From the first words out of Jay Onrait’s mouth, the capacity crowd knew he was in top form.
The TSN anchor joined Saskatchewan Roughriders great Don Narcisse and current Rider Brendon LaBatte in entertaining the audience at the fundraising dinner hosted by Penta Completions Estevan Minor Football and the ECS Elecs on Saturday.
The dinner was emceed by Regina radio personality Michael Ball.
Although the total fundraising tally was not available at press time, EMF president Steve McLellan called it the biggest crowd at any event the groups had ever hosted.
“When you look back at how far we’ve come, to be able to have the company that we have up here on stage is really remarkable,” he said.
Onrait’s appearance began with a video message from SportsCentre partner Dan O’Toole, who lamented that he had not also been invited to Estevan.
Onrait then read aloud a text message he had sent to O’Toole: “Dear Dan, my Estevan football jersey just sold for $3,100. Yours sold for $1,200. In your defence, I baited the crowd and told them they had to outbid yours. Thoughts?”
He then read O’Toole’s response: “Dear Estevan, I can’t wait to bring my family to visit … Weyburn.”
In his return to the Energy City following last August’s Kraft Celebration Tour, Onrait regaled the crowd with various stories, including references to Estevan residents and establishments.
“I actually thought after the condition we left the Tap in this past summer that no one from TSN would be allowed back in this town again, so I’m very grateful I was invited back,” he joked.
Another story was the tale of Onrait getting his rental car stuck in Regina on his way to the airport after speaking at the Rams’ fundraising dinner recently.
“It’s 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning. In the middle of a residential street in Regina. No one around to help me push. For a moment, I thought I was going to die that day,” Onrait deadpanned.
But it wasn’t all jokes, as the veteran SportsCentre funnyman praised the people involved with Estevan’s football programs for the work they have done to get to this point.
In an interview with the Mercury, Onrait said the clean-up effort that he and O’Toole took part in at the Dana Quewezance Memorial Field during the Kraft Tour stayed with him.
“I was so impressed with coach (Marco) Ricci and everybody around the program last year. When we went out to the field and helped clean up a little bit and some of the younger players helped clean up with us, I was really impressed with that.
“To come back and hopefully raise a lot more money for the teams, and hopefully get everybody closer to getting that field rebuilt, it’s a pleasure to be here.”
He said he is optimistic about the sport’s future in the city, particularly after witnessing the way the community supported Saturday’s event.
“Your continued support of Estevan football, both financially and by your attendance at games and at events like this one, help to ensure that the program has the funds necessary to continue to grow and be successful. We are just getting started with football in this town.“
Narcisse, considered one of the greatest receivers in CFL history, spoke about his experiences in adjusting to life in Saskatchewan and passed on some advice for Estevan players wanting to take their career to the next level.
Narcisse told the Mercury that he tries to encourage young players to work toward their dreams, partly through his football camps.
“One thing I try to do is get the kids off the sideline and get them into the game, because it’s always about a dream,” said Narcisse. “Just like LaBatte. His dream was always to be a Saskatchewan Roughrider football player and his dream did come true. This is what it’s all about, giving back and fulfilling the kids’ dreams.”
Narcisse called up a player from the Miners, Chargers and Elecs during his presentation to pass on some personal advice. He also had some for the other players in the crowd.
“The one thing I like to say is hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. I was one of those guys who didn’t have the talent, but I worked hard. I beat everybody because I worked hard. You have to have the intangibles, you have to have a great attitude, you have to be on time, you gotta stay positive. With those ingredients you can go a long way.”
LaBatte, a Weyburn product, said football has given him a lot and he wants to pass that on by helping organizations at the grassroots level.
“Football is my livelihood right now, it’s how I make my living and it’s offered me a tremendous amount of opportunity that I never thought I would ever have. If you would have asked me in high school if I would ever be in Estevan to speak at a function, I would have told you you were nuts,” LaBatte said.
He added that he’s excited to be with the Riders after spending four years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“I’m just happy to be back and to represent a team that means so much to the people of the province. After being an outsider and seeing it from a different point of view, there’s definitely something special going on here in Saskatchewan.”