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Former North Dakota State wide receiver Ryan Smith now plays with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. Smith, who hails from Wahpeton, N.D., was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last week during a game against the Blue Bombers. Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

Wahpeton’s Smith, now in CFL, achieving his goal of playing professional football

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Winnipeg, Manitoba - The door to the Saskatchewan Roughriders visitors’ locker room was deep inside an Investors Group Field hallway and it was still hard to hear Ryan Smith talk over the stadium music. The new $210 million Winnipeg Blue Bombers football facility was showing off its dynamic sound system, turning it into the biggest dance club in Canada.

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Problem for the home team was the people who felt like doing the most post-game groovin’ were wearing green and white after they took a dramatic come-from-behind road win. Those are the colors of choice now for Smith, who for the last four years burned opponents wearing the green and yellow of North Dakota State.

He’s a professional now, where they pay you to play the game. That’s just icing on the cake for Smith.

“I’m just playing football, that’s all I wanted to do coming out of college was just to play a little more football,” he said. “It’s different. You just focus completely on football. You have to be professional about everything. You have to handle yourself in a professional manner, prepare yourself well and be ready to play every week.”

He did that in college, too, but there’s something about being in a different country, a different league in the CFL and a long way from home. At NDSU, his hometown of Wahpeton, N.D., was just 45 minutes away.

Several friends and family from Wahpeton and NDSU made the trip to Winnipeg – the closest the Roughriders get to eastern North Dakota. It was a sellout crowd of 33,234 at Investors Group Field, a dynamic new stadium on the University of Manitoba campus just off of Pembina Highway as you drive into Winnipeg.

It was loud, at times having the feel of a packed Fargodome when somebody other than NDSU has the ball. Smith never had to deal with that problem in Fargo, but he did Thursday in Winnipeg.

“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty loud,” he said.

The temperature was perfect and there was a festive atmosphere when Smith and his Roughriders took the field to a chorus of boos. These teams are rivals, adjacent provinces that both touch the northern border of North Dakota.

Regina, where Smith calls home sharing an apartment with Roughrider receivers Brett Swain and Chaz Schilens (both from San Diego State), is the epicenter of Saskatchewan with a population of 230,000. It’s a real job with real hours in the real world of professional sports – a lifestyle that has forced Smith to take his maturity to another level.

“Getting thrown up in another country by yourself without anybody you really know, you grow up pretty fast,” said Randy Smith, Ryan’s father. “He’s adapted and adjusted pretty well. Yeah, he’s grown up a lot since the championship game last year.”

That was the FCS national title win over Towson (Md.) in Frisco, Texas, last January. It was the final game in a career that saw Smith go from a little-used running back as a freshman to a wide receiver who was a focal point of the offense.

If you thought the Fargodome got noisy during FCS playoff games, Mosaic Stadium in Regina has its place in Canadian sports.

It was voted by Canada sports fans as the second-best venue to watch a sporting event behind the Bell Centre of the Montreal Canadiens. That puts it ahead of six other NHL teams, the Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

“It’s the Fenway Park of the CFL,” said Rod Pedersen, the play-by-play announcer for the Roughriders for the last 16 years.

Pedersen was the first to make a comparison between Smith and former Saskatchewan and University of North Dakota star Weston Dressler at the team’s mini-camp in Bradenton, Fla. He said they even sound alike in radio interviews and show the same similar toughness despite standing about 5-foot-7.

“In the first week of practice, he laid out for a pass in practice, cut himself and got five stitches over the eye,” Pedersen said of Smith. “He got it bandaged up and was right back out there later in practice. Most guys aren’t going to do that. Weston would do the same thing.”

Against Winnipeg, Smith was targeted only twice despite playing approximately half the plays. He caught one ball in the third quarter, the first time quarterback Darian Durant threw to him, but it was called back by a penalty. That was a common theme for the Roughriders, who were not sharp on offense all night.

Saskatchewan was on the last day of a nine-day road trip and the offense played like it was tired. Yet, back-to-back Blue Bomber fumbles, one returned for a touchdown, helped the Roughriders overcome their mistakes to take a 23-17 victory. Afterward, Smith said he could have cared less he didn’t see many passes.

“We got the win, that’s all you care for,” he said.

The game as a whole has been a learning experience for the entire family. Smith is adapting to rules like all backfield players being allowed to go in motion up field before the snap and end zones that are 20 yards deep.

“At first it was pretty different,” he said, “but I’m getting used to it. Week by week, I’m getting more acclimated to the game.”

Smith most often lined up eight to 12 yards deep, on a couple of occasions 15 yards back, and sprinted up field before the ball was hiked. The Roughrider rookie can study the different rules all he wants, but it will still take experience to fully figure them out.

“I’ve been calling games for 16 years and every couple of games I see something I’ve never seen before,” Pedersen said. “It’s all based on rules.”

Against Ottawa the previous week, for instance, Ottawa had an onside player sprint downfield on a punt and recover it in the end zone for a touchdown – the first time it happened in the CFL since 1999.

“The Americans are like, ‘what?’” Pedersen said. “How do you prepare for that? It’s only happened like three times in CFL football. It’s very difficult not only for Americans but Canadians, too. However, for a guy like Ryan, he’s going to love it because there is more room for him to get open out there. It’s their playground.”

It’s a playground he’s happy to be a part of.

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Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.
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