My First Taste of The CFL — Delicious

Born in Ohio. Raised in Oklahoma.

The combination of these two things instantly demands that I be a fan of college football. And, indeed, this is my first love.

It’s the Saturday morning. The campuses. The tailgating. The amateurism that makes grown men millions upon millions of dollars. Well, I love most of college football.

To say that I love the Saturday gridiron is an understatement, and if you have known me for more than a few minutes you will quickly realize this fact. But like any off season (including the slog that is the NHL postseason) there is an absence in your heart and a longing for the Fall — football is coming.

A few years ago ESPN struck a deal with TSN to basically vacuum pack the Canadian Football League games and “flex” them in the states. Need something other than Competition Darts? Argos are playing at 6:30. Little League World Series rained out? The Stamps are winning 60-1. For many years this has been a godsend for we football fans yearning for more pigskin.

I have watched, and at times enjoyed, the CFL. It has moments of greatness and moments of debilitating slowness. In all, the atmosphere of the games and to some extent the way that the game is played remind me so much of NCAA football. And this for…I’m thankful.

As I planned my yearly, post-Stampede trip to Calgary I honed in on a 8-day stretch that included two opportunities to visit McMahon Stadium to see the Calgary Stampeders play. With the help of a friend, who guided us up the Crowchild in a mass of people, we were able to make the trek to see the Stamps face-off against everyone’s hated foe the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The approach to McMahon is pretty cool with its unsteady suspension bridge, the mass of tailgaters, and the old-fashioned steel entrance into the building. It reminds me of college campuses that I grew up visiting on Saturdays (even if on a smaller scale).

The Cow Town nature of Calgary is on full display. Boots. Hats. Bandannas. If Canadian Rednecks exist they probably go to Stampeders games, and that’s alright with me.

A quick trip to the field was allowed where I snapped a few photos, shook hands with a few players, and gawked at the familiarity of a place that was thousands of miles from my home.

The steepness of the seats, with their hardened steel formation, were like in-city mountains stretching high into the bright Canadian sky. The inflatable beer cans would help perfectly frame a setting sun in a few hours. The Olympic corner reminds us of a city that came to life in the 80’s. The locker rooms, which looked reminiscent of golf club houses, were close enough to my ears that I could sense the light rumble of the A/C units near the back doors.

As the black, inflatable entrance tunnel was being unrolled I could hear an onlooker cry “Stamps, You Suck”. The gentleman’s green jersey indicated he was a Riders fan. He wouldn’t be alone. From Section “X” you could see that the stadium was nearing capacity, and nearly half was a sea of green. The away team would have a strong showing.

The game began with the anthem followed by a tedious first five minutes that featured two coach’s challenges. This would grind the game to a snail’s pace, but it quickly resurrected itself.

The Stampeders, clearly the better team in every way, would accelerate their offense in the second half giving us several long-distance plays. The Riders are pegged to have a rough season but showed that there is a bit of life in the legs of the defense. It is subtle, but there.

In the end, Calgary would be victorious but everyone left with a smile on their face and a stomach full of Molson (minus me).

The CFL is a league that is largely ignored by America. That really isn’t anyone’s fault but the CFL, and to some extent the broadcast scope that is entirely too thin. It is a league of only 9 teams in cities most Americans have never been. The rules are different. The players are considered cast-offs of the big brother NFL. But the truth is, maybe we should watch the CFL more closely.

The makeup of these squads is far from a rag-tag group of not-so-great players. They are individuals who really love the game. The average salary for a rookie is around $40,000 and can lead to future salaries nearly $100,000. That is a far cry from the millions that are tossed around in the NFL. These players must really want to play football regardless of paycheck or destination. That’s admirable.

I had watched a handful of CFL games prior to the one I attended in person while in Calgary, and I think most US football fans would enjoy the experience. It is unique to the province or city you wander in to, and that is a great way to fall in love with a destination.

As the heckler two bench seats behind me would say each time the Riders would take a loss on a down, “You’re going the wrong way! You can’t do that! Why are you doing that?” My answer is – I’m with ya, buddy. I’m with ya.

PHOTOS by Neal Livingston: