a word to me about it in our locker room. It was so not-intended for the Riders. I certainly didn’t think it would inspire the team, for Pete’s sake. I was just engaging the fans in Saskatchewan in my favourite rivalry of all time.

The weird thing is before the Labour Day game I called their fans a bunch of Banjo-pickin’ inbreds.’ Then my ‘apology’ came before the playoff game. And that’s what got me in all the trouble.

THE BANJO BOWL IDEA IS BORN

The Bombers had been working to develop their own ‘signature’ game to parallel the Riders and the Labour Day Classic. David Asper, the former Bombers Chair and a member of the club’s board of directors, had been looking at rivalry games in the NCAA like the ‘Little Brown Jug’, awarded annually to the winner of the Michigan-Minnesota game.

ASPER: It goes back to when I was chair and then Gene (Dunn) was chair and everyone was working to save the football team back then in the late 90s/early 2000s. We had that anomaly of ’01 where attendance and it was pretty good in ’02. But we were looking for ways to really build a sustainable event like they do in NCAA football.

I had been looking at NCAA rivalry games already. So, it dropped out of heaven when Troy shot his mouth off. I went straight to Lyle and Gene and said, ‘We got it. This is it. It’s got to be the Banjo Bowl.’

And then Troy doubled down with his ‘apology’ and I just exploded and said, ‘Absolutely this has got to be the Banjo Bowl now.’

BAUER: Great minds think alike. David and Gene were fully on board and Jerry (Maslowsky, the long-time Bombers marketing director) was ready to run with it.  We saw it as a great opportunity to create an annual game following the Labour Day game.

The Rider executive were extremely pissed and wanted the name changed of the game. I believe I told them if they wanted the name changed we would do it on the condition that Labour Day would alternate between Regina and Winnipeg. They wanted no part of that. They actually petitioned the CFL office to make us drop the name. The CFL did call and you already know my response.

WESTWOOD: It was either David or Jerry who approached me and it was like they wanted to help me; they were throwing me a life raft and spin it into a positive. The vision, the marketing of it… what a fantastic move that was to turn the amplified fires from the statement into something.

It had become such a sleepy rivalry with the Bombers bouncing back and forth from the West and East Divisions. Then to take that and bring it to the highest level and turning it into this… brilliant.

ASPER: It was important that we stressed it was for charity in support of the United Way and it would be an event game. We needed the league to guarantee the back-to-back games, the Labour Day Classic followed by the Banjo Bowl because our meetings with the Riders weren’t always back to back.

When we announced it some people in Saskatchewan and in the Riders leadership were really mad. They were super insulted. I was pretty confident the fans wouldn’t take it that way, but just to be sure I spent my own money and hired a research firm to do a poll in Saskatchewan. We didn’t want to be offensive. We didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

It was just riffing off a football player shooting his mouth off, building on the rivalry and having fun. Sure enough the results came back overwhelmingly that the fans got it, that it was just fun. Once we were satisfied about all that, we build the event around it.

Remember, we were still fighting for survival as an organization. And as a gate-driven league you’ve got to get bums in the seats and that was our focus.

THE GAME GROWS

This weekend would have marked the 17th edition of the Banjo Bowl, which has sold out 15 consecutive years after drawing 27,160 to Canad Inns Stadium in Year 1.

BAUER: The league was actually in favour of the concept, however things took a twist when the Rider governors raised a stink.  We did have some discussions and it was pitched as an opportunity to create an event, an annual tradition following the Labour Day game. They also knew we were doing it anyways, but I do believe to this day some of the Rider brass refuse to acknowledge the name of the game.

TAMAN: I’ve been on both sides of it now (he was the Riders Director of Football Administration in 2009-10 and then their GM until 2015). And I can tell you from a Riders perspective they don’t give the Banjo Bowl the time of day. They don’t like the term, they think the trophy is a joke… yadda, yadda, yadda.

I get that. But it has added so much hype to the back-to-back series. Part of the reason they hate it is because they don’t often win it. It’s like Winnipeg hating the Labour Day Classic – they never win there, either.

ASPER: I know we had people who were a little nervous about it. Their board was mad. A whole bunch of their people were mad. I’m not sure we won over all of them, still to this day. There are some who still believe it is inappropriate. But if you do anything in life there are just going to be some people who don’t agree with it. Our primary loyalty and objective in this was to our organization. Our secondary loyalty was to the integrity of the league and our partners and after we talked to their fans with that research it was a go.

It seems like now nobody really talks about it being offensive. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of faith in our fans. If you give them oxygen, they will make good things of it. The fans, both Rider and Bomber fans, have made Banjo Bowl what it is.

BROWN: Dave Ritchie used to always say, ‘Why can’t we have the Labour Day here in Winnipeg every other year? Why are we always going there for their biggest game of the year?’ There was an appetite to get a home-and-home series. I think David is a bit of a mad scientist when he saw the opportunity there.

The funniest thing is Troy had been in the league for so long he knew as well as anybody about the rivalry between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. He knew what buttons to press and how to strike a nerve. That was my second year in the league and you have to remember, our locker room – all football locker rooms – are made up from guys all over the U.S. and Canada. I have a better understanding of it now having lived here all these years, but I didn’t know about farming or combines or anything else. And so when he said ‘banjo-pickin’ inbreds’ a bunch of us in the locker room are thinking, ‘What? Where is this coming from?’

I credit Troy. He knew where he was going with that. Most of us when we heard the reaction were like, ‘What is going on here? It sure seems like he has struck a nerve here.’

I don’t know… to me the provinces are very similar with very passionate fan bases. That’s what makes this rivalry so heated and so special.

WESTWOOD: Sometimes people call me on air and compare being racist or misogynistic to that comment. Someone called last week and said something about all  the racial stuff going on and compared it to my statement about banjo-pickin’ inbreds. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me, man?’ I told the caller to go grab a brain.

What seemed to soften the blow when I was really catching heat for it was me saying, ‘Hey, my mom is from Saskatchewan. I’ve got all kinds of family in Saskatchewan. I spent a lot of time in Saskatchewan.’ I mean, give me a break. We’re the exact same people… same economy, same people, same jokes going back and forth. No one can take this seriously.

But never in a million years would I have thought that it would go like it did.

It would have been after I retired… soon after that I would get contacted by charity organizations in Saskatchewan that were having dinners asking me for a signed picture. There were a bunch of caricatures of my in the paper – me with a pot belly and long hair and stuff – three or four different versions and I had them printed and would sign them.

I would sign them, honestly, ‘Saskatchewan Sucks’ and then sign ‘Troy Westwood.’ They would raffle them off for like $400. It’s crazy. Again.. craziest. Thing. Ever.


EPILOGUE

WESTWOOD: The last couple of years there have been a couple of organizations from rural Manitoba who contacted me saying, ‘We want to give away a trip to the Banjo Bowl? Can you get us tickets?’ I’m like, ‘Heck yeah…’ But on both occasions I have not been able to get two tickets to the Banjo Bowl.

So… I don’t get a percentage of the gate revenue from that game? Fine. OK. No statue. OK.

BUT IS IT NOT POSSIBLE I COULD AT LEAST GET A COUPLE OF (bad word) TICKETS TO THE BANJO BOWL! (roars with laughter).

I call up and I’m like, ‘Wait… what do you mean I can’t get a couple of tickets to the (bad word) Banjo Bowl? Do you know how this whole thing started? (more laughter).

You know what… what I love is how the whole two week stretch is so beautiful – the week leading up to the Labour Day Classic, the week leading up to the Banjo Bowl. There’s already that crispness in the air. There’s wasps in the air… I’m so missing that right now, all that electricity with the Bombers and the meat of the CFL schedule really starting and those two signature games.

Every Prairie football fan, every football fan, is missing that right now. I hope we can get back to it in 2021.

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