To the average football fan, the Canadian Football League is an unknown entity.
Kind of like that cool cousin you don’t get to see much of.
So it is that a lot of good football players toil in anonymity north of the 49th parallel. Every once in a while, though, someone busts out.
Consider Doug Flutie, who went from known, to relative unknown, back to known. Boston College’s all-American quarterback won the Heisman in 1984 and threw one of the most famous Hail Mary TD passes ever recorded.
However, he was drafted low and bounced from Chicago to New England before signing with the BC Lions in 1990. Flutie was lights out in the CFL, winning a Grey Cup with Calgary and two with Toronto, before heading back to the NFL with Buffalo in 1998.
He earned Comeback Player of the Year and a Pro Bowl nod that year and went on to play seven more seasons before retiring.
Flutie wasn’t the first famous footballer or athlete to toil in the CFL and he wasn’t the last.
Here are 15 people you may or may not know played in the three-down pro league.
15. Jeff Garcia
After a decent college career at San Jose State University, Garcia went undrafted in the NFL. Garcia headed north in 1994 to Calgary, where he actually backed up Doug Flutie for a season. He ended up replacing the injured star in 1995, only to watch as Flutie led the team to a Grey Cup loss later that season. Flutie left for Toronto and Garcia fashioned three outstanding years as the Stamps’ pivot, eventually winning the Grey Cup in 1998 and being named game MVP. Signed by San Francisco in 1999, Garcia again backed up a legend in Steve Young, only to take over after Young suffered a career ending concussion. Garcia put in three pretty good seasons with the 49ers before also playing with Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. He threw 161 TD passes in 125 games and was named to four Pro Bowls during his 11-season NFL career.
14. Lex Luger
Little wonder that Luger changed his name from Larry Pfohl. For a while though, the wrestling legend toiled under his vanilla moniker as a member of the Montreal Alouettes from 1979 to 1981. He actually cut his chops for mayhem by getting kicked off the University of Miami football team for trashing his hotel room. Pfohl did play in the 1979 Grey Cup, which was a 17-9 loss to Edmonton. Two years later, he signed with Green Bay, but never played a game. He wrapped up his football career with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. As Lex Luger, he was a three-time champion, holding the WCW heavyweight title twice and the WWA title once. He also won the 1994 WWF Royal Rumble with Bret Hart.
13. Eric Crouch
It isn’t often that a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback doesn’t at least play one down behind center after being drafted to the NFL. Consider Crouch an anomaly. After an outstanding career at Nebraska and a further nod as the nation’s top QB, Crouch was drafted in the 3rd round by St. Louis in 2002, as a receiver. Injuries forced him to the sidelines and he never got in a game. In 2006, the Toronto Argonauts took a flyer and signed him. He was fourth on the depth chart behind legend Damon Allen, Michael Bishop and Spergon Wynn, so getting a start seemed unlikely. But, lo and behold, third-stringer Wynn went down and Crouch got in a game against Saskatchewan. It would be his CFL legacy that he threw a 94-yard TD to Arland Bruce III to clinch the win.
12. Andre Rison
‘Bad Moon’ Rison, is one of few players to have won both a Super Bowl and a Grey Cup. His career in the CFL was unremarkable, other than his hyped signing by Toronto in 2004. The five-time NFL Pro Bowler was lured out of retirement by the Argos in August 2004, having last played for Oakland in 2000. But, the guy who had over 10,000 yards receiving in the big league, mustered only 174 yards on 14 catches in six games. He was released after only one catch, and one game, in 2005. His best years in the NFL were with Atlanta, where he topped 80 catches in five seasons, and tallied over 1,000 yards four out of five. He won the Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1996, snaring two passes from QB Brett Favre for 77 yards and a TD in 35-21 win over New England.
11. Warren Moon
Despite the fact he is a member of both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Moon’s ascent to superstardom was anything but rosy. Undrafted out of the University of Washington, Moon hopped the 49th and started a brief, but wildly successful career with the Edmonton Eskimos. He helped Edmonton win five consecutive Grey Cups, while becoming the first quarterback in any league to throw for 5,000 yards (1982). He signed with Houston in 1984 and with a minor hiccup his first season, picked right up where he left off and played another 17 seasons, leading in passing yards and completions twice. He once held the all-time records for pro passing yards, completions and touchdowns.
10. Andre Ware
His best work in football might well be as a broadcaster with the Houston Texans. Although, after a stellar collegiate career and a Heisman with the University of Houston in 1989, Andre Ware’s path to glory seemed confirmed. The first African American QB to win the coveted college football award, Ware was a master of the run and shoot offence and was picked by Detroit in the first round of 1990 draft. He would languish on the sidelines with Detroit for four seasons, starting just six games. By 1995, he was a high profile signing by the Ottawa Rough Riders, where he set personal pro marks for completions in a season (70) and yards (759). He lasted one season in Ottawa before joining B.C. in 1996 and finishing up with a lacklustre year in Toronto in 1997.
9. Cameron Wake
Considering how far they have fallen since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the New York Giants might want a do over on Wake. Signed as an undrafted free agent linebacker out of Penn State in April 2005, he was cut two months later. He signed with the B.C. Lions in 2007, switched to defensive end and became an instant star. He went on to lead the CFL in sacks for two seasons and was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2008. This led to a bidding war for his services, with Miami winning the sweepstakes in 2009. Since then, Wake has been a beast at linebacker and DE, racking up 92 sacks in 132 games. He has also been to five Pro Bowls and was a First Team All-Pro in 2012.
8. Jesse Palmer
Technically, Palmer didn’t play in the CFL, but his story sure is juicy. While he was only a member of the Montreal Alouettes and Ottawa Renegades practice squads, Ottawa native Palmer did start three games for the New York Giants in 2003 after a decent career at the University of Florida. He created a stir in the CFL, when his agent asked for a three-year, $2 million contract to sign with Ottawa, which was deemed too rich for the frugal CFL. Palmer never hit his stride as a quarterback, but the pretty boy hit pay dirt as ‘The Bachelor’, which has turned into a lucrative broadcasting career. He teamed with Brent Musburger on the SEC Network a few year’s ago, and has spent time as an analyst with ESPN and TSN. Last September Palmer started hosting the newly launched DailyMailTV.
7. Ricky Williams
He was a star in the NFL, but Williams may be forever known as the player who failed the most drug tests. Ricky couldn’t stay away from the marijuana, and “retired” from football in 2004 after three positive tests. He came back in 2005 and eventually earned another suspension for the entire 2006 season. The oddball Heisman Trophy winner, who led the NFL in rushing in 2002 with 1,853 yards for the Dolphins, ended up signing a lucrative-by-CFL-standards contract with Toronto for the 2006 CFL season. Panned by Joe Theismann as a bad signing for such “an addict”, Ricky put bums in the seats, but was far from being dominant, gaining 526 yards in 11 games. He departed Toronto after one season and spent five more average seasons in the NFL with Miami (again) and Baltimore.
6. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson
One would have to dig deep to find anything on a Dwayne Johnson playing for the Calgary Stampeders in 1995. But yes, indeed, The Rock was a member of the Stamps for about two months after a brief career at the NCAA powerhouse University of Miami. What’s even lesser known is that The Rock is also Canadian, by virtue of his wrestling father Rocky Johnson, who was born in Amherst, N.S. His career was short-lived, but Johnson is easily the most well-known alum the league has ever known. As a wrestler, The Rock is without peer, having 17 championship reigns in the WWE. Where he is truly making his mark, however, is in Hollywood where according to IMDB the “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” star has 97 acting credits. If you haven’t seen him in Jumanji, do so.
5. Jon Ryan
Not only did oddball Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan play in the CFL (with Winnipeg), he was also born in Canada (Regina, Saskatchewan). The former Canadian collegiate standout, who was also a receiver, Ryan played two seasons with the Blue Bombers, leading the league in his second season (2005) in punting yard average (50.6) and most punts (118). With his prolific leg, Ryan earned a three-year deal with Green Bay in early 2006, worth $965,000 — way above what he would earn in the CFL. After a couple of years with Green Bay, Ryan signed with Seattle and at Super Bowl XLVIII he became the first Saskatchewan native to ever win a Super Bowl. Still with the Seahawks, Ryan also has the distinction of being the only punter to throw a TD pass in a playoff game and the first Canadian to do so since QB Mark Rypien in 1993.
4. Joe Horn
Things were so dire for future Pro Bowler Joe Horn after his community college football career that he spent $4 of his remaining $6 to buy a Jerry Rice workout video so he could make a highlight video of himself to send to prospective pro teams in North America. Eventually, the defunct Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL saw it and later offered him a contract after he tried and failed to make the Baltimore Stallions and Shreveport Pirates. The sometime waiter at Bojangles restaurant in Fayetteville, N.C. repaid the Mad Dogs faith by accumulating 1,415 yards on 71 catches in his lone season. Horn would eventually be drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1996 and in 2000 a move to New Orleans proved fruitful. In seven seasons there he had four with more than 1,000 receiving yards, totaling 7,622 overall, with 50 of his 58 career touchdowns. He was a Pro Bowler four times with the Saints and is in the team’s Hall of Fame.
3. Brandon Browner
Despite having several off-field issues with substance abuse, which kept him out of Super Bowl XLVIII for the champion Seahawks, undrafted Brandon Browner had himself a decent NFL career. It was, of course, preceded by a standout four-season CFL career with the Calgary Stampeders, where the former Oregon State cornerback was a Grey Cup champion (2008) and three-time CFL All-Star. He was originally signed by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2005, but got injured and languished on injured reserve before being waived in July, 2006. After his above-average stint in Calgary, Browner signed with the Seahawks and started every game of the 2011 season, which would be his finest. He had six of his career 12 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns and making the Pro Bowl in the process. After parts of three seasons in Seattle he was picked up by New England in 2014 and with a win in Super Bowl XLIX, became the first player ever to win consecutive championships with two different clubs. He retired after a failed comeback with the Seahawks in 2016.
2. Jerrell Freeman
Technically, linebacker Jerrell Freeman is still a member of the Chicago Bears. However, he was suspended 10 games in 2017 for violating the NFL’s PED policy a second time and hasn’t played much since 2016. He did get in one game with the Bears in 2017, but sustained a pectoral injury and concussion, landing him on injured reserve. Before that, the Division III football star from little known Mary Hardin-Baylor University signed as an undrafted free agent with Tennessee in 2008, was cut and ended up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL. By 2011 he was leading the league in tackles with 105 and was an All-Star for the first time. This led to a contract with the Indianapolis Colts where he would start 57 of 57 games played, recording four interceptions (two for pick sixes), nine forced fumbles, 12 sacks and 322 tackles. He signed a big three-year, $12 million deal with Chicago in March of 2016, but has been more infamous for suspensions (two) than being a standout linebacker.
1. Dontrelle Inman
We’ll just call current Chicago Bears wide receiver (and teammate of list-mate Jerrell Freeman) a late bloomer. It took him until his senior year at the University of Virginia to break out, catching 51 passes for 815 yards and three TDs in 12 games. This, after snaring just 27 passes for 283 yards in 34 games previous. Even after a good senior year in 2010, he went undrafted but caught on with Jacksonville in 2011, spending the entire season on the practice squad. Wanting to play, he signed with Toronto of the CFL in 2012 and in his rookie season he registered 50 catches for 803 yards and five scores. He also caught three passes, one for a TD, in the 100th Grey Cup, won 35-22 by the Argonauts over Calgary. He played one more year with Toronto and in January 2014 signed with San Diego. It took him a couple of seasons to get going and in 2016 he had a career year with the Chargers, catching 58 passes for 810 yards and four TDs. He split 2017 between L.A. and Chicago.