Publish date:

Flow of arms across the border

In impressive numbers, those U.S. quarterbacks regarded as expendable by the NFL have found work in Canada

They're either too small, too young, or too stubborn to play quarterback in the NFL, so they enlist in the CFL, which could well stand for the Canadian Foreign Legion. There a man can leave his past behind and plunge into obscurity, no questions asked, as long as he pledges temporary allegiance to the Calgary Stampeders, the Hamilton Ticats, whatever. About the only thing a quarterback in the Canadian Football League can't be is Canadian.

The CFL is also a good place to find the answers to trivia questions beginning, "Whatever happened to...?" Condredge Holloway, the Tennessee quarterback several years ago, is an Ottawa Rough Rider. Jerry Tagge, formerly of Nebraska and the Packers, is playing for British Columbia. Ron Calcagni of Arkansas and Ed Smith of Michigan State are rookies for Montreal and Hamilton, respectively. Tom Clements (Notre Dame), Warren Moon (Washington) and Jimmy Jones (USC) are also on CFL rosters.

They came to Canada for a variety of reasons, most of which, when elucidated, mean the NFL didn't want them. That's not so much an indictment of the players as it is of the system. "I was drafted in the 12th round by the Patriots, and they let it be known they were going to try to make me a defensive back," says Holloway. "So instead of wasting my time and theirs—I don't want to tackle anyone anyway—I came up here. I played against and beat players who were drafted No. 1, but my stature just didn't fit into the NFL computer."

Holloway's current stature is that of the best young quarterback in the CFL. (The best graybeard is 36-year-old Tom Wilkinson of the University of Wyoming, who led Edmonton to victory in The Grey Cup last year.) Holloway's coach, George Brancato, says, with a trace of a sneer, "Connie's sure better than a lot of quarterbacks down there." Last year Holloway and Clements alternated at quarterback, and they finished 1-2 in the voting for the best at the position in the Eastern Conference. Clements, who is anxious to wear the uniform of the Kansas City Chiefs next season, was planning to play out his option, and the Rough Riders traded him to Saskatchewan, one of the worst teams in the league.

That left Ottawa with Holloway, but who's complaining? He was more than enough to lead the Rough Riders to a 30-19 victory over Hamilton in the season opener last week. The 5'10" water bug completed 14 of 24 passes—most of them thrown while on the run—for 244 yards and three touchdowns. He scooted five times for another 47 yards and ducked out from under a half dozen heavy pass rushes. And he didn't think he had a particularly good game.

Canadian ball was made for Holloway, and indeed most running quarterbacks. The field is 11⅖ yards wider than it is in the NFL, which gives passers more room to scramble and more time to spot receivers, of which they get an extra one because each team has 12 men. There are three downs instead of four, so the ball changes hands more often. Offenses are geared to passing and big plays.

Moreover, CFL quarterbacks usually call their own plays, something their NFL counterparts rarely do, because Canadian rules allow only 20, not 30, seconds between plays. The defenses are not nearly as sophisticated as they are in the U.S., which makes a passer's job that much easier. And the end zones are 25 yards deep, offering a larger receiving area when the ball is near the goal line. "It's just a whole lot of fun," says Tony Adams, who is in his first year with the Toronto Argonauts after sitting on the bench for Kansas City for four seasons.

There's even more to put on the recruiting poster. If a quarterback is young, gifted and impatient, Canada is the place to be. Calcagni, for instance, might have had to wait years before he could take off his headphones in an NFL game, but with Montreal he's likely to be starting before the season is over. "I always wanted to play in the NFL," he says, "but even in college people kept telling me I was perfect for Canadian football. I didn't want to sit on the bench for five years, so I did what was best for Ron Calcagni. I can always go back." Which is what such CFL alumni as Joe Theismann, Mike Rae and Joe Pisarcik have done, with varying degrees of success. "We train them and develop them, then those bandits steal them," says Brancato.

The CFL pay scale is not exactly NFL, but then again it's not bad. Adams claims he's making more money this year than any of his former teammates on the Chiefs will be making.

The approach to the game is more relaxed in Canada than it is in the NFL. There are no computer readouts showing which plays opponents are likely to call. Practices aren't filmed, and the Rough Riders schedule theirs in late afternoon to accommodate players who have other jobs. The Canadians have a sense of humor, too. A Rough Riders' press release announced the signing of an imported wide receiver, Burito Watts, described as a two-foot shepherd of German ancestry who could do the 40 in three seconds flat. Burito was given a pregame tryout, to the delight of the fans.

Not that moving to Canada is without its traumas, professional and personal. In a preseason game Adams threw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, only to discover that it doesn't. The biggest shocker for Joe Barnes, who signed with Montreal in 1976 after the Jets made him a running back and cut him a week later, was cultural. "When my wife and I first arrived, we moved into an almost entirely French-speaking suburb. I'm from Lubbock, Texas, so I love to talk, but there was nobody to talk to."

"People here are open to American players who stay, rather than come in for six months, take the money and run," says Holloway, who signed a three-year contract and bought a house in Ottawa.

The influx of U.S. quarterbacks has made employment difficult for their Canadian counterparts. The only one of the species extant is Gerry Dattilio, a Montreal native who plays behind Barnes and ahead of Calcagni, but that is subject to change. Neither Barnes nor Dattilio was impressive in the Alouettes' 11-9 victory over the Argonauts in their season opener, although Dattilio, who took over in the second half with the Alouettes losing, got the win in relief.

Dattilio set all kinds of passing records at Northern Colorado, but then spent three years in the CFL before he got a real chance to play quarterback. "I had to change positions to keep my job," he says, "wide receiver, defensive back, slotback. I'll retire before I play anything but quarterback again."

There have been a few outstanding Canadian quarterbacks, the best of whom was Ottawa's Russ Jackson. Another notable was Ron Lancaster, now the Saskatchewan coach. But Lancaster was a "funny Canadian," a naturalized citizen. Why the lack of homegrown talent? As Dattilio points out, "Canadian kids are born with hockey sticks in their hands." And they only have a fraction of the training available to U.S. athletes.

But the real rub lies in the CFL rules. A team is allowed 15 imports (i.e., non-Canadians) out of 33 players, including one "designated" import. Here it gets tricky. A designated import playing any position other than quarterback may enter the game only once, and the player he replaces is out of the game; a DI quarterback can be freely interchanged with the regular one.

The rule was designed several years ago by CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur to make sure each team had a qualified sub at quarterback. Until then, teams would send in any warm body if the quarterback went down, and the game would deteriorate. The rule's effect has been, in Brancato's words, "to kill the Canadian quarterback."

The CFL even has its own version of the Bakke case. Jamie Bone, a former quarterback for the University of Western Ontario who was cut by Hamilton last year, has brought the club before the Ontario Human Rights Commission, charging that the Tiger-Cats discriminated against him solely because of his nationality. The team said it had other quarterbacks of "superior ability," but offered Bone another tryout, which he refused. Testifying for Bone, Dattilio said, "If I had known then what I know now, I would have applied for U.S. citizenship."

There's more than a little irony at work. While the CFL offers golden opportunities for U.S. quarterbacks, Canadians are advised to go south.


The Spartans' Smith and Tennessee's Holloway pledged allegiance to Hamilton and Ottawa.


Dattilio (left, with Americans Barnes and Calcagni) is the CFL's only current Canadian quarterback.