Encountering a Saskatchewan slotback

It was on a golf course in the California desert. Somewhere on the front nine, our twosome was caught from behind by a single, who asked if he could join us. Of course we said yes, seconds before I realized the single was Ray Elgaard.

His 14-year career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders was over by then, but to anybody following Canadian football he was unforgettable. Elgaard was a slotback, dependable and tough, often leaving behind tacklers strewn like boiled noodles.

He caught most every pass thrown his way and, when he retired in 1996, no player had a career with more than his 13,198 receiving yards. A quarter century later, even though he never led the CFL in receiving yards for a season, he’s still number eight. Elgaard also never once led the league in catches, but he’s ninth all-time. The same goes for touchdown receptions…never number one in a season, but tenth in history.

He was a slotback because he wasn’t speedy enough to be a wide receiver, and because the slotback resume meant catching like a wide receiver, carrying the ball like a running back and blocking like lineman. There were some great slotbacks of that style (versatile and tough but not fast) before Elgaard arrived — Ottawa’s Tony Gabriel, Montreal’s Peter Dalla Riva, Hamilton’s Rocky DiPietro — and not many after he retired (Calgary’s Nik Lewis is one exception).

It gradually morphed into more of a skill position and today’s receiving corps is often six speedsters vacating the line of scrimmage at top speed. Receivers like Elgaard are unlikely to be seen again. That he ever was seen…was also unlikely.

A juvenile football coach in Vancouver said he could get Elgaard into a small college in California, where an assistant coach whispered into the ear of an offensive co-ordinator from Utah, the college team that recruited him after watching Elgaard play rugby, which he did in his spare time.

That just doesn’t happen in a sports analytics world. Or, as Elgaard once said: “The moons aligned and certain people showed up here and there.”

Saskatchewan drafted him, and he spent his career in Regina. He was revered, a hall-of-fame receiver on the field and a financial planner off it…and a golfer.

That day we met in southern California, we were both homeowners in the same gated community. Our casual introduction on the front nine led to another round of golf or two and, yes, he pounded golf balls like they were 98-pound defensive backs. But he had a gentle touch around the greens, where he introduced me to an ambidextrous chipper that was perfect for right-handed or left-handed golfers — or right-handed golfers forced to play left-handed to chip the ball out of trouble. That would be me so I bought one, of course, and still have it today.

Elgaard was affable and outgoing, and friendly to the point where one “19th hole” turned into a barbecue at his condo. He also invited our mild-mannered pet, a corgi. Unfortunately, Ray hadn’t run the invitation by his own dog, who was determined to make the visit miserable for another four-legged intruder.

Just what you’d expect from the dog of a tough old slotback.