I’M GOING TO OFFER two examples of past Ottawa Rough Riders quarterbacks as a composite illustration of why I think the Canadian Football League deserves your attention, provided (A) you like football and, (B) you reside in Canada, or love someone who does. I do this as a means of salvaging the reputation, somewhat, of a storied institution which has, in recent decades, become more of a punchline than a point of pride. Since the NFL has gone nuclear gonzo global and mastered the art of expertly packaged sports entertainment, the CFL has been left in the dust, and I think that’s a bit of a shame. Here’s why.
1. RUSS JACKSON, Officer of the Order of Canada, Canadian Football Hall of Famer, Hamiltonian, greatest quarterback in the history of the Ottawa Rough Riders, and probably the best Canadian ever to play the position. Three-time Grey Cup Champion, three-time CFL Most Outstanding Player, four-time Most Outstanding Canadian. Holder of a science degree from McMaster, math teacher, principal.
Jackson balanced life as a football legend and a regular citizen with humility and aplomb. He stayed in Ottawa during the off-season because he taught math at Rideau High. The CFL has never been a place to get rich — a lot of players still take off-season jobs — but Jackson is the model of the Canadian football player supplementing his salary by becoming a regular member of the community, with a regular job. When his playing days were over he became a principal. I have always wondered: was there a trophy case in his office? But I’ve never met anyone who attended Rideau during his tenure, and so haven’t had the chance to ask. The point is he was an average Ottawan most days of the week, and a hell of a quarterback come game day. In 1969, after his final CFL game, he hoisted the Grey Cup and was named the game’s MVP. The next morning he made his own coffee and then put the storm windows on his house, because winter was coming.
2. ART SCHLICHTER, compulsive gambler, convicted felon, cad. Best remembered for passing bad cheques up and down Bank Street. Gone halfway through Ottawa’s so-called “Super Season ‘88” which saw the team go 2-16. Schlichter, despite having well known off-field problems, and having scotched things pretty well everywhere he had ever gone, was nevertheless presented as the latest in a long line of would-be saviours for a truly awful football team. He had set records at Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to a national championship. He had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He had the big arm necessary to compete in the CFL, Ottawans were told. He would turn the ship around, and the Riders gave him $100 000 to do it.
He started five games, threw three TDs and seven interceptions, and was gone by Thanksgiving. He left behind a team no better than when he’d signed, maybe worse off (certainly poorer), and a boatload of new enemies. It was disheartening. But even given all that, I find positive aspects in the memory of Arthur Ernest Schlichter, or more specifically in my ability, at the age of 12, to hope amid such overwhelming evidence that the Riders were a worthy investment of my time and emotion. In that place, at that time, sports were by and large a hometown affair. And there is no more hometown league than the Canadian Football League. In its embrace of that local role will the CFL find its relevance.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE OPPOSING POLES of Jackson and Schlichter lies the truth of the CFL. The full spectrum spanning those two personalities (Jackson as Dudley Do-Right, Schlichter as Snidely Whiplash) represents, for me, the appeal of the league.
The National Football League is perhaps the most spectacularly successful sports association in history, representing a dozen or more of the world’s most recognizable and profitable brands (teams) and personalities (players). All of this has transpired during my lifetime. Right on up into the ‘80s the NFL was just another league vying for its share of the viewership pie, column inches, airtime. It is now the planet’s preeminent sporting spectacle, and its big day, SuperBowl Sunday, is the grandest spectacle of all.
What’s amazing is that the NFL has managed to do all this with a game that is frequently boring as hell, a grinding, ramming fight for territory that risks little and rewards conservative play. It has also legislated conformity among its players and done its best to stamp out creative celebration (that both outspoken players and wacky TD dances have survived the No Fun League’s strictures is a testament to the power of the cult of the individual in American life).
The Canadian Football League was doing just fine, thank you, a long-established landmark on the Canadian sporting landscape, a point of commonality among many Canadians, and the focus of civic pride from Montreal to Vancouver. But then the American game married network TV and had many dollar sign-shaped babies, and somewhere along the way the braintrust of the CFL began to imagine themselves as competitors to the NFL, as threatened by the US game’s success, as having to tinker with their product to maintain or grow the CFL’s market share. This led to a number of unfortunate developments, most glaringly the ill-advised US experiment of the 1990s, with CFL teams in such glamorous locales as Shreveport, Louisiana, and Birmingham, Alabama, and the creation of a South Division to hold them.
The teams were garishly clad, had cartoonish names (Memphis Mad Dogs), and played in stadia that could not quite accommodate the larger Canadian field. The crowds were, for the most part, sparse, and the media attention failed to materialize. Within three seasons the experiment was over, and the only lingering hint any of it had ever happened lay in Montreal, where the Baltimore Stallions (the only US-based team ever to win a Grey Cup) had relocated, righting a wrong committed when the Concordes/Alouettes folded just before the 1987 season began, leaving one of Canada’s largest and most dynamic cities without a team. The Alouettes, in their latest incarnation, have been wildly successful precisely because they have embraced the truths of the CFL.
The truths are these:
- The CFL cannot and must not perceive itself as a competitor to the NFL. David will not vanquish Goliath because too much money depends on Goliath’s continued domination. David must self-identify as David, the smaller but no less proud of the pair. The Canadian game is a regional one, with teams representing localities whose citizens are capable of feeling fierce pride for their hometowns and, by extension, their teams. Anyone who has ever attended an Esks-Stamps game knows this, as will anyone who has ever so much as watched a Saskatchewan Roughriders game on TV. But none of these citizen-fans is under any impression that their town is as large, as flashy, or as globally significant as New York, or Chicago, or Boston. They don’t want an NFL-sized product. They want entertaining football in a modest-sized stadium in a season that stretches from the heat of a prairie summer to the frigid edge of a Winnipeg winter. (The exception is Toronto, of course, whose citizens fancy their city quite significant indeed, and who keep hoping the NFL will come a-courting, which is why the Argonauts are perennially a threat to close up shop.) Successful CFL franchises have embraced their homespun regional charm and used it to their advantage. The Green Riders are the only game in town in Regina — nobody’s arguing with that. So what? Drop your pretensions and throw a party. In Montreal, the way the francophone community has been courted by, and in turn warmed to the latest incarnation of the Alouettes has spawned something of a football mania across Quebec. Is there a better football school in Canada than Laval?
- It’s a different game. This is not American smashmouth football. It’s a huge field; use it. To an NFL fan, a score like 56-49 is an abomination. In Canada, that’s the game, and nobody’s ever really out of it.
- A person can count themselves both a CFL fan and an NFL fan (and a college football fan too, for that matter). These are not mutually exclusive designations. The CFL starts in June, and plays games that don’t often interfere with the NFL (Friday Night Football, for example). What could possibly be bad about more football?
THE SECOND-TIER STATUS that the CFL endures when compared to its American cousin is hard to shake. It’s also hard to deny. Some of the most enjoyable elements of the CFL also contain the air of sideshow or carnival. In a league where there is less money, and thus lower stakes, interesting things can happen. My Riders gave the errant Dexter Manley a job when the NFL slapped his wrist for cocaine use, and then, in ‘95, they drafted a dead man. Suspended NFLers often come north to keep the fires burning. It can make for entertaining spectacle, especially when one of them proves unequal to the more wide open Canadian game and its eccentric nuances (rouges, quick-kicks, in-play goal posts, etc.).
It’s this carnivalesque atmosphere that keeps things from getting too serious, a touch of hucksterism and mischief that says we enjoy a good show in addition to our football. Nobody bats an eye when the Bombers’ entire receiver corps executes an elaborate, two-act theatre piece to celebrate a touchdown. That’s our thing. The fact that you might later run into one or several of those same guys at the Safeway buying a case of Diet Coke only makes it better.
We are, at the same time, pretty serious about the need to safeguard the tradition of our game. We have a trophy and a championship game that will celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. That’s not insignificant. We have the stability of teams based in our biggest cities for many decades. There are certainly some problems (the capital is still awaiting the return of its team; the league badly needs a team east of Montreal; Toronto is Toronto), but in all the Canadian game is a dependable rock, a unique institution, and a hell of a way to pass an evening, should you be lucky enough to find yourself in the stands at McMahon Stadium, or Commonwealth, or Taylor Field in Regina on a summer evening.
There have been incredible players in the Canadian Football League, and most of them didn’t consider themselves to be in training for an eventual jump to the NFL. They played a game they loved, played it well, and allowed themselves to be adopted by communities of fans and fellow citizens. There’s great pride to be found in that, it seems to me, not shame.
My position on this league is necessarily bound up with memories. I fondly remember walking over the Bank Street Bridge on my way to Riders games at Lansdowne Park, the moment the stadium appeared over the rise, big but not too big, and then the seemingly endless walk up the ramp to a seat in the top of the South Side stands. I remember hot summer afternoons and bonechilling October nights spent up there, hoping JC Watts could pull off a miracle. I remember a lot of booing, and years of futility, and epic frustration.
What I don’t remember is a sense that I was watching an inferior game, or something silly, or worthy of shame. I don’t remember thinking there was anything wrong with a game and league and a country as tolerant of hucksters as it is respectful of heroes. I do remember actually hoping to play for the Riders one day — to wear that black helmet with the simple, bold ‘R’ on either side. I remember asking my father to repeat the story of how he had marched as a cadet during the halftime ceremony at the Grey Cup. I remember watching CFL games on CBC because it was the only station we could get over the aerial in the first house my wife and I owned. I remember reflecting on the advantages of the 3-down game. I remember, mostly, thinking that what I was watching was uniquely Canadian, and enjoyable as such; that it was something, if I dare say it, in which I could take a small but real measure of pride.