anadians in the NFL" could be the title of one of the shortest lists in the world of sports. Even though we dominate the NHL, and B.C.'s Larry Walker won a National League MVP award in 1997, the NFL is still largely an Americans-only organization. (Perhaps only "Canadians in the NBA" approaches that NFL list for sheer brevity, but at least we can claim superstar Steve Nash.)
The list looks especially short if you remember not to count "honourary" Canadians like Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia - Americans who played in the CFL, who now star in the NFL, but who still come back to Canada to visit old friends. Yeah, they're so beloved that we'd probably let them vote in elections here, but it might be pushing it to count them as fully Canadian.
That said, there are still some great Canadian football players in the NFL and, of course, the CFL; players who might have gone to your high school, or, God forbid, your rival high school. For instance, Nepean native Jesse Palmer, is currently the New York Giants' third-string quarterback. The game seems to be in the family - dad Bill was a linebacker for six seasons with the CFL.
Palmer, who has been touted as one of the best Canadian-born quarterbacks ever, told Slam Sports that being from Canada has made him work harder. "Being Canadian, I had to focus all my effort on getting myself a scholarship. I really had to market myself." That also meant dropping out of basketball and baseball early in high school to concentrate on football.
(To be precise, at last count
there were 17 Canadians on NFL rosters, including first-stringers like San Diego's Steve Christie and Minnesota's OJ Santiago.)
Another Canadian making a wage stateside is Oakville, Ont., native Mike Vanderjagt who has been one of the premiere kickers in the NFL ("the" premiere kicker, if you ask him). In fact, in 1999, the Indianapolis Colt led the NFL in scoring with 145 points - the first Canadian ever to do so. Last season, he finished second in scoring. So far, in his NFL career, Vanderjagt has kicked with an accuracy rate of 87.7 per cent - the highest in league history.
CFL fans will remember Vanderjagt as a star kicker for the Toronto Argonauts, when that team won back-to-back Grey Cups in 1996 and 1997. At the end of the '97 season, both he and then-Argo QB Flutie bolted to the NFL. The Argos have struggled ever since, desperately searching to replace either guy.
Vanderjagt told Slam Sports that there is definitely more pressure to perform in the NFL. "Just the NFL being a million-dollar industry, it puts more pressure on teams and players to succeed and make it to the Super Bowl."
(By the way, since this is a movie mag after all, Vanderjagt was Tony Danza's kicking stunt-double in the Disney TV-movie The Garbage-Picking, Field-Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon, which was filmed in Toronto. There you go.)
It may come as a bit of a surprise that even in the CFL almost all the stars are American. No CFL team has a starting Canadian QB (Palmer's CFL rights are owned by the Montreal Alouettes, should things not work out in the U.S.). Almost all receivers and running backs are from down south. The rules demand that each team field a minimum number of Canadians; most play on the lines or, like Vanderjagt, kick.
Last year's winner of the CFL's Outstanding Canadian Award was Winnipeg's Doug Brown. Born and raised in Coquitlam, B.C., Brown played his college ball at Simon Fraser. The 6-foot-7-inch, 302-pounder spent two years in the Washington Redskins' trenches, playing 20 games there before coming back to Canada. Other Canadian stars in the CFL include Toronto's Mike Morreale and Mike O'Shea, B.C.'s Sean Millington, and veteran Montreal kicker Terry Baker, who has twice led the CFL in scoring.
Like Vanderjagt and Brown, many players have gone from one league to the other. It is not a new trend; it just hasn't received a lot of attention. Back in the '50s, '60s and right into the early '70s, CFL teams could pretty much compete financially with their NFL counterparts. That's why NFL stars like Tobin Rote and Joe Theisman (both American) spent part of their careers here, and why Russ Jackson, arguably the greatest Canadian football player of all time, never left. Even though the Philadelphia Eagles chased him relentlessly, Ottawa was always able to keep him.
That means that, back then, you could flip on an NFL game and recall seeing this guy play for Saskatchewan, or hope that other guy might come to Winnipeg next season. Over the last couple of decades, that personal connection to the players has been lost. Now, though, the growing number of great Canadians like Vanderjagt, Brown and Palmer is forging a similar personal connection - there's a chance that you might have lived down the street from the guy you see on the field.