By Scott Cruickshank, Calgary Stampede
Imagine this kind of timing. You’re a teenaged outrider making your debut at the Calgary Stampede. Thrilling enough already. Now picture yourself wrapping up the week by riding for a legendary driver, who happens to be your grandfather, who happens to be racing for the very last time after 50 years in the wagon box.
“That was a real special thing for me,” says Eddie Melville, who, memorably, did the honours for Orville Strandquist in 1991. “Grandpa thought I was a little bit young to ride for him all week … he was unsure about his outriding horses, but he put me on for the last night. I always wanted to outride for my grandpa. I got the chance and it’s something I’ll always cherish.
“I wasn’t there for his first one, but I was there for the last one.” Now someone gets to return the favour.
One driver and one outrider will have the privilege of accompanying Melville during his last race. Because, after his week’s work, the Calgary native is done. He will never outride again.
“Yeah, I’m going to shut ’er down,” says Melville, 45 years old and a steady-handed presence in the chuckwagon world. “It’s out there. Most people have heard it. “My plan is to retire here on Sunday night.” Which means hanging up his gear, including that distinctive headwear – a helmet adorned with the trademark card suits.
“That was my grandpa’s wagon box – heart, club, diamond, spade,” says Melville. “It was kind of the family colours. They mean the world to me. They’re our coat of arms. I wear them with a lot of pride.” He’s got reason to be proud. This is his 26th appearance at the GMC Rangeland Derby, a remarkable achievement.
Moreso when recent luck is considered. Badly breaking his right femur in a post-race mishap in August 2015 – a “hot and bothered” young horse he was riding back to the barns spooked and fell over backwards – Melville missed the entire 2016 campaign. Twice, the leg needed to be re-broken and re-set by doctors. Nevertheless, Melville was determined to return to racing, but admittedly unsure of the likelihood.
“There was a good chance (of not coming back),” he says. “It was humbling for me, going through the recovery. I never got too down about it because I know there are so many other people that have real serious things in life. It was going to be tough to get back out outriding, but it wasn’t (anything) compared to what some other folks go through. That’s the attitude I took.
“But I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I wasn’t sure if I could physically get back – if I could get that leg strong enough.”
Additionally, friends and family – pointing to decades of accomplishments, including four Stampede championships (Luke Tournier, 2005, 2007; Chad Harden, 2009; Troy Dorchester, 2012) – were advising against racing.
“They said, ‘Really, what do you have to prove?’ ” he says. “I don’t look at it like I have anything to prove. If I didn’t ride again, I’ve had a good career. I’m happy with it. I had the best seat in the house – a lot of history unfolded right in front of me. I was lucky and privileged that way.
“What really bothered me was the way it looked like I was going out. When I was laying there (in recovery), my motivation to get healthy and get back was to do it one more time and go out on my own terms if I could.”
So Melville travelled up to Grande Prairie, Alta., for the season-opener of the World Professional Chuckwagon Association calendar. Game but still not convinced of his readiness, he was nervous and apprehensive. (“Like you’re a rookie again.”) However, he had believers. Veteran driver Roger Moore walked over and, in no uncertain terms, kicked the comeback into motion.
“He said, ‘You’re riding tomorrow night,’ ” says Melville. “I said, ‘Man, I haven’t even been on a horse.’ And he said, ‘You’ll be fine.’ So I rode the second night at Grande Prairie and I’ve been riding ever since. It was nice for Roger to show that kind of faith in me.
“It felt good to get back. I didn’t know if I could ever get there. It’s a long road. But we made it back and I’m happy to be back.”
Asked to summarize a quarter century’s worth of injuries – one shoulder separation, a few concussions, hundreds of bumps and bruises – Melville concludes that he’s actually been fortunate. Before the 2016 season, he hadn’t missed many shows.
“I mean, it’s not a very safe place to be,” Melville says. “You’ve got to be able to handle that. There’s wagons coming at you, there’s horses coming at you. You’re going to get hurt at some point. It’s just a given.
“But it’s a life that we love and it’s a life that we choose. I haven’t lost my passion for the sport. I’m just too old to keep doing it.”
About the Calgary Stampede
The Calgary Stampede celebrates the people, the animals, the land, the traditions and the values that make up the unique spirit of the west. The Calgary Stampede contributes to the quality of life in Calgary and southern Alberta through our world-renowned 10-day Stampede, year-round facilities, western events and several youth and agriculture programs. Exemplifying the theme We’re Greatest Together; we are a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that preserves and promotes western heritage and values. All revenue is reinvested into Calgary Stampede programs and facilities.