January 20, 2007

The CFL-NFL Connection

By Perry Lefko,

Watching the National Football League playoffs, you can’t help but notice a significant link to the Canadian Football League and Canada.

There are compelling stories, virtually with every team that qualified for the post-season and now leading into the Final Four weekend.

And there are even some underlining stories, too, that make you appreciate the CFL and its influence in the bigger picture of professional football.

On the Chicago Bears’ roster, there are several CFL and/or Canadian angles. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo is a special teams player who played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Toronto Argonauts and B.C. Lions before he became a full-time NFLer, beginning with Miami in 2003.

The Bears’ roster also includes Israel Idonije, whose impressive physique is only topped by his accomplishment as a Canadian developed player out of the University of Manitoba. The native of Nigeria earned a spot on the Cleveland Browns’ roster as a walk-on in 2003 (the year he was selected 17th overall by the now-defunct Ottawa Renegades). Idonije distinguished himself in the Bears’ 27-24 last weekend over Seattle, almost blocking a punt. Don’t be surprised if you read a significant amount of stories about Idonije this weekend because he will be the focus of the Canadian media looking for a strong Canadian angle.

It’s worth noting the Seahawks have one of the best long-snappers in the league, veteran J.P. Darche, who started his pro career with the Toronto Argonauts in 1999. Following his second season, he was signed as a free agent by Seattle and has been a mainstay since.

New Orleans, which travels to Chicago, has a strong CFL and Canadian connection. Standout receiver Joe Horn played for the now-defunct Memphis Mad Dogs in 1994 and ’95 before joining the Saints as a free agent. Linebacker Terrence Melton played with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2002 and ’03. Defensive tackle Willie Whitehead had three seasons in the CFL, including practice roster stints with Baltimore in 1995, Montreal in 1996 and as an active and prominent player with Hamilton in 1997, leading the team in sacks.
Punter Mitch Berger, who is currently injured, is a B.C. native with 12 years of NFL experience.

The New England Patriots, who play the Indianapolis Colts, have an interesting Canadian angle in Nick Kaczur (pronounced Kay-zer), who was selected in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft out of the University of Toledo. The Canadian native was later selected in the first round, ninth overall, by the Toronto Argonauts. Kaczur has developed into a starter, manning the right offensive tackle position.

The Patriots have another CFL angle in strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash. He played as a defensive back for 10 years in the CFL with stops in Shreveport, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Indianapolis has an intriguing Canadian story in Daniel Federkeil, a first-round draft choice of the Argos this year. Federkeil had been a standout defensive lineman at the University of Calgary, but the Colts signed him as a free-agent prospect on the recommendation of scout Cal Murphy, the former Saskatchewan and Winnipeg head coach. Although Federkeil had been a solid defensive lineman in university, Murphy worked him out as a tight end/offensive lineman prospect. Federkeil is the Colts’ backup offensive right tackle, which is a credit to this athletic ability and Murphy’s prescience.

Of course, don’t be surprised if the name of Mike Vanderjagt, the former CFL star with Toronto and the most accurate kicker in NFL history, creeps into the story lines for the Indianapolis-New England Patriots game. Indianapolis cut ties with Vanderjagt after the 2005 season, ending an eight-year relationship, and he signed with the Dallas Cowboys, although he was cut during the season. What’s interesting is that Vanderjagt’s replacement in Indianapolis is Adam Vinatieri, whom the Patriots opted not to re-sign.

Certainly, the role Jeff Garcia played in the advancement of the Philadelphia Eagles following the injury to Donovan McNabb became a Rocky Balboaesque-type story. Garcia, the former Calgary Stampeders’ quarterback, proved his continuing value as a NFLer after some trying times in Cleveland and Detroit, and thoughts that his pro career might be over.
The grit and determination he showed down the NFL stretch and in the Eagles’ brief period in the playoffs is something CFL saw regularly during Garcia’s days in Calgary from 1994-98. The highlight of his CFL career came in 1998 when he led the Stamps to a Grey Cup win and received the game’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Perry Lefko is the Canadian Football League’s Director of Communications.