Like most draft dodgers, Joe Theismann, Steve Worster and Jim Still-wagon just packed their things and took off for Canada. No, it's not the U.S. Army they are avoiding. It's the National Football League, or, as Theismann calls it, the "Establishment system." Despite their All-America watches and plaques they all drew bad numbers in the NFL draft, and then the numbers on the NFL contracts offered to them were even worse. "I may be a green-bottomed kid from Texas," Worster says, "but I'm not plain dumb like the NFL must've thought I was." So, goodby, NFL. Goodby, USA. And, hello, Canada.
In this period of tight money and the common draft, the Canadian Football League suddenly has become an attractive alternative to the NFL for players such as Theismann, Worster and Still-wagon. Rather than sit on a bench and earn comparatively low wages, they can go north and satisfy their egos and competitive appetites by playing regularly for big money in the CFL—even if the Canadian dollar was worth only 98¢ in the U.S. last week.
Theismann, the former Notre Dame quarterback whose name never did rhyme with Heisman, was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins but spurned the NFL and signed a two-year contract with the Toronto Argonauts for an estimated $120,000. Worster waited three months for the Los Angeles Rams, who had selected him in the fourth round, to call with their first contract offer. "What they did offer was disgraceful," he says. "I knew what fourth-round running backs should be offered. Well, they tried to sign me for what they'd give a sixth-round lineman. A lineman!" Worster promptly signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for a reported $100,000 over three years. Still-wagon, who was the most publicized defensive lineman in the country last year when he played for Ohio State, was drafted No. 5 by Green Bay, and three days later a Packer assistant coach dropped by Columbus for a chat. "He talked about moving me to middle linebacker, where Ray Nitschke plays," Stillwagon said. "Then he offered me a contract." Toronto offered more money, a starting job at defensive tackle and fringe considerations, so Stillwagon signed a two-year contract for $65,000.
The Argonauts, though, did not confine their raids on U.S. talent strictly to the class of'71. "The club directors told me to get a championship team," says Toronto Coach Leo Cahill, "and they gave me plenty of money to do it." Cahill lured Leon McQuay, an explosive running back who had decided not to return to the University of Tampa for his senior year, to Toronto with a one-year contract for $30,000, and then he signed Greg Barton, the quarterback who had played out his option with the Detroit Lions and had been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for three draft choices, to a five-year contract for a reported $350,000.
August 22, 1971
Last week all these draft dodgers earned their money. Worster caught a 45-yard pass and carried it the last 10 yards for a key touchdown as Hamilton upset the Ottawa Rough Riders 20-17. "That was the longest pass I've ever caught," Worster said after the game. "At Texas all I ever caught were little screen passes. Wait. Once I did catch a pass five yards downfield. You know how much Darrell Royal likes the forward pass."
Theismann, meanwhile, powered the undefeated Argonauts to their third victory—the regular season begins early and ends Oct. 31—as he ran 84 yards for one touchdown on a draw play and passed for another on a 94-yard play in a 26-14 upset of the Montreal Alouettes. Barton, who alternates with Theismann, sent McQuay on an 81-yard romp for the Argonauts' third touchdown, and Stillwagon anchored the stiff Toronto defense.
McQuay, who wears white football shoes, calls himself X Ray because "an X Ray is so fast that you never see it." In three games he has scored five touchdowns, gained 363 yards rushing for an average of 8.6 yards per carry and caught seven passes for 113 yards. When the Argonauts huddle, X Ray tells the offensive linemen, "Remember, I don't need a hole—just a crack." Then, after he scores a touchdown, X Ray triumphantly raises his arms and bows to the crowd.
"There's a little bit of hot dog in him right now," Cahill admits, "but when you can run like he can, well, you can be a little loose." McQuay almost certainly will be an early first-round NFL draft selection next January. His one-year contract with the Argonauts contains the standard option-clause agreement, but not many people in Toronto—including most of the Argonauts—expect X Ray to return in 1972.
"Of course, the way Greg and I have been using X Ray he may not even survive this year," Theismann says. "He almost always gets a first down every time he carries, so we almost always give him the ball. I gave it to him eight straight times in one game and he gained about 80 yards. I called his number for the next play and he said, 'Joe, could you spread it around just this once?' I guess he was weary."
Thanks mostly to the performances of the Argonauts' fresh imports, Torontonians are talking Grey Cup for the first time in 19 years. The Grey Cup is Canada's Super Bowl and climaxes a week-long orgy that makes the Texas-Oklahoma weekend look like a sock hop.
Until this year, when Toronto and Hamilton, in particular, began to tempt big-name American players with big Canadian dollars, the NFL looked upon the CFL as a retreat for its rejects and for those draft choices from places like Emory & Henry and Wittenberg who probably would not have lasted very long in the U.S. anyway. The people in Philadelphia probably have never heard of Sonny Wade, the Eagles' 10th-round pick in 1969 who quarterbacked Montreal to the Canadian championship last season. Wade came from Emory & Henry. Ron Lancaster is a Wittenberg alumnus, and for the last five years he has been the CFL's best quarterback. But Lancaster is only 5'10"—much too small to be an NFL quarterback, according to the computer.
The typical American football player in Canada today, though, is a Gary Wood, a star in Ottawa but unwanted in New York; a Don Trull, loved in Edmonton but booed in Boston and in Houston; a Granville Liggins, an All-America middle guard at Oklahoma but supposedly too small to play in the NFL; an Angelo Mosca, too undisciplined in his formative years to submit to weight and bed checks; a Paul Brothers, an option quarterback at Oregon State with no regard for the pocket; and a Mel Profit, a free spirit, free thinker, free talker out of UCLA who does not think he could adjust to the NFL's code of silence and, as a result, turned down several offers from NFL clubs that needed a tight end this year.
Canada's search for quality imports actually began last season when the Alouettes outbid the Baltimore Colts for Steve Smear, the All-America defensive lineman from Penn State. The Colts told Smear they wanted to switch him to middle linebacker, but they never talked in convincing tones about Smear's talent. "Some of their people didn't think I was very good, I guess," says Smear. Instead, he signed with the Alouettes, made All-CFL at defensive end and helped Montreal win the championship. Now he plays middle linebacker and could become Canada's best.
This year, in addition to the Theismanns and Worsters, the CFL has signed its usual collection of relative unknowns. Jim Chasey was all-Ivy League and all-East at Dartmouth, but the NFL ignored him. Montreal signed Chasey for peanuts, and he quarterbacked the Alouettes to victory in their opening game. "With Ken Dryden of Cornell playing for the Canadiens, and Chasey of Dartmouth with the Alouettes, all the Expos need is a shortstop from Harvard," someone said last week. The British Columbia Lions have Michigan's Don Moorhead to back up Brothers at quarterback, and the Calgary Stampeders list Jim Lindsey, the alltime NCAA college-division total-offense leader at Abilene Christian, as No. 2 quarterback.
Next to Stillwagon, the best rookie lineman so far has been Rock Perdoni, a Georgia Tech graduate passed over by the NFL because of his size—5'10", 235 pounds. Perdoni starts at defensive right end for Hamilton, while Mosca plays on the left side, forming what they call "Little Italy."
There are 14 Americans on each of the nine 32-man rosters in the CFL. All the starting quarterbacks in the league are from the U.S., as are all the head coaches and most of the assistants. Few colleges in Canada have football teams, and fewer award football scholarships. As a result, there are seldom more than 25 Canadian players competing for the 18 roster spots available on each team. The survivors usually find themselves playing up front in the trenches. American players monopolize the running back, receiver, defensive secondary and quarterback positions.
The Canadians don't resent the U.S. players hogging the glamour jobs. "When you win you make more money," says Ralph Sazio, the general manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, "and you win by having your best players at the most important positions."
By CFL definition, a "Canadian" can be anyone who did not play high school, college or professional football in the U.S. (In the past, a "Canadian" was also anyone whose father was born in Canada. This led to the forging of birth certificates and other chicanery, and the definition has been changed.) The letter of that law may be tested this week by the Montreal Alouettes. They are giving a trial to U.S. sprinter John Carlos, who was recently cut by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Alouettes claim that Carlos never played a game of football in the U.S. What does Toronto's Leo Cahill say? "If Carlos is ruled a Canadian, I'll be at the commissioner's office the next morning."
On the other hand, many players originally from the U.S., such as Mosca and ex-Quarterback Bernie Faloney, now are legitimate Canadians, having spent the required five years in the country and having taken out citizenship papers.
Despite the U.S. influence, the game remains very Canadian. The CFL plays with 12 men (an extra back) on the field and there are three downs instead of four. "Three yards and a cloud of dust up here means that you kick the ball all night," Theismann says. The playing field is 10 yards longer and 11‚Öî yards wider. "I'm forever grateful that the sidelines are closer in the States," Joe Kapp once said. The end zones are 25 yards deep—not 10—and in Toronto they are curved at the corners because of an adjacent running track.
All these dissimilarities force Canadian teams to play a wide-open, go-for-the-bomb style rather than the ball-control, patterned attack employed by many U.S. pro teams. This suits a sprint-out quarterback like Theismann just fine but hampers a relatively slow runner like Worster who rarely goes outside tackle. One big help is that the backfield can be in motion at any time. When Theismann ran 84 yards against Montreal, he had all his backs darting about—two to one side, two to the other—and the Alouette defenders left the middle open as they scrambled around looking for the backs. Theismann took the snap, dropped back one step, then shot forward. No Alouette touched him. "Just like they do it in the NFL," Barton said, laughing.
The biggest difference, though, is in the kicking game. When a punter or a field-goal kicker boots the ball out of the end zone, his team scores a single point—formerly known as a rouge, now simply as a single. Also, when a kick re-turner cannot break out of his end zone with a punt or a missed field goal, the kicking team gets a single, too. (Unlike in U.S. ball, a kick cannot be downed.) The Argonauts won their opening game this year when Zenon Andrusyshyn, the former UCLA kicker, punted the ball out of the end zone for a single in the closing minutes. The single has practically eliminated ties in the CFL; last year, for instance, there was only one tie in 60 games. And, oh yes, no time-outs can be called in the Canadian game.
The nine CFL teams all make money, although the largest arena—Hamilton's refurbished Ivor Wynne Stadium—seats only 35,000. Last season CFL teams drew nearly two million people, 93% of capacity and, as in Canadian hockey, everyone is in their seats long before the playing of O Canada. "Considering that Canada has only 22 million people," says CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur, "it means that one of every 11 Canadians paid to see a game." Television rights bring in $1.1 million—for the entire league, that is. Each NFL club, on the other hand, gets more than $1.4 million a year for its TV rights.
Dollars aside, the Canadians approach the game with none of the computerized technology that dominates the NFL. Indeed, most NFL coaches would hardly believe the apparent lack of preparation, at least according to NFL standards, that goes into each game. First of all, CFL coaches usually have only two assistants; if they have a third he might be a playing coach, like Montreal's Gene Gaines, or a part-time coach like Toronto's Bob Gibson, who returns to his teaching position at Bowling Green in a few weeks.
The quarterbacks are often the only real full-time players. Receiver Mike Eben of the Argonauts is a graduate assistant in German at the University of Toronto; Defensive Halfback Gerry Sternberg has a law practice; Center Paul Desjardins, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, spends his days in a laboratory; Defensive Back Marv Luster teaches school; Tight End Mel Profit operates a men's boutique fittingly named The First Asylum.
In Toronto, Theismann and Barton arrive around one o'clock to go over game plans, study films and plot other strategy. The rest of the players start straggling into the locker room around four p.m. Practice starts at five and finishes at about 6:30. "When I came here I couldn't believe it," Theismann said last week. "At Notre Dame I used to spend eight hours watching films every day." Hamilton's Worster did not know whether Ottawa was an Eastern or Western Division rival until after the game. "We were driving in on the bus and one of the players said, 'O.K., guys, let's get 'em...they're our hated rivals.' I said, 'Oh, they are?' But that's the way it is up here."
After the game in Ottawa, Worster flew home to Texas for five days "Can you imagine this?" he said. "We don't play for two weeks, so they give us five days off. I don't believe it." While in Austin, Worster said he planned to talk with Quarterback Eddie Phillips and Running Back Jim Bertelsen about the advantages of playing in Canada. "I'm just going to tell them it's the only place to play," he said.
And what does Jim Stillwagon think? He likes playing in Canada so much he has had a Canadian flag tattooed on his derri√®re.