[This is a new weekly feature - What’s going on with Nebraskans in the CFL? We should have a counterpart - Nebraskans in the NFL - but I need to find someone who will write that. - Jon]
WINNIPEG – The Canadian Football League will never match the lustre and shine of its colleague association south of the border, but the three-down league has for decades served as a viable option for football players who find themselves – for whatever reason – on the outskirts of an NFL roster.
It has been 59 years since an interprovincial rugby union and football union galvanized into a nationwide Canadian football organization called the Canadian Football League. By 1958, the early stages of the modern era of the CFL, the Grey Cup had already been handed out 45 times, with the First World War wiping out play in 1916-1919. That is all to say, Canadian football in some form has been going on a real long time, which may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the game in Canada and who, because of that, justifiably think of football has a wholly American institution.
American players have been cashing cheques north of the border for decades and, in those early days when college football and baseball had decidedly more pull in the U.S. than professional football, bigger cheques, too. That power shift has changed, of course, and the CFL has ebbed and flowed through numerous bouts of identity issues that even included a brief and shameful foray into American franchising in the 1990s.
There is a long history of star Americans coming to Canada and succeeding, and others who did not. Joe Theismann and Warren Moon famously got their starts here before going on to NFL heydays. Dexter Manley and Ricky Williams, to name a couple, came here when NFL opportunities were washing up.
In many cases, the blueprint ahead of time for an American player is to find a place to play and gather enough tape that the NFL eventually comes calling. It doesn’t always work out that way, but the alternative isn’t so bad: Make a decent paycheque playing the game you love in a country that proves very welcoming to imports.
One former Husker was among those who did the go-and-come-back routine with mixed results. In 1981, the Montreal Alouettes signed former Nebraska quarterback Vince Ferragamo to a $600,000 contract that would even be considered obscene by today’s standards. The top-flight quarterbacks in the CFL can get themselves a deal in the neighbourhood of $400,000. In 1981, Ferragamo’s deal was like Huell Babineaux’s bed-type money.
Year after year, the CFL always has at least a few Huskers playing for coloured money. Some, like Zac Taylor – who dressed for one game, the Grey Cup for Winnipeg in 2007 – didn’t stay long. Then there’s the case of former defensive back Barron Miles, who carved a life for he and his family in Canada, parlaying a long all-star career here into a career on the sidelines, currently as the defensive backs coach for the Edmonton Eskimos.
In 2017, there were more Huskers on CFL rosters to start training camp than in any year in recent memory. Whereas it was common to see three or four lining up in Canada in the past, this year eight former Huskers reported to camps around the country. Only one of them, Alfonzo Dennard, weren’t able to stick on a roster past the CFL’s two-game pre-season schedule.
All of this is to say, this weekly column will be a chance to give Husker fans a chance to keep tabs on some of their former favourites who have slid outside the spotlight of NFL opportunity but are nevertheless still doing their thing.
Currently in Canada, Ciante Evans is a starting cornerback for the Calgary Stampeders; Jermarcus Hardrick is the starting right tackle for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers; Brett Maher and Jonathan Rose are both regulars for the Ottawa Redblacks; while Josh Mitchell is on the six-game injured list for the Toronto Argonauts, and Eric Martin is on Toronto’s suspended list. Jason Ankrah was on Ottawa’s roster prior to being released on July 4.
Here’s our recap of last week’s action:
Winnipeg 41, Montreal 40
The Blue Bombers offensive line, with Jermarcus Hardrick at right tackle, paved the way for the Bombers to score three touchdowns on the ground. Although the Bombers only managed 80 yards on 18 carries, they were nevertheless able to pull out the wildest win of the 2017 season. Down 40-28 with 1:40 left, the Bombers drove the length of the field for a touchdown, recovered an onside kick and then drove for a rushing TD as time expired to pull out the win. Hardrick sealed the back side on the run play as running back Andrew Harris plunged in from two yards out.
Calgary 60, Hamilton 1
In the biggest blowout of the season, and for the past number of years for that matter, the Stampeders again showed why they’re among the best in the league. Last year’s Grey Cup runners-up, the Stampeders got three tackles from Ciante Evans and gave up their lone point via a Hamilton second-quarter punt through the endzone, one of the quirks of the CFL. Evans has carved out a reputation as one of the DBs in the league you simply don’t throw towards. Evans action has been limited because of that, but he has 18 tackles and one interception in six games, giving him a real chance at surpassing his 2016 totals of 42 tackles and two picks.
Bye week: Ottawa
The Redblacks are struggling, but kicker Brett Maher and corner Jonathan Rose are not the reason. In his fourth season in Canada, Maher is 12 of 15 on FG attempts and has a 46.6 yards per punt average, making him one of the top kickers in the league. Rose, meanwhile, has 24 tackles and is among the league leaders in pass breakups.
Canadians for Nebraska is a group of Husker fans in Canada not affiliated with the University of Nebraska. It can be found on Twitter @CdnsForNebraska.