When Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson faded away as a member of the New England Patriots a few seasons ago, football fans assumed they’d seen the last of the dynamic receiver’s highlight reel receptions and entertaining end zone celebrations.
But just as people were starting to forget about the former Cincinnati Bengals star and his 67 career touchdown catches, the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL signed Johnson to their negotiation list this week. While it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll ever see a single snap north of the border, the news will at least create a bit of excitement for fans and exposure for football in Canada.
Although crossing over from the American game to the Canadian one – and vice versa – isn’t exactly common, Johnson would be far from the first player to make the transition. For decades, CFL standouts have worked their way onto NFL rosters while NFLers have – for various reasons – taken significant pay cuts to suit up in the CFL; at the moment, there are no less than a dozen former CFLers playing in the NFL and almost as many former NFLers in the CFL (most notably Toronto Argonauts wide receiver and former league MVP, Chad Owens).
And while the differences between the two leagues – namely the size of the fields (the Canadian field is 10 yards longer and more than 10 yards wider) and the different number of downs (three in CFL, four in NFL) – has caused some players to struggle with the transition, others have excelled in both environments.
Here are the top 10 players who have played in both the NFL and the CFL.
Note: to qualify for the list, players must have played at least a full season in each league, thus eliminating former quarterback Jim Zorn (one game with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1986), long-time New York Jets defensive end, Mark Gastineau (four games with the B.C. Lions in 1990) and Ricky Williams (11 games with the Toronto Argonauts in 2006), among others.
Some honorable mentions include ‘Swervin’ Mervyn Fernandez, Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson, Tom Cousineau, Mike Vanderjagt and Jon Ryan.
10. Cameron Wake, Defensive End
CFL teams: B.C. Lions (2007-08)
NFL teams: Miami Dolphins (2009-present)
Wake only spent two years with the CFL’s B.C. Lions, but he played well enough to attract the attention of 17 NFL teams. After becoming the first player in CFL history to earn Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors and leading the league in sacks in each of his first two seasons (16 in 2007 and 23 in 2008), Wake worked out for several NFL teams and eventually signed with the Miami Dolphins. He has since become of the premier pass-rushing defensive ends in the entire league, recording a total of 212 tackles, 51.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles in four seasons with the Fins. And at 32 years old, Wake still has some fuel in the tank.
9. Raghib Ismail, Wide Receiver
CFL teams: Toronto Argonauts (1991-92)
NFL Teams: Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders (1993–95), Carolina Panthers (1996–98), Dallas Cowboys (1999–2001)
Aptly nicknamed ‘The Rocket,’ Ismail began his professional football career by signing an unprecedented four-year/$18.2 million deal with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 1991 – the largest contract in American or Canadian football history to that point. In his very first game, he returned a kickoff 73 yards for a touchdown and later that season he won the Grey Cup, a game in which he took another kickoff all the way and was named MVP. After a second – and less successful season – in Canada, he signed with the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL. While he never quite lived up to the hype, he put together a respectable career, recording 363 catches, 5,295 yards and 30 touchdowns with three different teams.
8. Joe Kapp, Quarterback
CFL Teams: Calgary Stampeders (1959-60), B.C. Lions (1961-66)
NFL Teams: Minnesota Vikings (1967-69), Boston Patriots (1970)
One of the original players to make the jump from the CFL to the NFL, Kapp remains the only quarterback to appear in a Rose Bowl, a Grey Cup and a Super Bowl. After a nine-year career in Canada – a run in which he passed for more than 22,000 yards and 136 touchdowns, won the 1964 Grey Cup and earned a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame – the native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, went stateside and played three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and one with the Boston Patriots. Despite leading the Vikings to the 1969 Super Bowl, Kapp had his struggles in the NFL and eventually retired in 1971, when the Patriots sent him home during training camp.
7. Joe Horn, Wide Receiver
CFL teams: Memphis Mad Dogs (1995)
NFL teams: Kansas City Chiefs (1996-99), New Orleans Saints (2000-06), Atlanta Falcons (2007)
Long before he became one of the best wide receivers in New Orleans Saints history, Horn spent the 1995 season honing his skills with the CFL’s Memphis Mad Dogs. In 17 games, the speedy receiver caught 71 balls for 1,415 yards and five touchdowns. Like the Mad Dogs, Horn didn’t last long in Canada; the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs signed him the following season and kept him on the roster for four seasons. It wasn’t until Horn joined the Saints in 2000, however, that he broke out. In six seasons with New Orleans, he set team records for receiving touchdowns (50) and receiving yards (7,622) while making the Pro Bowl four times. After a brief stint with the Atlanta Falcons, Horn retired in 2010 with NFL totals of 603 receptions, 8,744 yards and 58 touchdowns.
6. Fred Biletnikoff, Wide Receiver
CFL teams: Montreal Alouettes (1980)
NFL teams: Oakland Raiders (1965-1978)
Unlike most of the players on this list, Biletnikoff began his career in the NFL and finished with a stint north of the border. After graduating from Florida State, Biletnikoff was drafted by both the Oakland Raiders of the AFL and the Detroit Lions of the NFL in 1965. His choice to go with the Raiders turned out to be a good one, as in 14 seasons, he made 589 catches for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns. He was also a six-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl winner, a Super Bowl MVP and was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. After a brief one-year retirement, the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL talked Biletnikoff into coming back. At the age of 37 he proved he still had the goods, recording 38 catches, 470 yards and four touchdowns.
5. Andre Rison, Wide receiver
CFL teams: Toronto Argonauts (2004-05)
NFL teams: Indianapolis Colts (1989), Atlanta Falcons (1990-94), Cleveland Browns (1995), Jacksonville Jaguars/Green Bay Packers (1996), Kansas City Chiefs (1997-99), Oakland Raiders (2000)
In a professional career that spanned sixteen years and included eight teams, Rison achieved the rare feat of winning both the Super Bowl (1996) and the Grey Cup (2004). Like Biletnikoff, Rison started in the NFL, where he put together an impressive career including 743 catches, 10,205 yards, 84 touchdowns, five 1,000-yard seasons and five Pro Bowl selections. After retiring from the NFL in 2000 and taking a break from football, he joined the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts in 2004 and helped them win the league championship. His personal stats, however, were just a shadow of what they were in the NFL – 14 catches for 174 yards and a single touchdown.
4. Doug Flutie, Quarterback
CFL Teams: BC Lions (1990–91), Calgary Stampeders (1992–95), Toronto Argonauts (1996–97)
NFL Teams: Chicago Bears (1986), New England Patriots (1987–1989), Buffalo Bills (1998–2000), San Diego Chargers (2001–04), New England Patriots (2005)
He may only stand 5’9″ and 180 pounds, but Flutie was a superstar everywhere he played. From his famous game-winning Hail Mary pass with Boston College to his three Grey Cups to a solid career in the NFL, Flutie truly did it all. In eight seasons in the CFL, he passed for 41,355 yards (including more than 6,000 yards in a season twice) and 270 touchdowns with a 61.3 completion percentage (not to mention 4,660 rushing yards and 66 rushing touchdowns) while earning six all-star nominations, three Grey Cup MVP awards and countless records. While he would never reach the same level of success in the NFL, Flutie had some good seasons with both the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers before retiring with New England in 2005. His final NFL stats included 14,715 passing yards and 86 touchdowns along with 1,634 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns on the ground.
3. Jeff Garcia, Quarterback
CFL Teams: Calgary Stampeders (1994–98)
NFL Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1999–2003), Cleveland Browns (2004), Detroit Lions (2005), Philadelphia Eagles (2006), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2007–08), Oakland Raiders/Philadelphia Eagles (2009), Houston Texans (2011)
When Garcia was bypassed in the 1994 NFL Draft because of his size (6’1”, 195 pounds), he signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL. Although he started his career playing behind Doug Flutie, he quickly proved he was worthy of a starting role and went on to lead the Stamps to three consecutive winning seasons while compiling more than 16,000 passing yards and 111 touchdowns with a 61.8 completion percentage. He also led the team to a win in the 1998 Grey Cup and was named the game’s MVP. The following season, he signed with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, and again played backup to a legend – this time, Steve Young. When Young went down with a career-ending concussion, Garcia stepped in and didn’t look back; over the next nine-plus seasons, he would pass for more than 25,000 yards and 161 touchdowns – most of that with San Francisco. Not bad for a guy who never got drafted.
2. Joe Theismann, Quarterback
CFL Team: Toronto Argonauts (1971-73)
NFL Team: Washington Redskins (1974-85)
After finishing runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1970, but before winning the 1983 Super Bowl with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Theismann spent three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. With more than 6,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns over that time, he made two CFL all-star teams. In 1974, he made the move to the NFL, where he would play 12 seasons with the Redskins and take them to a pair of Super Bowls. In addition to throwing for more than 25,000 yards and 160 touchdowns with the Skins, he earned league MVP honors in 1983 and was named to the Pro Bowl twice. Unfortunately for Theismann and football fans alike, his career was cut short when he suffered a fractured leg at the hands of linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.
1. Warren Moon, Quarterback
CFL Teams: Edmonton Eskimos (1978–1983)
NFL Teams: Houston Oilers (1984–93), Minnesota Vikings (1994–96), Seattle Seahawks (1997–98), Kansas City Chiefs (1999–2000)
One of countless quarterbacks to suffer at the hands of racism in the 1970s, Moon went undrafted by the NFL (despite being named the Rose Bowl MVP in his final year of college) and set his sights on the CFL. Six seasons, 21,228 passing yards, 144 touchdowns, five Grey Cup championships and two Grey Cup MVPs later, NFL teams were fighting over him. He ultimately decided to sign with Houston, where he would set franchise records and earn a five-year/$10 million contract extension (the highest in history at the time). While Moon would never go on to win a Super Bowl, he did everything but: 49,325 career passing yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground, nine Pro Bowl selections and countless records. He is also the only player to ever be inducted in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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