The American and Canadian flags unfurled during an NFL game

A Look at the History Shared Between the NFL and Canada

The NFL logo with Canadian Maple Leafs replacing the stars on the shield.
Source: Athlon Sports

The NFL (National Football League) has become America’s favorite sports league. From September up until February, NFL football games are played on Sunday, Monday nights, and Thursday nights. After three rounds of exciting playoff games, two football teams clash head to head in the NFL’s championship game, the Superbowl. The Superbowl itself has become one of the most watched and beloved championship games in American sports.

It’s safe to say that the NFL is an American institution. However, the league does have its international fanbases. Arguably, the largest NFL fanbase outside of the U.S. lies with their neighbors to the north Canada. Even though the country is known for hockey, football has emerged as a popular sport in Canada. More and more Canadian youth are putting on a pair of football pads and helmets. Television ratings for NFL games in Canada are steadily increasing. And an increasing number of Canadians are venturing south to watch their favorite NFL team live in their respective stadium. Needless to say, it seems like the NFL has a dedicated following in Canada.

This article will look at the history shared between the NFL and Canada. We’ll also take a look at some of the best Canadian players in NFL history. First, let’s take a look at Canada’s own football league.

Canadian Football

The logo for the CFL on a football.
The CFL officially came into being in 1958. Source: Global News

While Canada is known internationally as a hockey country, the nation has had a long running professional football league, the CFL (Canadian Football League). The CFL’s roots date back to the late 1800s. Initially, Canadian football shared similarities with rugby. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the CFL resembled the American version of the sport. At first, the league only included teams from eastern Canada. Western Canada had its own football division. The two leagues operated independently from each other for many years. Then, in 1958, the two divisions merged together and formed the Canadian Football League. This is the league that Canadians know today.

Currently, the CFL consists of nine teams located in a Canadian city. The league is split into two divisions, East and West. CFL seasons run from mid-June to early November with 18 games played. After the regular season concludes, six teams compete in three weeks of playoff games. After a semi-finals and finals game, two teams compete in the championship game. The CFL championship is named The Grey Cup.

Outside of the Grey Cup, there are several traditional CFL games. The Labour Day Classic, played on the Canadian Labour Day Weekend, features a series of games between geographical rivals. One notable rivalry is between the cities of Calgary and Edmonton. Both of the cities lie in the province of Alberta. Therefore, the series is known as the Battle of Alberta. Another standout rivalry is between Winnepeg and Saskatchewan. The two teams play on Labour Day weekend and then have a rematch the next week. This rematch game is known as the Banjo Bowl, and it has become quite popular in recent years.

Differences

While the CFL and NFL are fairly similar, they do have some differences. In the NFL, teams are given four downs to gain 10 yards, while in the CFL there are only three downs. End zones and fields in the CFL are significantly larger as well. Only 11 players are allowed on the field in the NFL; in the CFL, 12 players are allowed on the field. There are other miscellaneous and specific rule differences that are just too complex to address here. In short, the CFL and NFL are almost identical. However, the differences between the two guarantees guarantee that the CFL  is its own league, separate from the NFL.

One major difference between the two leagues is player salaries. It may come as no surprise that NFL players receive bigger paychecks while CFL players get less money. To highlight this point, the average NFL salary in 2017 equaled $2.7 million. In the CFL, the average player salary in 2018 amounted to $96,857. This is why many CFL players work secondary jobs during the offseason.

Americans in the CFL

Warren Moon holding a football. He is wearing a Houston Oilers jersey and helmet.
Before he entered the NFL, Warren Moon played in the CFL where he won five consecutive championships. Source: Sky Sports

For players unable to make it on an NFL team, the CFL provides them with a place to play. In fact, most players on CFL teams come from the United States. The migration of U.S. players to CFL teams is not a recent trend. It has occurred for many years. Many U.S. players view the CFL as a place where they can prove their playing ability to NFL teams. And in some instances, NFL teams have signed CFL players. These players then went on to successful NFL careers.

One example of this is Warren Moon. Coming out of college, Moon was told he would be a late round draft pick. Therefore, Moon feared he would get limited playing time in the NFL. Prior to the draft, Moon signed with the Edmonton Eskimoes (now Elks) of the CFL. Moon led Edmonton to a record five consecutive Grey Cup victories, in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982. NFL teams took notice, and in 1983, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers. Moon would go on to have a successful career, playing in the NFL for 17 seasons.

The NFL in Canada

For a short period of time, 2008-2013, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL played one regular season game at Toronoto’s Rogers Centre. These games were part of the NFL’s initiative to bolster their international fanbase. For years, the league has played international games, specifically in London, England and Mexico City, Mexico. While the games in Mexico and England were well attended, the Canadian games suffered from poor attendance records. For one thing, the tickets were overpriced. Second, Buffalo Bills fans boycotted the games, refusing to make the trek from the team’s home location in New York state. Therefore, the games at Rogers Centre were underattended.

Since 2013, the NFL has not hosted a game in Canada. However, the league announced they were open to playing an NFL game in Canada, possiblely for the 2022 season.

Migrating South

A group of football players running on a field during NFL training camp.
For many Canadian football players, it is difficult to land a roster spot on an NFL team. Source: Buffalo News

Canadian football players in the NFL have never been a new thing. Throughout the league’s history, at least one Canadian player is found on a team. But they are hard to come by. For every Canadian player who succeeds, there are countless others who do not make the team. This is for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the player may not have played for a prominent college football team. The player may have excelled at his position, but if they did not attended a major league college like Alabama or Clemson, chances are NFL scouts will not notice that player. On the flip side, the player may have played for a premier college team, but they underachieved at their position, or they played a minor role for the team (like a backup position).

The other factor may be the competition on an NFL team is too high. The position the Canadian player is trying out for may already have five talented prospects competing for it. Keeping pace with the other candidates is a difficult task. And in the end, the coaches may go with the more talented prospects.

For those who do make an NFL team, superstardom does not come immediately. The Canadian player might serve as a backup for another star player. Other times, the player plays a position that rarely gets the limelight. Or the player might remain on the team for only one season before they get cut. There are countless examples of Canadian players remaining on a team for one or two seasons before they vanish. Such is reality in the business that is professional football. Just making the team is hard enough. Remaining on the team’s roster is another difficult task.

Star Canadian Players

Despite the difficult odds, some Canadian football players achieve stardom in the NFL. Here are some examples of standout Canadian NFL players. These players played prominent roles for their respective teams, and some became superstars of football. 

Mark Rypien

Mark Rypein in action during a game. He is holding on to a football.
Mark Rypien led Washington to a Superbowl title in 1992. Source: USA Today.

Arguably, Mark Rypien is not a Canadian. The Calgary-born Rypien moved to the United States when he was three years old and he was raised in Spokane, Washington. However, for the purposes of this article, he counts as a Canadian.

Mark Rypien played the quarterback position, which some regard as the glamour position in football. Basically, the quarterback calls the plays for the offensive team. Rypien attended the University of Washington in Pullman, but a knee injury limited his football playing in his first season. The injury almost drove him to quit football altogether. However, Rypien persevered and had a good showing in his senior season. In the 1986 NFL draft, the Washington Redskins (now named the Washington Football Team) selected Rypien with the 146th overall pick.

Rypien was injured for his first two seasons with Washington. In 1988, Rypien got his chance to play as he replaced the injured starting quarterback. He performed well, and in 1989, he was named as the full-time starter at quarterback. In 1991, Rypien led Washington to the Superbowl. The team won the game, and Rypien established himself as a star player. However, success was fleeting. Rypien declined in the next season, and injuries derailed his remaining time in Washington.

Mark Rypien is best remembered as an accurate deep passer and one of the best quarterbacks to play for Washington. These reasons make him one of the best Canadian football players to play in the NFL.

Luke Willson

 publicity photo for Luke Willson. He is wearing his Seattle Seahawks jersey.
Luke Willson played an important role for the Seattle Seahawks. Source: 3DownNation

Born in LaSelle, Ontario, Luke Willson did not have impressive statistics. But he played an important role for his first team, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks drafted Willson in 2013. He played the tight-end position, which calls for blocking other players and catching any passes thrown to him. In his first season with the team, the Seahawks won the Superbowl in dominating fashion. In the 2014 season, Willson played a more prominent role. After the starting tight end was injured, Willson was placed in the starting role. He saw his involvement in the Seahawks increase dramatically.

However, it was in the playoffs that Willson proved invaluable to the team. During the division championship game, the Seahawks were losing by a wide margin, but they rallied back. Willson caught a crucial two-point conversion which helped Seattle win the game. The Seahawks went on to the Superbowl, but failed to repeat as champions.

In 2018, Willson left the Seahawks and signed with the Detroit Lions. He would bounce around teams before retiring in 2021 citing a heart condition. While Willson did not produce impressive statistics, the Canadian football player became a fan favorite for his willingness to do any job that was asked of him. 

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif showing off his new uniform. The back of the uniform has his number (76) and his name as Dr Duvernay-Tardif.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif holds the distinction of having graduated from medical school. Source: Montreal Gazette

Hailing from Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif plays on the offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs. An unglamorous position, and an offensive line player essentially blocks the incoming defenders who are trying to tackle the offensive player. Duvernay-Tardif has proven that he is capable of manning the offensive line. Since being drafted by the Chiefs in 2014, Duvernau-Tardif has evolved into one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. In 2019, Duvernay-Tardif helped the Chiefs win their first Superbowl in 50 years.

Besides being a professional football player, Duvernay-Tardif holds the distinction of graduating from medical school. In fact, the Chiefs coaching staff supported Duvernay-Tardif and his studies. He graduated from McGill University Faculty of Medicine in 2018. During the 2020 NFL season, Duvernay-Tardif announced he would not be playing. Instead, he worked as an orderly at a Montreal long-term care facility during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a medical background, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif may be one of the most unique football players in the NFL. For his work off the field in 2020, Duvernay-Tardif was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy. This award is given annually to the top Canadian athelete of the year.

New Stars Emerging

Chub Haubbard holding a football. He is wearing his Carolina Panthers' jersey and helmet.
Chuba Hubbard looks to make an impact for the Carolina Panthers in the 2021 season. Source: Panthers Wire – USA Today.

In recent years, Canadian football players have exploded onto the NFL landscape. Chase Claypool is one such example. In 2020, Claypool had a breakout rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had several impressive games, and he helped the Steelers reach the NFL playoffs. In 2021, two young Canadian players were taken in the draft. In the second round, the Miami Dolphins selected Jevon Howard. Howard has already made an impact on the team, recording five tackles and making other big plays. In the fourth round, the Carolina Panthers selected Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard was a standout offensive player in high school and college, scoring many touchdowns and running for thousands of yards. Although he initially started as a backup, Hubbard will get more playing time as a result of an injury to the starting player.

Conclusion

The logo for the NFL Canada twitter account.
Source: Twitter

Although Canada is primarily a hockey country, football remains a popular sport. Canada has a long-running professional football league, the CFL. The CFL has served as a proving ground for players unable to secure a spot on NFL teams. The NFL has also had a strong fanbase in Canada, so much so that several NFL games have been played in the country.

Many Canadian players have tried to land a position on an NFL team. However, the majority have been unsuccessful. However, there have been a select few who secured a roster spot and flourished in their role. This article highlights a few examples. Heading into the 2021 NFL season, 24 Canadians found themselves on the roster of an NFL team. Some, like Chase Claypool, Jevon Howard, and Chubbar Hubbard, seem destined for superstardom. In the coming years, we should expect the presence of Canadian NFL players to grow even greater.

One thought on “A Look at the History Shared Between the NFL and Canada

Leave a Reply