Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Modern Day Throwback League

As we approach the Grey Cup, I pay homage to my favorite league here at CFL America with the launch this week of CFL Films and CFL TV. As an American I know that the CFL is a league that for all of its existence has lived in the shadow of the American behemoth known as the National Football League.  Though much smaller in stature, it has existed with the NFL on the same continent for well over 100 years, and as it has a large number of Americans, is the only truly international football league on the planet.  The league has survived wars, depression, expansions, contractions, territory incursions, bankruptcies, and scandals.  In essence, it has survived all those things that killed rival leagues in the United States, the main reason being is that it has never really attempted to compete against the football giant in the south.

The following article appeared several years ago during the summer of 2014 at the Monday Morning Quarterback when Peter King and his crew traveled to the Great White North to discover the hidden gem that is the CFL and Canadian football.  What they discovered was a league rich in tradition , but not so unfamiliar to those of us in the south, but still very much "Radically Canadian."  To me, the CFL is a modern day throwback that reminds me of what the old American Football League must have looked and felt like as it struggled to gain credibility. The difference however being is that in Canada, the sport must compete against not just against the NFL, but also the National Hockey League (NHL) for the attention and affection from fans. 

For some people, all they know about the Canadian Football League comes from the time Homer Simpson watched the CFL draft, and the announcers say the Saskatchewan Roughriders scored only four rouges all last season. The show was missing the Ottawa Rough Riders, and how two teams with the same basic name were in the same eight-or-nine team league for 35 years. Oh, and one of them once drafted a dead man. If that was in there, joke-wise, you’d pretty much be covered.

CFL jokes tend to be about how this is a small-time, oddball league, and most of them are therefore true. There are Canadians who hate the league because it’s small: because it has often teetered on the edge of dissolution, because it features 18-game regular seasons with eight or nine teams, because Canadians have to play. A lot of people dismiss it, essentially, because it’s not the NFL.

And that’s one reason to love it, actually. The Canadian Football League is, at its heart, a small town. It’s been around forever, through all sorts of weather, and everybody knows everybody. It’s part of the charm. In Hamilton, the same mom and son, Barb and Steve, have been bringing fresh-baked cookies to practice since 1980 or so. They’re like family.

There are reasons for this. The CFL’s minimum salary just rose to $50,000, and not many players stray too far into six figures. The line between fans and players has never been much of a line, if only because their respective take-home (quarterbacks excepted) aren’t very different at all.

So Saskatchewan running back Kory Sheets, the MVP of the 2013 Grey Cup, still worked as a truck driver’s assistant in the oil fields last winter, along with two other members of the team. The guy who beat out Sheets for the league’s Most Outstanding Player award, Calgary running back Jon Cornish, was named Canada’s top athlete in December. He did his conference call while on break from his day job as an investment consultant at a bank, in a shopping mall.

The silos of bigger pro sports don’t really exist here, and the result is a league where fans and players can actually live in the same world. Milt Stegall was already the league’s all-time leader in touchdowns when his wife became pregnant with his second child, and he needed a bigger place to live. It was his final season after a stellar career as a wide receiver in Winnipeg, and a local businessman named Ernie Epp offered his basement.

Stegall was skeptical, but he checked it out. The basement was about 2,000 square feet, with a kitchen and a bathroom, and the whole family moved in, rent-free. Epp’s wife watched the kid on game days, and Stegall—a Cincinnati native who played collegiately at Miami (Ohio)—still calls them the Canadian grandparents. Ask Stegall what he misses most about the game, and he pauses. He says it’s the people who watch.

“We need them more than they need us,” says Stegall, who played parts of three seasons with the Bengals and who now does TV analysis for TSN. “I don’t know if everyone understands that, but we need them more than they need us. This is not like the NFL where they don’t need fans to show up to the games because they have the big TV contracts and the revenue sharing.

“Guys who play in the CFL, a majority of us are from small colleges, and if we did play in the NFL it wasn’t for that long, so most of us didn’t have that much notoriety until we got to the CFL. So we’re thinking, Wow, this is a pretty cool experience, being recognized.

“Because when we go home, the second we cross that border, we’re just a normal, everyday citizen, and nobody recognizes us as a football player or anything else. But when we come back to Canada …”

Then they’re ours, and we’re theirs. Size isn’t strength; a connection is. The metropolitan areas of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto make up about a third of the national population, and the Grey Cup works fine there, despite that embarrassing 15-year absence from Toronto after the apathetic debacle of 1992. Almost a third of the SkyDome was empty for that game, or about half the population of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

But the championship week works best on the Prairie, in the real cold, outdoors. The Grey Cup inhabits places like Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg. There, it truly matters, and the tribes all gather together, every year. It’s so damned earnest.

“The Grey Cup is a massive Canadian party, but it’s on a much more human scale,” says Peter Dyakowski, a guard for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who also was named Canada’s Smartest Person in a CBC reality show, and has appeared on Jeopardy. “It’s the same people every year. It’s a human-sized league.” Dyakowski, for the record, has been an all-star, lives in a middle-class neighborhood, and doesn’t shop in Hamilton’s fancier supermarkets.

There’s a nostalgia to all this, sure, and the small town isn’t always pleasant. In this year’s labour dispute the league played hardball, and the players got small concessions on money and safety in a league with a big new TV contract, and a ninth team, and new stadiums either built, or renovated, or being built across the country. The labour fight, which didn’t cost anything but goodwill, may have signified that the recent growth in revenues is going to change this thing.

But it hasn’t, not yet. Every sport is at least partly defined by when it begins, and when it ends. Baseball begins in the spring and ends in late fall. The NFL charges into winter, and at the last minute usually escapes to somewhere warm. Hockey and basketball keep you inside all winter, and stop when you want to go outside.

And then there is the Canadian Football League. It begins with the relief of summer, and ends in late November, usually on a dark cold night, with winter yet to come. Like the CFL, winter in Canada is different everywhere. And like the CFL, we all get through it together.

Canadian Football in Milwaukee? It Almost Happened

Just a few weeks after Brett Favre made a frantic headfirst dive into the County Stadium endzone to beat the Atlanta Falcons and close the book on the Packers playing in Milwaukee, there was talk – serious talk – of a team relocating to Milwaukee to replace the departed Packers and keep the Cream City in the pro football business. Of course, no NFL team would be willing (or allowed) to encroach on Packerland, but the Canadian Football League (CFL) was more than willing – eager even – to plant their flag in Milwaukee.

Pictured Above: Brett Favre celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown in the Packers’ final game in Milwaukee.
The writing was on the wall for Milwaukee NFL football by the early 1990s. With expansions planned at Lambeau Field – including the addition of nearly 100 new private boxes – it no longer made financial sense for the Packers to continue their 60-plus year tradition of playing a portion of their home schedule in Milwaukee. The timing was lousy in more ways than one for Milwaukee. The Packers had finally reached the end of their quarter-century post-Lombardi slump and were about to begin an equally-long run of success. The departure also dealt a financial blow to the Brewers and ensured that the Packers would not play a role in their quest for a new publically-financed stadium.

But while the NFL regarded the Packers shift as a move in the right direction for one of the league’s landmark franchises, the CFL saw it as an opportunity. An exclusively-Canadian enterprise since its founding in 1958, the CFL limped into the 1990s nearing financial disaster. Nearly every one of the league’s teams were having money troubles by 1993, when CFL officials embraced the idea of expansion into the US marketplace as a summertime pro football league as a potential saving grace.

In 1993, the league expanded into Sacramento and, in 1994, added franchises in Shreveport, Las Vegas, and Baltimore. The Baltimore franchise – unofficially branded as the reborn Baltimore Colts – were by far the most successful of the American teams, averaging over 37,000 fans per game. The Las Vegas Posse, on the other hand, was a failure in all respects. They drew fewer than 10,000 fans per game – including a low attendance of just over 2,300. They finished the season with a record of 5-13 and were so financially strapped that they were forced to hold team practices in the parking lot of the Riviera Hotel. By the end of the season, the franchise was looking for a new home.

In Milwaukee, real estate developer Marvin Fishman began making phone calls. Fishman had been among the original owners of the Milwaukee Bucks and had tried to win an American Football League franchise for Milwaukee in 1965. He loved the idea of introducing Canadian football to Milwaukee and CFL officials were similarly excited about the idea of moving into the Cream City. Milwaukee had a built-in and eager fanbase cultivated by the Packers and a high-capacity facility in County Stadium. Just after the new year, the Milwaukee Journal reported that the only thing standing in the way of Milwaukee joining the CFL was the seemingly pedestrian finalization of a lease between the new team and the Brewers. Fishman, who was poised to become a partner with the existing Posse ownership, prepared to announce the move.

Pictured Above: Milwaukee County Stadium in football mode in 1994.
But it was not quite so simple as that. For one thing, Milwaukee was a poor fit for Canadian football. Literally. While the standard NFL playing field of 120 yards just fit onto the grass at County Stadium, the 150 yard-long CFL field would have required major renovations to the bleachers. But CFL backers were confident that a waiver from the league could allow a Milwaukee franchise to play on a smaller-than-regulation field.

Furthermore, Fishman had overestimated the Brewers’ interest in sharing their home with a CFL team. He had hoped that the Brewers might require only a token yearly lease payment – something along the lines of $1 per year – in order to take in the additional concession and parking money from nine CFL home games per year. But the Brewers did not see it that way. Packers games had been regular sell-outs and provided excellent concession revenues during the off-season. But the CFL season ran July to November, meaning the Brewers would have to deal with the bi-weekly wear and tear to the field for most of the summer and could potentially lose out on lucrative weekend home series (CFL games were played on Saturdays) to accommodate the football club. And looking to the future, the Brewers wanted as few complications as possible with their plans for a new baseball-only facility – one that would likely mean the demolition of County Stadium. If a CFL team called the stadium home, an argument could be made for keeping it standing after the Brewers left, possibly upsetting plans to built a new ballpark near the present stadium site. The Brewers countered Fishman’s request for free rent by asking for more than $40,000 per game in rent – a figure that the Posse group could not hope to pay.

Throughout the spring of 1995, with the Packers gone and the Brewers out on strike, talk lingered of the CFL in Milwaukee, either through expansion or relocation. The Shreveport Pirates – coached by former Packers head coach Forrest Gregg – were rumored to looking at Milwaukee, as were the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. That August, CFL commissioner Larry Smith toured County Stadium and proclaimed it a perfect site for CFL football. “It’s a fantastic market that already has a football tradition,” he said in a press conference in the stadium parking lot.

Pictured Above: CFL commissioner Larry Smith, who championed Milwaukee CountyStadium as a site for CFL relocation or expansion, even though the Canadian rules field would not fit on its playing surface.
But as he spoke, the CFL’s American experiment was already doomed. The Las Vegas Posse, unable to find a suitable home after the Milwaukee deal fell apart, had moved their operations to Miami and planned to rejoin the league in 1996. But the 1995 season – in which the CFL featured five American teams, including new franchises in Birmingham and Memphis – would be the last for the CFL in US. Admitting that American interest in the Canadian version of the game was too sparse, the league retreated north of the border for the 1996 season and has since remained there. The 1994 Packers-Falcons thriller remains the last pro football game played in Milwaukee.

Originally Posted @ShepherdExpress.com

NFL vs. CFL- When the Cardinals Played the Argonauts

When it comes to football, the sport truly does not recognize borders, especially that one north of the United States.  The teams of the Canadian Football League (CFL) are, in many instances, almost as old as those of the United States.  In fact, the CFL and the NFL have peacefully coexisted for nearly 100 years, and though it may now be a much smaller league with minor league status, it is a league steeped in tradition, and one where the spirit of the sport is alive and well, and one that I intend to delve into deeper at The Autumn Wind.

In the year prior to launching of the American Football League, and in the year in which Chicago said goodbye to its oldest NFL team, the CFL and NFL began a series of exhibition games (the AFL would later play a game in 1961) in which its two elder teams took the field at old CNE (Exhibition) Stadium in Toronto, the site of the 1959 Grey Cup, for North American bragging rights.



The date of the game was August 5, 1959, and, in anticipating the arrival of the Chicago Cardinals for the pre-season exhibition game against the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts on August 5, 1959, the Toronto Star‘s Jim Hunt asked the obvious question: “Argos against the Chicago Cardinals—the mismatch of the century or a football game?”

The Argos, who’d dominated the CFL for most of the early 20th Century, were now in the early years of what became known as "The Dark Ages." The league’s perennial bottom-feeders between 1953 and 1983, the Argos went nineteen years between Grey Cup appearances and thirty-one years between Grey Cup victories. As if to make up for their on-field futility, according to Jay Teitel’s The Argo Bounce (T.H. Best Printing Co. Ltd., 1982), the franchise simply tried to play with big league style by signing one big-money player after another. In this, the team seemed to reflect Toronto’s post-war insecurity and its ambition to prove itself a world class city. With the huge success of the 1959 exhibition game—with 27,770 fans in attendance, it was the largest crowd to watch football in Canada at that time—the Argos hosted similar exhibition games in 1960 and 1961.

The Canadian brand of football was still predominant in the hearts and minds of Torontonians. In the late 1950s, the CFL was a pillar of stability compared to the NFL, which had always been besieged by the greater popularity of college football and by rival leagues raiding its rosters for players and personnel. But by 1959, the NFL was beginning to shake off its bush league status and gain the television presence that would solidify its ascent as the dominant sports league in North America. So a showdown between the two leagues piqued the public’s interest.

Leading up to the 1959 game, Toronto’s bars and coffee houses were abuzz with debate over the merits of each league. Few gave the Argos much chance of beating the Cardinals. There was already a growing sentiment, as Ron Thomas made clear in The Star, that “Canadian football teams are inferior to those from below the border.” Despite the fact that the free flow of players between the two leagues showed that individuals could certainly succeed in either one, the handicaps suffered by CFL teams were too significant. Most notably, CFL players were smaller and usually played on both offense and defense, while NFL teams had the depth to field a roster with specialists at each position.

Some thought the hybrid rules being used in the exhibition game might minimize these advantages. Canadian restrictions on down field blocking were eliminated in favor of American-style play. Canadian kicking and returning rules would apply, thus eliminating the NFL’s fair catch rule. Playing on the larger Canadian field with only eleven players, instead of the CFL’s twelve, ensured the game would be a high-scoring shoot-out.

The game was a flashy opener for the brand new home of the Argos, CNE Stadium, which with little protection from the lake’s fierce wind, couldn't have been more different than the cozy bowl at Varsity Stadium. Yet before it acquired the “Mistake by the Lake” moniker, CNE Stadium was celebrated as a symbol of Toronto’s progress. Naturally, the game was front page news—but not for on-field action. Instead it was the massive traffic problems that drew the biggest headlines. Police called it the “worst traffic jam in the city’s history” as twelve thousand vehicles vied for the seven thousand parking spots on the Exhibition grounds.

On the field, the Argonauts surprised everyone by roaring out to a 13-1 lead. By racing to the line of scrimmage to quick-snap the ball on every down, the Argos caught the Cardinal defenders off guard. Quarterback Ronnie Knox thrived in the pass oriented “Argo Shift,” a formation designed to get five receivers down field quickly instead of four. Knox marched the Argos fifty yards down the field in four plays to connect with Dave Mann, a versatile former Cardinal receiver who also acted as the Argos punter, for a touchdown. Shortly afterwards, defensive star Bob Dehlinger intercepted a Cardinals pass and ran seventy yards down the field for another score.

Initially, it seemed that the weeks of training the Argonauts had gone through were paying off. The Cardinals, on the other hand, had only been in training camp for ten days. But their coach, Frank “Pop” Ivy—considered one of the sport’s greatest innovators—was intimately familiar with the Canadian game because he’d coached the Edmonton Eskimos to three straight Grey Cup victories in the mid-1950s.

Toronto assistant coach Steve Owen—who would be enshrined in the hall of fame for his long tenure as head coach of the New York Giants between 1930 and 1953—knew that the biggest obstacle for the Argonauts would be Chicago’s massive defensive line. At an average of 255 pounds, the Cardinal linemen outweighed their Argo counterparts by about twenty pounds. It was only a matter of time before this decisive size advantage wore down the Argos and turned the tide of the game. The Argonauts held the lead well into the second quarter when disaster struck.

The heart of the Argos defense, Don Caraway, broke his foot in a tackle. Without their leader, the Argos defense collapsed. The Cardinals won the game 55-26—one of the few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal season that saw them finish last in their NFL division. Three more first-string Argonauts were injured on the day, including the best center in the Canadian league, Norm Stoneburgh. After the game, these injuries, which ensured the team finished in fourth place in their division and out of the playoffs, led sportswriters and fans to question the wisdom of playing exhibitions against NFL teams.

Toronto Star Article of the First NFL/CFL Exhibition Game
The 1959 Chicago Cardinals in Canada
The Game Required the Use of A Mixture of Rules
Despite the loss, Argo team president Lew Hayman—once a coach of unparalleled success, now an unmitigated disaster in upper management—claimed that because of demand from fans there’d be more NFL exhibitions games. Globe and Mail columnist Milt Dunnell, however, felt the interest in the NFL was inflated because, much to the chagrin of season ticket holders, the Argos had included it as a mandatory addition to the season ticket package. For the most part, the press saw the Argos-NFL exhibition games as mere cash-grabs for a team willing to sacrifice a season’s fortunes for the sake of a big day at the box office.

In a 43-16 loss to the Steelers in 1960, the biggest story pitted hall of fame quarterback Bobby Layne against Tobin Rote, the Argos’ high-priced rising star, who’d stolen Layne’s starting job in Detroit and led the Lions to the 1957 NFL Championship. Over the course of the 1960 CFL season, Rote led the league in every passing category and took the Argos to within a hair of the Grey Cup, but on this afternoon, he limped off the field with an injury. Layne picked the Argos’ secondary apart and Steeler running back Tom “The Bomb” Tracy—himself a castoff from the CFL—ran circles around Argo defenders. Sportswriter Tony Proudfoot called the loss humiliating. In The Star, Jim Hunt called it a “debacle” and added that “the score flattered the local heroes.”


When the now–St. Louis Cardinals returned to Toronto on August 2, 1961, the game once again drew at the box office but disappointed on the field. Everyone wanted to see CFL superstar Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry make his debut as the Cardinals quarterback. But he was injured and fans were instead treated to a sloppy defensive showdown. The Argos kept former Heisman Trophy-winner John David Crow to only seven rushing yards for the entire game but sputtered themselves and actually lost 22 yards on the ground.

The only real on-field drama was provided by Nobby Wirkowski. Once the quarterback hero of the 1952 Grey Cup, Wirkowski was now an assistant coach with the Argos, calling down plays to the bench from the press box. In the version of the story Wirkowski tells—there are numerous other contradictory ones—head coach Lou Agase approached him at half time:

Tobin [Rote] and [backup quarterback] John Henry Jackson had stunk out the joint in the first half. God, they were awful! Lou said to me ‘we have to put on some type of show for the fans. Can you suit up and go out there?’ I was wearing slacks and a shirt and hadn’t even practiced that week! I said ‘okay’ and suited up.

Just when it seemed he was getting the Argo offense on track, Wirkowski was tackled by an enormous Cardinal lineman. Falling awkwardly, he destroyed his knee and never played again. The final score, 36-7 for St. Louis, was another lopsided result.

By this time, other CFL teams were cashing in on the novelty of playing American teams. The Montreal Alouettes lost to the Chicago Bears, while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats succeeded in beating the laughing stock of the AFL, the Buffalo Bills. The press, however, remained highly critical, arguing that staging exhibitions against the bigger NFL teams did a disservice to, even cheapened, the Canadian game. Jim Hunt compared the Argos to “a preliminary fighter put in with the heavyweight champion”; “they just didn't have the tools for the job.”

For much of The Dark Ages, the Argos weren't willing to embrace that the far-reaching yet subtle rule differences in the Canadian game not only created a different style of play from that south of the border, but created a completely different sport. Instead, the team too frequently tried to contort the Canadian game into something it wasn't and in their strident efforts to appear “big league”—perfectly exemplified in the exhibitions against NFL teams—made themselves appear anything but.

However, with that said, the CFL is a league unto its own, and the style and caliber of play cannot be truly compared to that of that played in the United States, for the Canadian game is more wide open and faster.  The CFL has a great tradition, and while though it may not be a "major league," it is a major Canadian one in which Americans have played a large role in shaping its heritage and identity as one unique than from that played by the NFL.