VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – The Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League are like a mix of the Statue of Liberty, the Oakland Raiders and Walmart.
As in: Give us your huddled masses of disenfranchised footballers — those underappreciated or overlooked by the NFL and the talented but renegade ne’er-do-wells.
But we won’t pay ‘em much.
With a CFL-mandated team salary cap of just $5 million, the Alouettes won’t make you fabulously wealthy.
But they DO provide ex-U.S. collegiate gridders with a shot at proving they were indeed undervalued by the National Football League the first time around — or that they’re not such bad actors after all.
Once again this campaign, the Alouettes — already three games into the CFL regular season; hey, it gets cold quick up there — are holding the Montreal torch of welcome high.
Among those seeing Canada as a land of opportunity is new Alouette (a bird, by the way) quarterback Troy Smith, the ex-Heisman Trophy winner out of Ohio State.
The last few seasons, Smith languished on the benches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers and never really had an extended chance to prove his worth as a first unit signal caller.
Smith’s situation smacks of the Warren Moon saga: a black, athletic passer/runner who headed north and proved himself as a CFL starter — and thrower — before returning to the NFL and a Hall of Fame career.
Is Troy another Moon?
“I don’t want (Smith) to be anything other than himself,” Alouettes general manager Jim Popp told MAS at the Alouettes spring mini-camp.
“If we formulate an offense that will enable him to be himself, we’ll win football games.”
Of his retreat to the CFL, Smith said: “It’s another chance. It’s humbling, it’s a blessing and I’m having fun.”
In three contests, Smith has completed 52 percent of his passes, thrown for three TDs and suffered two interceptions for the 1-2 Alouettes.
Instead of becoming the next Moon, Smith sounded more like he wouldn’t mind making Canada his permanent football home.
He wouldn’t be the first to do so.
Many a player has stayed and had a nice career, making a good living for a number of years.
The minimum yearly salary is just $50,000 (with a mean average of $89,235). But if you can stick around, you can move up the loonie ladder doing something you love in a charming French-speaking province.
Huge CFL success stories often involve guys out of non-descript U.S. collegiate programs.
QBs like Damon Allen, Cal State-Fullerton and Marcus’ brother, and Georgia Southern’s Tracy Hamm are prime examples, each having gone on to become an all-time great north of the border.
Both were scamperers whose skill sets were more suited for that loop’s differences in play: 12 men aside, three downs, two men in motion (with moving forward allowed), a bigger field (110 yards long and 65 wide) with a deeper end zone (20 yards).
And let’s make one thing clear: Anyone who looks down on the quality of ball in the CFL is just showing their ignorance — it is a very high level of football, well-respected by those who REALLY know the game.
Many a former U.S. collegiate star couldn’t cut it in the CFL.
The Alouettes recently released Collin Klein, the ex-Kansas State QB who was a Heisman candidate two years ago and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated while nearly leading his Wildcats to a national title.
But the majority of players making the trek to Canada are hoping to prove their worth in Montreal and other Great North outposts, then make a quick U-turn to a bigger paycheck and the sense of accomplishment that playing at the highest level brings.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Mardy Gilyard, a dynamic Alouette receiver/kick returner out of the University of Cincinnati, revealed to MAS. “I feel like I’m not satisfied with where I am as a professional.
“I won’t be until I’m a Pro Bowl receiver,” stated Gilyard, who was a victim of circumstance in his NFL shot.
Philadelphia, which drafted him, already had blazers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Reportedly, it broke then-Eagles coach Andy Reid’s heart to release Mardy.
“Yeah, his face was red as a cherry when he had to give me the bad news,” confirmed Mardy, with a chuckle.
The next year, Reid moved to Kansas City and took Gilyard with him. But a back injury just before summer camp scuttled that chance.
So late last season, Mardy joined Montreal.
“I want to prove I’m healthy and can be a dominant player,” offered the slightly built Gilyard, now 27.
Mardy seeks to follow other ex-CFLers who completed the round trip, like Miami All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake.
And then there are those who were taken in by Montreal after behavioral problems in the States — something the Oakland Raiders are fond of doing.
The list includes Lawrence Phillips, the oft-arrested — and presently incarcerated — former Nebraska All-American and St. Louis Rams running back.
“We won a Grey Cup with Lawrence Phillips” (one of three titles for Montreal since 2002), recalled Popp. “We didn’t have one issue with him.”
“He showed us a lot by being a willing and capable blocker for our star QB.”
This season’s reclamation project, of course, is Chad Johnson — nee Ochocinco, who was banished from the NFL after a domestic battery arrest.
“We’ve ALWAYS had good locker room chemistry,” Popp emphasized. “Guys will either fit in or weed themselves out.
“And those guys were well-received.”
Thus far, Chad has three catches for 66 yards — including a 46-yard TD bomb (after which his subdued celebration consisted of hugging a startled official and then Tebow-ing).
Suffice to say, Chad is thankful to be back playing football.
“It’s the opportunity to do something I love to do again, something that was taken away from me — and rightfully so,” Johnson said.
To a man, the word ALL the American football expats who have played in Montreal used — with gratitude — was “opportunity.”
Originally a gift from France to the U.S., you could say Lady Liberty has symbolically come full circle in Quebec.
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