Waiting for the axe to fall, rookies Scott Spurgeon (left),Canadian, and Pat Witheril, an American, on the Ottawa bench: it fell
When all is said and done, you can’t do what is asked of a player unless you love the game. — Mel Profit, For Love, Money and Future Considerations.
In spring the fancy of most young men may to turn to love, but by June an estimated 30,000 young North American men’s love turns to professional football. This year the nine Canadian Football League teams had a total of 679 players scratching and fighting for 297 jobs. Like beached whales that, when pulled to safety, return relentlessly to their doom, some players return to training camps again and again. But for the 319 who are rookies, it was a new and stunning experience.
This year 149 of them came to camps waving their Canadian status—they are the “non-imports,” in the vernacular of the CFL. Few, if any, can explain why they want to be professional football players. Perhaps the glamor plays a part; money is never mentioned. Most, like Tony Gabriel’s younger brother, Peter, say, “It’s a dream,” and others agree with Steve Gelley, a 26-year-old trying out with the Montreal Alouettes in his fourth attempt at the pros, who admits: “I guess it’s all I know how to do.”
At training camp a rookie is paid between $3 and $5 a day plus room and board, and receives nothing for playing in exhibition games—if he survives the first tough weeks before they begin. Each player must sign a Standard
Players’ Contract which, for the rookies, serves as humble protection in case of injury or shenanigans by management as well as establishes contract terms if he makes the team. A guaranteed minimum of $11,000 for rookies and $14,000 for veterans has been won by the CFL Players’ Association (CFLPA).
“This ends the days, as recently as 1973, when players could make as little as $3,500 a year,” says association president and former Saskatchewan Roughrider great George Reed. “Things are much better now. Salaries for non-imports are, excluding the superstars, comparable to imports. There may have been 10 or 12 players last year below the $17,000 mark, and a handful below $12,000.”
The rookies, however, are still at the mercy of the club, with bargaining expertise rather than excellence of skills often determining salaries. They receive no support from such groups as the Canadian Amateur Football Association and the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union. The CFLPA doesn’t help until they make the team and pay the $400 annual membership fee.
“I don’t think a rookie should walk into camp and expect to be on top of the world,” Reed stresses. “He has to make the team and prove himself first. After all, there’s only so much in the pot and if rookies get it the vets won’t.”
Nor are the rookies protected by the glories of their pasts—high-school letters, all-star awards, Can-Am bowls, college bowls. After the fanfare and the invitation to try out, they are tossed back to the bottom of the heap.
“It’s tough coming from the rah-rah of college to the pros,” says Kevin Powell, a 23-year-old native of Trail, B.C., who earned all-star honors at Utah (Logan) State University and was No. 1 draft choice in the CFL this year, selected by the Toronto Argonauts. “I mean, you just start all over again from the bottom and have to work your way back up.”
Training camps are, naturally enough, designed to weed out the weak and toughen the strong. The regimentation is strict, the physical toll excruciating and the emotional strain terrifying, particularly for the young men whose dreams are nearing reality. “It’s a frightful thing to isolate a young man and subject him to an atmosphere that’s all professional, all work,” says Forrest Gregg, new head coach of the Argonauts.
“I learned quickly never to be alone— don’t give yourself time to think about
it,” says Scott Spurgeon, a 22-year-old from St. Francis Xavier University and the sixth draft choice of the Ottawa Rough Riders. He was cut on June 13. “And don’t read the newspapers,” adds Dave Behm, the Riders’ seventh choice out of the University of Ottawa who was also cut on June 13.
Steve Warbuck, a 24-year-old punter from Toronto trying out this year with the Argos after being a late cut from Ottawa in ’77, suffered the humiliation again. Married just one day before training camp opened May 27, he left his bride at 5:30 the following morning
to arrive in camp only to be released two weeks later.
The CFL allows a maximum of 15 “imports” per team which, due to the wealth of talent south of the border, all teams sign. That leaves 18 spots open for the “non-imports.” Paul Robson, Winnipeg-born assistant general manager with the Blue Bombers, believes that “the Canadian kid, because of the import rule, has the greatest opportunity in professional sport in all of North America. It’s the only sport that legislates opportunity.” But the CFL is still a numbers game. From the 1977 and ’78 CFL Canadian college draft, only 65 of the 199 players drafted made it. The 1979 college draft has similar figures with 19 of 81 having made a CFL club.
“It’s often a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” says U.S.born Ron Lancaster, former Saskatchewan quarterback and now head coach. “It’s the nature of the game. Every player has to realize that this is a business. You’re either in or out—there’s no in between. But, things are getting better for Canadian kids. I signed my first contract with Ottawa for $8,500.”
The veterans play a significant role in the life of a rookie in training camp— and they are well aware of what the rookies face, including, on the average, a career of four to five years if they do make it. “The overwhelming feeling for me and, I think, for the other Canadian rookies is first the excitement and thrill of being in a pro camp, and, secondly,the feeling of a learning process. The veterans sure help,” says Nick Arakgi, a
23-year-old from Bishop’s University trying out for a backup spot behind allCanadian tight-end Peter Dalla Riva at Montreal.
“Vets watch and talk about who they think will be cut,” says Canadian Neil Lumsden, running back for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Eastern Conference rookie of the year in 1976. “A rookie has to do things to be noticed. He has to go out of his way to hit somebody, and after a week and a half, when the mental fatigue begins to try him, he still has to think he’s different. He’s going to be the one who’ll make it.”
Joe Scannella, head coach of the Alouettes, talks of the realities of training camp. “A rookie knows that a veteran who has played well has to be severely beaten before he loses his job.”
Tony Gabriel, premier tight end for Ottawa, has been through it. He shakes his head when discussing rookies. “As a veteran, you don’t want to tell a kid about the odds against him. I stress the job. A young Canadian kid has got to be versatile, play specialty teams and be determined.” His brother, Peter, living
in Tony’s shadow, says: “I dream of making a touchdown catch that wins the Grey Cup.” Wide awake on the practice field, he adds: “But, we rookies all agree that we’re here to do a job and keep our mouths shut.” Peter was released by the Argos on June 22.
Rookies are quick to learn that Canadian pro football is indeed a “business.” Not a lucrative one, but a business just 'the same. CFL revenues last year totalled $25,980,000. Expenses, for six of the nine teams, were in excess of revenues despite the almost $200,000 each team receives from television rights.
(When compared to the $5.1 million each National Football League team received for U.S. TV rights, the sum shrinks to loose change.) The Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimo organization made a profit of just $140,000 last year; the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost $228,000.
The rookies, particularly the non-imports, strut quietly at training camps with a great deal behind them, hoping for more ahead. The odds are clearly against them, their battles must be fought alone, their fears dealt with each day, and futures, which may not include football, seriously considered. Though many would admit that the odds against them are enormous, few are willing to look beyond the game. Peter Spano, a 26-year-old import from Panhandle State University trying out for Ottawa, says: “I think every player has to put the game in its proper perspective. I believe it was a gift from God that got me this far, and if I don’t make it I’ll survive, with God’s help.”
When the 1979 season opened this week, 57 rookies were in uniform—262 were still dreaming.^
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