No one should ever make the argument that the CFL is a higher quality product than the NFL. While the games could be just as exciting, sometimes more so than the NFL, the best football players in the world play south of the border. However, history has shown that several CFL players deserve opportunities in the NFL, which bodes well for the league.
There’s usually some debate as to whether CFL players leaving for the NFL is good for the league. While it’s tough for a league to lose its top stars, whenever a CFL player makes it in the NFL, it’s a wonderful reflection on the CFL. It gains exposure and more eyes are likely to turn its way. NFL scouts will watch more, and even American fans will tune in on a non-NFL day to get their football fix.
It translates to coaching too, as Marc Trestman finally got the opportunity to be a head coach. The wonderful job he did in the CFL led him to the opportunity to coach the Chicago Bears.
It’s a victory for the CFL to see its players make the big time, and even more so when they make a significant impact in the NFL. It also could encourage struggling NFLers to regroup and find their stride in the CFL to cause NFL teams to give them a second look.
Here are the top 10 players to have played in both leagues.
10) Mike Vanderjagt
What? Some “idiot kicker” made the list? Well, whatever Peyton Manning‘s opinion is of him, Mike Vanderjagt was a very impactful player in the NFL. He finished his career as the most accurate kicker with at least 100 field goal attempts. He went 230 for 266 (86.5%). His CFL numbers actually weren’t as impressive, with a 74.7% success rate, going 112 of 150.
Vanderjagt had a rough start in the CFL, being cut by four different teams from 1993 to 1996. However in 1996, he found a home with the Toronto Argonauts and proved to be a clutch kicker. He went 9 for 9 on field goals in the 1996 and 1997 Grey Cup games, being named the game’s most outstanding Canadian in 1996.
In 1998, Vanderjagt landed an NFL opportunity, joining the Indianapolis Colts. He would remain in Indy through the 2005 season.
In 2003 Vanderjagt had a perfect kicking season, going 37 for 37 on field goals and 46 for 46 on PATs. He then went 3 for 3 on field goals and 12 for 12 on PATs in the playoffs.
In the 2005 NFL playoffs, Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 48-yard field goal in a Colts playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He then had a disappointing 2006 season with Dallas and that was the end of his NFL career. He played one more year in the CFL before calling it quits.
9) Mervyn Fernandez
“Swervin Mervyn” Fernandez was originally drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983, but couldn’t cut the main roster.
He would move all the way up the west coast to play for the BC Lions where was named the league’s most outstanding rookie. He helped the Lions to the 1985 Grey Cup, with the team winning over Hamilton 37-24. That year he had 95 catches for 1,727 and 15 touchdowns.
He finally made it to the Raiders in 1987 and in 86 NFL games, he amassed 209 catches for 3,764 yards and 19 touchdowns. He never made a Pro Bowl, but he still holds the Raiders’ franchise record for yards per catch with 18.01.
8) Jeff Garcia
Jeff Garcia went undrafted out of San Jose State and had the tough task of backing up Doug Flutie in Calgary. He was told he was too small and had a weak arm.
In 1995, while filling in for an injured Flutie, Garcia set a Stampeders record with 546 yards and six touchdowns in a Labour Day matchup with Edmonton. This led to a quarterback controversy when Flutie returned. Calgary made it to the 1995 Grey Cup, but lost with Flutie as the starter.
In 1996, Flutie left for Toronto and Garcia got to shine, leading Calgary to three straight winning seasons. He led Calgary to a 1998 Grey Cup win over Hamilton and was named Grey Cup MVP. He was then signed by the San Francisco 49ers to back up Steve Young.
Following Steve Young’s retirement, Garcia had a Pro Bowl year in 2000, throwing 31 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions. The following season, he threw 32 and led the 49ers to the playoffs.
His numbers dipped in the 2002 season, but he led San Francisco to one of the greatest playoff comebacks in history. Down 38-14, he led the 49ers to a 39-38 victory. Garcia would bounce around, playing for Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Oakland.
His supposed weak arm didn’t stop him from enjoying success.
7) Cameron Wake
Cameron Wake will climb up this list by the time his career’s over. He’s gone from CFL standout to the best defensive player on his NFL team.
He went undrafted in 2005 and failed to make the New York Giants roster. He joined the BC Lions in 2007 and made an immediate impact, leading the league with 16 sacks. He became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
He followed that up with 23 sacks in 2008 and the Miami Dolphins took notice, as did several NFL teams.
The Dolphins signed him prior to the 2009 season. In his first NFL start, he recorded two sacks, four tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. He’s never looked back. In five NFL seasons, he has 51.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles and 212 tackles. He remains one of the league’s best pass-rushers.
6) Joe Theismann
Joe Theismann was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the fourth round of the 1971 draft, but the Toronto Argonauts gave him a better offer than Miami, so he went north.
He was named a CFL All-Star twice in three seasons and signed with Washington in 1974. He actually served as the team’s punt returner and wasn’t named the starting quarterback until 1978.
Theismann eventually led his team to a Super Bowl, winning Super Bowl XVII over the Miami Dolphins. He’d lead them back to the big game the following year, but this time lost to the Raiders.
Theismann set several franchise records, including most career passing attempts (3,602), most career passing completions (2,044) and most career passing yards (25,206), while also throwing 160 touchdown passes, with 138 interceptions.
Unfortunately his career was ended in 1985 after a hit by Lawrence Taylor resulted in a compound fracture in his leg. It remains one of the ugliest injuries in football history.
5) Joe Kapp
Joe Kapp was actually drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1959, but his rights were waived and he signed with Calgary.
In 1960, he led the Stampeders to the playoffs. In 1961, the expansion BC Lions traded for Kapp and he led the Lions to their first Grey Cup appearance in 1963 and first Grey Cup victory in 1964.
By 1967, Kapp decided he wanted to go to the NFL and in a rare trade between the two leagues, BC sent Kapp to Minnesota.
The Vikings were led by GM Jim Finks and coach Bud Grant, both formerly of the CFL.
Kapp led the Vikings to some early success, falling short to the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 playoffs. He then led the Vikings to Super Bowl IV, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. He remains the only CFL Hall of Famer to quarterback a Super Bowl team.
Kapp co-holds the NFL record for passing touchdowns in a game with seven, set in 1969. Following a contract dispute, he signed with the Boston Patriots, but in the 1971 season was turned away in training camp. That was the end of his career.
3) Raghib “Rocket” Ismail
The Toronto Argonauts and Raghib ‘Rocket’ Ismail shocked the football world. Argos owner Bruce McNall outbid the NFL and obtained Notre Dame’s standout receiver with a four-year, $18.2 million deal before the 1991 draft. Imagine a projected no.1 overall pick picking the CFL over the NFL today.
Ismail’s shifty running style proved to be a perfect fit for the wider Canadian field. He helped the Argonauts to the Grey Cup in his rookie season. He was named the game’s MVP and returned a kick 87 yards for a touchdown in the Argos’ 36-21 win.
However, after Toronto’s disappointing 1992 season, Ismail left the CFL for the LA Raiders who had obtained his NFL rights by drafting him 100th overall in 1991.
Ismail had a respectable NFL career as a receiver and solid kick returner. His best years came in 1998 and 1999 with the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, breaking the 1,000-yard receiving mark and 14 touchdowns over the two seasons.
In a nine-year NFL career, he had 363 catches, 5,295 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns.
3) Cookie Gilchrist
The Cleveland Browns tried to sign Cookie Gilchrist out of high school, but the bruising fullback/linebacker went north to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
He wound up being a CFL All-Star for five straight years from 1956 to 1960. He led Hamilton to a 1957 Grey Cup victory, before playing for Saskatchewan and Toronto.
He finished his CFL career with 4,911 rushing yards, 1,068 receiving yards and 12 interceptions as a linebacker (players regularly played on both offence and defence back then).
Gilchrist would join the Buffalo Bills of the AFL in 1962. He became the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher that season. He also scored 13 touchdowns, a league record and was named AFL MVP.
In 1963 he set a pro football record with 243 yards rushing and five touchdowns in one game. In 1964 he helped the Bills to an AFL championship win over the San Diego Chargers.
Gilchrist would finish his six-year NFL career with 4,293 yards, 37 touchdowns and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
2) Doug Flutie
Is there a more beloved player in CFL history than Doug Flutie?
Originally drafted by the L.A Rams in 1986, Flutie was frowned upon by the NFL when he crossed the picket lines of a players strike, playing with replacements in 1987 for the New England Patriots. He left for the CFL in 1989.
Flutie won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award six times and won three Grey Cups. Many say he’s the greatest CFL player in league history. At 5’9″, Flutie was told he was too small to be a quarterback.
After playing two years with the BC Lions, Calgary signed Flutie in 1992 and he led them to a Grey Cup victory.
He would win two more with Toronto in 1996 and 1997.
Flutie finished his CFL career with 41,355 yards, 270 touchdown passes and a 61.3 completion percentage. He also rushed for 4,660 yards and 66 touchdowns.
He joined the Buffalo Bills in 1998. After filling in for an injured Rob Johnson, Flutie went 8-3 and made the 1998 Pro Bowl.
In 1999 came one of the most controversial decisions in NFL history. After leading the Bills to a 10-5 record, Wade Phillips inexplicably benched Flutie in favour of Johnson for their Wild-Card playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. The Bills lost 22-16 and haven’t made the playoffs since.
The Bills remained stubborn. The following year, Johnson went 4-7 as a starter, whereas Flutie went 4-1. They would cut Flutie after the 2000 season.
After starting in 2001 for San Diego, he finished his career mostly as a backup, with the Chargers and New England Patriots. His NFL record as a starter was 37-28, including 22-9 in home games. What could’ve been had Buffalo stuck with Flutie…
1) Warren Moon
Due to his astronomical success in both leagues, Warren Moon is no.1.
He’s the only player in both the CFL and Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Despite his great collegiate career with the Washington Huskies, Moon went undrafted. Many tried to convert him to another position, as was common with black quarterbacks coming out of college, but Moon was adamant he play as a quarterback.
Moon signed with the Edmonton Eskimos and led the Eskies to five straight Grey Cup victories from 1978 to 1982. He shared quarterbacking duties with Tom Wilkinson but eventually surpassed Wilkinson. He was named Grey Cup MVP in 1980 and 1982.
Moon finished his CFL career with 21,228 yards and 144 touchdowns to 77 interceptions. He finally got a break when the Houston Oilers signed him.
Moon enjoyed many great years with Houston, ranking among the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He was traded to Minnesota after the 1993 season after a disappointing playoff loss to Kansas City.
Moon played until 2001 and his numbers are untouchable when looking at players who played in both countries.
His NFL stats included 3,988 completions, 49,325 yards and 291 touchdown passes, as well as 1,736 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns.
His combined stats in both leagues include 5,357 completions, 70,553 passing yards and 435 touchdowns. Moon made the Pro Bowl nine times. In 2006, he became the first CFL hall of famer, first undrafted quarterback and first black quarterback to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s no arguing this choice for no.1.