Rashovich turns back the hands of time

January 5, 2018
By Rob Vanstone, Regina Leader-Post

Damaged digits are a lasting reminder of 16 years as a linebacker and special-teams ace in the Canadian Football League — an experience that, despite the various souvenirs of on-field combat, he will always treasure.

“I loved trying to be the best you could be,” the 57-year-old Rashovich, who spent his final 13 CFL seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, said in the living room of his south Regina home.

“I loved game day. There’s nothing like game day and going out on to the field and performing in the game you love and making plays in front of a crowd. It was a rush. It was almost an addictive thing that you want to do over and over again — to be able to do that in a game, and to be able to make plays.

“Sometimes those injuries were a small sacrifice to have that opportunity to go out there and do what you love.”

The list of injuries includes knee, shoulder and elbow problems, along with a broken fibula. The hands, however, are the most conspicuous indication of what he did for a living until shortly before his 38th birthday.

One by one, the fingers and thumbs help to tell his story.

Left thumb: Rashovich broke the thumb at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium during his second pre-season game with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1984, his rookie year. “I played with it broken for three games without anybody knowing. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I thought they might cut me. I didn’t realize it was broken. I just knew it hurt like crazy. I stuck it in a cold ice bucket every day for three weeks. I taped it up and practised. In the third week, the trainer saw what I was doing and he said, ‘Let’s take a look at you.’ He sent me for X-rays and it turned out that it was broken right through. I played pretty much the first six weeks of my rookie year (during the regular season) with a cast on the thumb. It’s no fun playing with a cast. It’s tough to tackle if you can’t grab anybody. And it kind of makes it tough to hitchhike.”

One look at Dan Rashovich’s hands reveals the rigours of 16 years spent in the Canadian Football League. TROY FLEECE / REGINA LEADER-POST

Left index finger: “It happened at BC Place. The years are merging, so I can’t remember the precise season. It was on the opening kickoff. I was running down the field and trying to get in on the tackle. My finger got caught between two guys’ cages and it basically snapped the tendon off the front. Ivan (Gutfriend, the Riders’ long-time athletic therapist) called it a hammer finger. I remember the misery of playing the whole game with a torn tendon on the tip of my finger. I remember thinking, ‘The first play of the game? Really?’ ”

Left middle finger: “The middle’s good.”

Left ring finger: “I’ve sprained it a lot of times. It’s hard to make up a story for every single finger (laughs). But something happened to it.”

Left wrist: “See that bump? I can’t move the wrist back anymore. Remember Pete Giftopoulos? He was a Rider draft pick who ended up playing in Hamilton. I was running down the field on the kickoff team and Giftopoulos reached back and horse-collared me. My feet went out from under me as he grabbed me from behind. I fell back on my hand and jammed my wrist on the turf. There were chips and torn ligaments and tendons. I didn’t miss any games because of it, but playing year after year compounded it.”

Left pinky: “It’s fine.”

Right pinky: The finger is permanently jagged. “My wife says I should cut it off. I have no feeling in it. None. After I had elbow surgery, I had no feeling from the inside of my right elbow down into the finger. It’s just gross-looking.”

Right ring finger: The finger is on perhaps a 10-degree angle. “I remember playing catch with Ray Elgaard in practice and I dislocated it. It just went ‘Pop!’ Ray could really throw the ball. He had a gun. That ball may have had a wobble — not a perfect spiral — which may have also been the reason my finger popped. No practice missed, though.”

Right middle finger: “It kind of curves. I don’t know why.”

Right index finger/wrist: “That would have been in Edmonton. I was running down the field on punt coverage. As I was wrapping up Gizmo Williams, my arm goes around his back. As I was doing that, I got torpedoed by (the helmet of teammate) Ray Bernard. That blew it up. I ended up seeing a plastic surgeon, Dr. Beveridge. He said that it was like someone got a hammer. Bang! It was pretty much in little pieces. There was nothing there. I had a shattered knuckle, and I also broke the wrist bone above it. I got to the sideline and said to Ivan, ‘Look at this.’ I just told him to wrap it up. I played the rest of the game. Dr. Beveridge ended up doing the surgery and put two pins in there, and I was out six weeks. I also lost half an inch off that finger.”

Right thumb: “I broke that here in Regina on a short-yardage play. We were playing the Sacramento Gold Miners. I came over the top and hit the running back and my thumb hit his helmet. Boom! I broke it in three places. I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Helmets are hard, eh? I asked Ivan to tape it up and I played the rest of the game. I remember going to the Plains hospital afterwards and the doctor said, ‘We’re going to put that back in place — manually.’ He started manipulating my hand and I felt pretty nauseous and lightheaded. After he set it, I asked to leave the room and found a janitors’ room around the corner. I bent over to try to compose myself and prevent myself from passing out. They ended up putting a cast on it … and then I played. That thumb does not open very far anymore, as well as the elbow not straightening.”

Having offered a digit-by-digit description, Rashovich sat back and managed a chuckle.

“It feels like I played 16 years,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my right knee, I’d feel really good in the morning.

“I had two scopes of my left knee, which feels great. My right knee was scoped three or four times.

“What else did I wreck?”

His left fibula — which was broken against the Calgary Stampeders.

“It was on a missed field goal,” he recounted. “The returner caught the ball in the end zone and broke free. He was running down the sideline in front of our bench. I was screaming across the field and I had him lined up. He was going full speed and I was going full speed, too, and there was big-time momentum when I hit the turf.

“I thought I had a charleyhorse. They didn’t even stop the game because it happened so close to our sideline. I ended up running up and down the sideline, testing it. It felt good when I was running straight but, when I tried to plant or cut, it hurt.

“I played the rest of the game. They did an X-ray afterwards and it showed that I’d broken it. I missed five weeks.”

Rashovich also injured a shoulder in 1999, during his final season.

The hands of former Saskatchewan Roughrider Dan Rashovich at his home in Regina. TROY FLEECE /REGINA LEADER-POST

“It was in Hamilton on a kickoff,” he said. “I got hit and tore my labrum and maybe a ligament, too. They reattached it after the season. I kept playing after the injury, wearing a harness.”

Rashovich’s enthusiasm was seldom harnessed during his career, but he eventually reached a point where there wasn’t any choice except to retire.

“I was just done,” he said. “My body was done. I had nothing left to give — not at the pro level.”

Taking all the injuries into consideration, what is the overall time lost due to injury?

Five weeks due to the broken fibula.

Five weeks because of the injured right index finger/wrist.

Another five weeks at the start of the championship season of 1989, due to a knee injury.

All those hits, all those games, and only three multi-game stints out of the lineup.

“You’re always playing with something,” he noted. “If you have an injury like this on my finger, it’s a little tendon on the tip of your finger, but it happens on the first play of the game. It’s not like you can just walk off the field and say, ‘I’m done.’

“If you were a pitcher in baseball, it would be different. In football, you play with injuries and you have to suck it up.”

Rashovich feels fortunate that, unlike some players from his era, he did not experience significant head trauma aside from “being knocked out cold once.”

Nonetheless, he is curious as to what effect, if any, an atypically long professional football career may have had on his brain.

“I’m part of the concussion study out of Toronto,” he said. “A bunch of other CFLers are part of it as well. I’ve gone back twice for the study. There’s a 2 ½-year break between each round. I think there’s a little short-term memory issue.

“After 16 years, there’s big collisions and there’s smaller collisions and there’s all kinds of collisions out there. There’s no doubt that I was the type of player who looked for the collisions. I enjoyed running into people. I really did. I think of guys I played with like Eddie Lowe and Dave Albright and Ron Goetz and we all liked to play that way.

“But I think I’m doing OK. I don’t have any headaches or any issues like that. We’ll see what happens. I feel pretty good right now.”

Rashovich feels very good when he conducts a tour of his basement, where the fondest memories of his football career are celebrated.

The walls are adorned by framed jerseys from the two Grey Cup games in which he played — those of 1989 (when Saskatchewan defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40) and 1997 (won 47-23 by the Toronto Argonauts).

Tucked away in one cabinet, there is a small jar containing the two pins that were used to stabilize his right index finger when it was surgically repaired.

“There was some of my knee cartilage in there at one point,” Rashovich said, chuckling. “I don’t know where it went.”

He doesn’t know where the time went, either.

The hands of former Saskatchewan Roughrider Dan Rashovich at his home in Regina. TROY FLEECE /REGINA LEADER-POST

To Rashovich, it seems like only yesterday when he was in Grade 11 at Runnymede Collegiate in Toronto.

The 1977 high school football season was half over when Rashovich, already a member of Runnymede’s wrestling and track teams, was urged to try out another sport.

“One of my high school buddies, Peter Lukic, kept bugging me to play football,” Rashovich recalled. “He said, ‘Danito, you must play football … for the girls.’ ”

Sold.

Rashovich quickly proved to be a natural at football. After Grade 13, he was one of two players from Runnymede who were invited to a camp for graduating high school prospects that was held by the Argonauts.

“I had to take a bus to the camp, because I didn’t have a car,” he said. “I got there late, so it wasn’t a good start.

“I was playing guard, but I played the offensive line like I was attacking. When the lights went on, that’s the way I played. After practice, all these university coaches started coming up to me. I was pretty excited.”

One of those coaches was former CFL defensive back Rod Woodward, who was then in charge of the football program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Woodward successfully recruited Rashovich to play at SFU.

After four years at Simon Fraser, Rashovich — by then a full-time linebacker — was selected by Ottawa in the second round (13th overall) of the 1984 CFL draft.

Rashovich spent one season in Ottawa before being traded to Calgary, which quickly dealt him to Toronto. He was with the Argonauts for two seasons before joining the Montreal Alouettes in an equalization draft that was held to bolster the weaker teams.

There wasn’t any saving the Alouettes, however, and they folded on the eve of the 1987 season. A dispersal draft was held.

Rashovich was claimed by the Roughriders and, at long last, there was stability. After belonging to four organizations in a span of three calendar years, he joined the Roughriders and became a mainstay in green and white.

“Every single game when I stepped out on the field, it meant something,” he said. “That was the time to go and showcase your abilities.

“I like the analogy (former Roughriders head coach) Don Matthews made to the team: ‘When you go out there, you want to imagine that game as your portrait as an artist. You want to be able to sign it and be proud of it.’ I still remember that very clearly. You don’t want to go out and embarrass yourself. You want people to respect how you played. I think that was a big motivation, too.”

In addition to excelling on special teams, Rashovich made an impact at linebacker. He was named a West Division all-star in 1990 after registering a career-high 80 tackles and adding three quarterback sacks.

The hands of former Saskatchewan Roughrider Dan Rashovich at his home in Regina. TROY FLEECE /REGINA LEADER-POST

His longevity was such that he produced a career-best six sacks in 1996, when he was 35. The following year, he made a key stop in a short-yardage situation to help Saskatchewan defeat Edmonton 31-30 in the West Division final.

Rashovich’s accomplishments were recognized in 2011, when he was inducted into the Roughriders’ Plaza of Honour.

An active member of the Roughriders’ alumni, he lives in Regina with his wife (Laura) and 13-year-old daughter (Olena).

Post-football, there are still regular road trips due to his responsibilities as a marketing representative with Baker Hughes, a General Electric company. There are frequent stops in Calgary, where his mother (Barbara) resides.

Barbara was visiting Dan and family in Regina when a Regina Leader-Post photographer and videographer dropped by the household and focused on the hands for illustrations that accompany this story.

“Usually, people get their hands done for beauty,” Barbara commented.

“These are beautiful hands,” a smiling Rashovich replied, “from the beautiful game.”

rvanstone@postmedia.com

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