Roughriders legend George Reed, one of CFL’s greatest running backs, dies at 83

Saskatchewan Roughriders great George Reed addresses the crowd following the last ever game at Mosaic Stadium in Regina on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016. (Mark Taylor/CP)

George Reed, the rugged fullback who was one of the most dominant rushers in CFL history, has died.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, the team Reed spent his entire CFL career with, confirmed that Reed passed away Sunday, a day before his 84th birthday.

The six-foot, 205-pound Reed played with the Riders from 1963 until 1975. Upon retirement, Reed was the league’s all-time leader in rushing yards (16,116) and rushing TDs (134) when he stepped away from the game before training camp in 1976.

Reed’s No. 34 is one of only eight numbers ever retired by the Riders.

“It is remarkable that George played 13 years in the Canadian Football League, an eternity in professional football, particularly for a running back,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said in a statement. “It is notable that he played all 203 of his games for one team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, earning the CFL’s most outstanding player award in 1965.

​”​But what truly speaks to the greatness of George Reed is the hold he has continued to have on so many of us, long after he stopped playing the game he loved. It’s a hold on our hearts, which has endured year after year, decade after decade, and even generation after generation. It has had such tremendous staying power because it had far more to do with George Reed the person, than George Reed the football player.

​”​His humility, kindness and devotion to community — the generosity with which he always responded to both people and causes — drew so many of us to him over the years, including thousands born long after he stopped scoring touchdowns. We’ll always honour his place in Canadian football history. But George Reed’s place in our hearts is what we’ll continue to cherish.”

Mike Pringle (16,425 yards) has since surpassed Reed as the CFL’s career rushing leader but Reed remains second overall. Reed’s career rushing TD record still stands.

Reed led the CFL in rushing from 1965 through 1969 and again in 1974. In all, he ran for 1,000 or more yards 11 times over his brilliant CFL career.

“It was my dad’s immense honour to be part of the Saskatchewan community and to call it home for so many years,” Reed’s daughter, Georgette, said in a statement. “Sixty years ago, he received an offer to move to Regina to play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and in accepting that offer it changed our lives for the better.

“Playing for the Roughriders was one of my dad’s greatest joys and we will never forget the love he and our entire family received from the people here until the very end. I know my dad’s legacy will live on in the hearts of Rider Nation, as well as our own. We will all miss him so very much.”

Riders president/CEO Craig Reynolds called Reed “a giant in life.”

“George Reed was a giant in life, not only for the Roughriders, but in the Saskatchewan community and across the entire CFL,” Reynolds said. “His strength and tenacity on the field was matched only by his compassion and dedication off of it.

“George made our province and the CFL a better place and I know I speak on behalf of all of Rider Nation when I say we will miss him deeply. It was an honour to have him in our life.”

Added Jeremy O’Day, the Riders’ vice-president of football operations: “In George Reed, the Roughriders had a legend in its midst, a role model and an example of what it meant to be a true professional. To be able to spend time with George throughout my time in Saskatchewan was a blessing and provided me, as well as our staff, players and coaches a great source of inspiration. There will never be another Number 34.”

Reed, a native of Vicksburg, Miss., was named the CFL’s outstanding player in 1965 after rushing for a career-high 1,768 yards (6.5-yard average) with 12 TDs.

Reed was the MVP of the 1966 Grey Cup as Saskatchewan upset the Ottawa Rough Riders 16-6 for its first-ever CFL title, rushing for 133 yards and a touchdown. In 1976, Reed was named the inaugural winner of the Tom Pate Memorial Trophy for outstanding community service. 

The honour, presented by the CFL Players’ Association, was named after Pate, an American rookie linebacker with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who was critically injured during a game in 1975 against the Calgary Stampeders. Pate, 23, never regained consciousness and died three days later. 

In 1972 while still an active player, Reed became the fourth president of the CFL Players’ Association. It’s a position he’d hold until 1981, some six years after retiring. Reed was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

He was also enshrined into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, the State of Washington Hall of Fame in 1983, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Plaza of Honour in 1987.

Reed returned for a second stint atop the union (1986-93).

“Along with his impact on the field, George was one of the greatest people to ever grace this league with his presence,” the B.C. Lions tweeted. “His impact will not be forgotten.

“Our thoughts are with his daughter Georgette and their entire family.”

Reed played collegiately with the Washington State Cougars (1959-62), where he was teammates with receiver Hugh Campbell, a future Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee. The two would go on to play together in the CFL with Saskatchewan.

In 2006, Reed was ranked No. 2 in the CFL’s Top-50 players list in a poll conducted by TSN.

What’s more, Georgette Reed represented Canada at the 1992 Summer Olympics in the women’s shot put.

Reed was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1978, the country’s highest civilian honour. In 2012, Canada Post used Reed’s image in a series of commemorative postage stamps to pay tribute to the 100th Grey Cup game.

Reed’s image was also used on presentation posters and other materials to promote the contest and other celebrations associated with the centennial.

In 2017, the Roughriders erected a statue of Reed and teammate Ron Lancaster, the Riders’ longtime quarterback. In November 2019, a stretch of road along the north end of Mosaic Stadium — the Riders’ home field — was renamed “George Reed Way.” The stadium’s official address changed to 1734 George Reed Way.

Reed was also one of Special Olympics Canada’s first-ever celebrity ambassadors.

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