CFL Pass

Neal Hughes 'in disbelief' over joining Roughriders' Plaza of Honour

It wasn’t lip service when Neal Hughes repeatedly used the word “surreal” to describe his upcoming induction into the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Plaza of Honour.

Hughes seemed genuinely surprised and honoured by the news, which was delivered via telephone by Riders president/CEO Craig Reynolds.

“My first thought was: ‘You probably have the wrong number,’ ” Hughes said with a laugh.

It was still sinking in when he stepped up to the podium during a media conference at Mosaic Stadium on Friday. The purpose of the gathering was to announce that one of Regina’s own would receive the Riders’ highest honour alongside former quarterback Kerry Joseph.

“I think you guys have to do a re-count of the votes,” Hughes joked as he looked over at John Lipp, chairman of the selection committee.

But seriously …

“When you’re a kid, you hear of guys going into the Plaza of Honour like George Reed and Ron Lancaster. You hear those names and to be amongst them is really surreal for me. I still honestly can’t believe it.”

Growing up in Regina, Hughes always “dreamed” of someday wearing the Green and White. That dream came true in 2004 when he signed as an undrafted free agent after a standout career as a tailback and kick returner with the Regina Rams.

“If I was to look back on myself in high school and university, to be in the spot I am now, I don’t know if I could ever imagine that,” continued Hughes, 38, who was inducted into the University of Regina sports hall of fame in 2014 — one year before he retired from the CFL.

“When I played my first game, I remember it to a T. It was against the Toronto Argonauts. One of the (Canadian) running backs or fullbacks got hurt. I ran out on the field and I remember looking around and being like, ‘Holy crap! Is this really happening?’ I still have that feeling to this day. Is this really happening?”

It is indeed.

Hughes smiled as he reflected upon his long journey with the Riders, beginning as a kid when he attended games at old Mosaic Stadium.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of money growing up, but my dad got us season tickets for the ‘89 season,” he recalled. “It was pretty cool to be a part of that (championship) year, sitting up in section 205. We sat there for three years. Every time I’d come out of the tunnel (as a player), I’d look up to those seats where I used to sit when I was a kid. Those seats are no longer there but it’s still vivid in my memory.”

So are Hughes’ accomplishments over his 11-year CFL career. A star player in high school and university, Hughes settled into an unsung role with the Riders, who turned the versatile performer into a fullback.

He went on to play 140 regular-season games and is still ranked third in franchise history with 100 special-teams tackles. Not bad for a guy who was once told by former head coach Danny Barrett that his CFL career would likely be over before it started.

“My first meeting with Danny Barrett was pretty much him telling me: ‘This was the last time you’re ever going to put pads on; we’re just going to give you a chance to put the home-town uniform on and go out and participate in camp,” Hughes recalled. “I took that as motivation and did my best to try and make the team. I ended up getting cut that year but they brought me back on the practice roster. I just kept working and trying to outwork all the other guys that were in the same position that I was. Eventually all that hard work paid off.”

The Plaza of Honour inductees are selected using a variety of criteria, including length of service, on-field performance and community service.

Hughes never put up big numbers in his career but that doesn’t diminish his overall impact.

“If you look at the history of the Riders, one of the core ingredients year after year after year is our Canadian talent,” Lipp explained. “Often they’re not the most spectacular CFL all-star types but they’re very important for the team. Neal is a good example.”

Joseph played just three seasons with Saskatchewan, one of them in 2007 when he was named the league’s Most Outstanding Player and led the Riders to their first Grey Cup title since 1989.

Joseph fittingly retired as a Rider after spending one final season with the team in 2014.

“He didn’t play that long but had one spectacular year — one of the best years that any Rider has ever had,” Lipp said. “He has a league MVP, which very few Riders have ever done.”

Hughes didn’t win a league MVP award but he did help Saskatchewan reach four Grey Cups, winning two of them (2007 and 2013). The first came alongside Joseph, who made a lasting impression.

“It’s an unbelievable honour (to go into the Plaza), especially being put in with a guy like Kerry Joseph because he was such a class act,” Hughes said of his former teammate, who was unable to attend Friday’s announcement. “There’s not one person in our locker room that would ever question his leadership. He came to work every day, very professional, did everything right. Even off the field he did everything right and was very community oriented.

“He’s a special person.”

NOTE: The annual Plaza of Honour dinner and induction ceremony (Aug. 22) is slated to take place on the field at Mosaic Stadium for the first time. Tickets are available through the Riders.