From Regina to Calgary to Medicine Hat, the Canadian Football League is stitched into the fabric of our neighbors to the north. On opening weekend, we see that pride, fall in love with the rouge and get a kiss from Chad Johnson
REGINA, Saskatchewan — So I didn’t see art this weekend in my two Canadian Football League experiences. One game was 29-1 (I love the rouge) in the final minute, Calgary over Montreal and new import Chad “Humble Pie” Johnson. The other, here at rickety Mosaic Stadium, was 31-1 midway through the third quarter, Saskatchewan over Hamilton in a fizzled Grey Cup rematch.
That’s okay. Training camps in the CFL are short, and the early games often stink. What I did find here on the prairies north of Montana and North Dakota—when I asked one Roughrider fan what the nearest American city was, she said, “Minot”—was a fierce love of their game, very little NFL envy, and some wonderment that no one in America cares a whit about this hidden game up here.
Case in point: The quarterback of the Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, Darian Durant, jogged off the field Sunday on one of the most miserable days for a football game I’ve ever experienced (low fifties, high and biting winds, sheets of sideways rain that occasionally slowed but never stopped all day), and found me. “Thanks a lot for coming and covering us,’’ he said. “We play some good ball, and we have lots of players up here who played at a high level in college. Then I watch ‘SportsCenter’ and they cover everything else, even the international soccer over and over, and never us. It’s frustrating sometimes.” (Note: On Friday ESPN announced a multiyear broadcast deal to carry the CFL. It will carry 17 games on one of its channels and 69 on its digital service, ESPN3.)
So while the NFL is on hiatus with nothing happening, here’s a window into the league you ignore (and I have too, for the vast majority of my football-writing career) on a weekend with four games in a nine-team league:
* * *
Montreal Alouettes at Calgary Stampeders
McMahon Stadium, 1 p.m. MT
At the stadium where the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics happened, the place looks about 60 percent full for the Stamps’ opener. I have come with rudimentary knowledge of the CFL, having attended just one game, the 1991 Grey Cup with Rocket Ismail in it. I am trying to see the game as if it were my first CFL experience, which, almost, it is. The first things I notice:
- Speed of the game. Not just the 20-second play clock, which, in such a passing league, makes the receivers who’ve just run 25 yards downfield have to be mindful to hustle back to the huddle. But because all receivers can be in frenetic motion before the snap, circling the quarterback or sprinting from one side of the field to the other (the CFL field is 12 yards wider than the NFL), the line of scrimmage looks muddled and unfocused. “Sometimes,’’ recently retired CFL receiving legend Geroy Simon told me, “I’d run 40 yards before the ball was snapped. You’ve got to be in better shape for this game than college football or the NFL.”
- Chad Johnson. Wearing number 85 with “Johnson,” not “Ocho Cinco” on his back, a chastened Chad, 36, was split right mostly, not engaged much in the motion that makes CFL receivers and slot backs long-distance runners. “It’s a track meet,’’ he said after the game. Johnson caught two balls for 20 yards, struggling to adjust to the wild pitches of new Alouettes quarterback Troy Smith, the former Raven and 49er, who looked inaccurate, and that’s putting it mildly. More about Johnson later in the column.
- Weirdness of the rouge. So the rouge is a one-point scoring play. If you miss a field goal or punt the ball into the end zone and the defensive team doesn’t advance it out of the end zone, you get a point. Fascinating strategy to me. Imagine the game’s 28-28 with 10 seconds left and you’re at the opponents’ 20-yard line and you trust your punter more than your field-goal kicker. A coach can send in the punter and tell him to boom one high into the 20-yard end zone. If the punt team surrounds the returner and prevents him from getting out or kicking the ball out (another quirky rule—the return man can punt the ball back from the end zone in this case), the punting team wins 29-28. And games have ended this way.
- Advertising. Two ad patches (NAPA Auto Parts and Western Direct Insurance) are on the fronts of Calgary jerseys, and there are ads displayed on the turf throughout the league too. A little NASCARish for me.
- Reasonable cost. I met some fans with season tickets at the goal line, three rows up from the field, at McMahon Stadium. Cost: $225 for nine home games, 25 bucks a game.
Now for Chad Johnson. I met him at midfield. We’ve had our moments. But I watched the 36-year-old receiver with 766 career catches, none since 2011, a lot during the game, and there was none of the gesturing at the quarterback, or anything but lining up (mostly wide right) and trying to beat 30-year-old cornerback Fred Bennett down the field.
“A joy,” he said at midfield, describing what it was like to play in football game for the first time in 33 months. “A joy. That feeling, as a kid, you wake up on Christmas, the excitement. I’m just thankful to have a chance to play again. I didn’t care about catches, I didn’t care about the ball. I mean, the feeling just being part of something again, being part of this organization … I mean, words really can’t describe how it felt, to lose something that I worked for all my life and have it snatched from me because of my irresponsibilities and my mistakes. A lesson was learned. Humbling experience. I don’t know what to say. It’s awesome.”
Lots of players come north and expect to dominate. Maybe Johnson does too, but he doesn’t know enough yet about the game. He just hasn’t been in enough competitive situations yet. But he’s in shape, and he’s different than he was when Joe Philbin whacked him on national TV in “Hard Knocks” two years ago. At least he seems different now.
“From what I’ve been able to assess … the speed of the game is equivalent to the NFL. The talent level, there’s more elite players in the NFL. But a lot of the players I’ve seen out here can play at the next level … I come down here with the utmost respect for the game, and to learn all the nuances I can so I can be the best Chad I can be for the Alouettes.”
He’s playing, he said, because he says he knew he still could. “It just feels good,” he said. “And I thank you.”
With that, he kissed me on the right cheek and ran off the field.