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Elite Americans in the CFL

It all boiled down to money

During the 1950s--before the National Football League became the multi-billion-dollar business conglomerate that it is today--a number of American college high draft picks, along with several seasoned NFL players, opted for the more-attractive Canadian Football League. Why? Pay was at least the same or even better in many cases on this side of the border, aided by a Canadian dollar worth ten cents more than its counterpart, combined with the possibility of off-season Canadian jobs. So, who were some of these American players who came here during that time? Here’s a few…

Chuck Hunsinger,  Chicago Bears
1951 Bowman football card of Chuck Hunsinger, Chicago Bears (United States Public Domain)

In the first round of the 1950 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears chose powerful running back Chuck Hunsinger from the University of Florida at Gainesville third overall. He played for the Bears until 1952, then the Montreal Alouettes from 1953-1955. Unfortunately, he will always be known for one play--the “Hunsinger Fumble” during the 1954 Grey Cup when he was hit hard and dropped the ball on the Edmonton Eskimos 10-yard line with three minutes to go and the Als up by five points. Esks rookie Jackie Parker picked the ball up and raced 90 yards for a TD and an Edmonton victory.

In the second round that year, 17th overall, the Green Bay Packers took Houston’s Rice University quarterback Tobin Rote, who struggled with a less-than-mediocre Packer team around him for the next seven years before winning a championship with the Detroit Lions in 1957, Detroit’s last NFL title. Rote was the highest-paid CFL player from 1960-1962 as he aired it out for the Toronto Argonauts, where he threw for 4,247 yards and 38 TDs in his first season, creating CFL records at the time.

Also, in the 1950 NFL Draft, Oregon State’s tailback-receiver Ken Carpenter was picked in the first round, 13th overall, by the Cleveland Browns. He played as a Pro Bowl All-Star in 1951, and after two more years with the Browns, he too went north and starred for the Saskatchewan Roughriders from 1954-1959, where he won West All-Star honors three years plus a conference MVP award. Credited with 54 TDs lifetime rushing and receiving combined, he also punted and place-kicked for the Roughriders.

In 1951, fullback Johnny Bright was fifth in balloting for the Heisman Trophy honors once he finished his college career at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The first pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, fifth overall, he went north, instead, to the Calgary Stampeders. Traded to the Edmonton Eskimos in mid-1954, Bright went on to be a Hall of Famer and the CFL’s top lifetime rusher upon his retirement with 10,909 yards in 13 star-studded seasons. Schenley Award winner as the league’s MVP in 1959, Bright played a major role in three straight Eskimo Grey Cup championships from 1954-1956. He was a five-time Western All-Star and scored 71 touchdowns.

Oklahoma Sooners halfback Billy Vessels won the Heisman Trophy in 1952, then signed with the Edmonton Eskimos, instead of the NFL Baltimore Colts who drafted him second overall in the first round. In 1953, his only year in Canada, he rushed for 926 yards on 129 carries for a 7.1 average, impressive- enough numbers to win the inaugural Schenley award given to the league’s MVP. Vessels was then drafted into the US Army for two years. He played for the Colts in 1956, but suffered a leg injury in mid-season and never played pro football again, seeking other ventures.

University of Maryland graduate and future CFL Hall of Famer Bernie Faloney was another first round NFL pick who came north. He was fourth in the Heisman balloting in 1953, then was drafted in the first round, 11th overall, by the San Francisco 49ers, who offered him $9,000 to play defensive back and quarterback. Two-way football was the norm in the Fifties. However, Frank “Pop” Ivy, the Oklahoma Sooners coach (Maryland’s opponent in the Orange Bowl) was heading to Edmonton and asked Faloney to go with him, offering him $12,500.

Faloney quarterbacked the Eskimos to a Grey Cup victory in 1954, then was drafted into the US Army for two years. Declared a free agent for the 1957 season, Faloney returned to Canada, signed with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, and became their number one quarterback until 1964, taking the Cats to seven Grey Cup appearances. The league MVP in 1961, he retired in 1967 after playing with the Montreal Alouettes, then the BC Lions.

For the eighth pick in the first round of the same 1953 Draft, the New York Giants took tough 200-pound fullback Bobby Marlow, a University of Alabama standout. Instead, he jumped to the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders and played there eight years. He held the team’s lifetime rushing record at 4,291 yards until an icon named George Reed appeared on the scene and passed him a decade later. Marlow was a hard runner and a hard hitter, thriving on the two-way game as a Western defensive All-Star five times at the linebacker and halfback positions. On offense, he scored 31 touchdowns total.

Drafted in the fifth round, 55th overall (low compared to the others mentioned), by the Washington Redskins in 1958, after coming out of the University of Michigan, Jim Van Pelt opted for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he and Kenny Ploen combined to quarterback the team to two straight Grey Cup victories over the Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1958 and 1959. In his two seasons, Van Pelt threw for 40 TDs (31 in 1959), over 4,000 yards total, as well as place-kicked. Unfortunately, his pro career came to a skidding halt in 1960 upon receiving his draft notice for the US Air Force, where he spent the next three years.

Ken Carpenter
1953 Bowman football card of Ken Carpenter, Cleveland Browns (United States Public Domain)

In 1955, the Blue Bombers grabbed yet another player a few rounds down who didn’t consider his NFL drafted team--the Baltimore Colts. Picked in the sixth round, 64th overall, CFL Hall of Famer Leo Lewis headed straight to Winnipeg after he graduated from Lincoln University of Missouri. Nicknamed the “Lincoln Locomotive,” Lewis was a huge part of four Grey Cup victories in an 11-year career that saw him rush for 8,861 yards with a 6.6 yard average and an amazing 29.1 average on kickoff returns. His lifetime rushing yardage remained a Bomber team record for 41 years.

Bomber head coach during Lewis’ time, Bud Grant, who also spent 18 years as head coach of the NFL Minnesota Vikings, considered Lewis the best player he had ever coached in either the NFL or CFL. From the University of Minnesota, Grant, himself, was taken 14th overall in the first round of the 1950 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, in the same year as Ken Carpenter and Chuck Hunsinger. Grant played two years for the Eagles, then signed with the Bombers, playing there from 1953-1956 as a defensive back and an All-Star receiver before coaching Winnipeg to their best years ever from 1957-1966.

The 1959 NFL Draft exploded with four first-round picks who eventually bolted for the Canadian Football League. First overall was the highly-touted quarterback Randy Duncan taken by the Green Bay Packers. The Washington Redskins chose quarterback Don Allard as their number four pick. Number seven went to the Chicago Bears, when they chose running back Don Clark. And number ten went to the New York Giants, who picked quarterback Lee Grosscup.

Randy Duncan quarterbacked the University of Iowa to two Rose Bowls in 1957 and 1959, then inked a contract with the BC Lions for $2,000 more than the Packers were offering, plus a $2,500 signing bonus. Duncan played two years for BC where he passed for a combined 3,480 yards and 25 TDs, then left for the new American Football League.

The highest-ever NFL pick from Boston College until the Atlanta Falcons chose Matt Ryan in 2008, Don Allard jumped straight to Saskatchewan, played there two tough years for a bad team, throwing twice as many interceptions as TDs, then went to the Montreal Alouettes for two more equally-frustrating CFL years.

The third quarterback in the 1959 group, Utah University’s Lee Grosscup, started his pro career in the NFL and AFL, then played briefly as a back-up with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1963, the same year that Ron Lancaster had arrived from Ottawa to take the QB spot and eventually become a living legend in Regina. Grosscup was known more for his 20-year stint as an ABC college football analyst and later a college and pro football broadcaster.

Don Clark was the cream of the four 1959 first-round picks. With the Ohio State Buckeyes, he starred on the 1957 Rose Bowl Championship team. Rejecting the Chicago Bears, he played for Ottawa in 1959, was traded to Winnipeg, who traded him to Montreal before he could put on a Blue Bomber uniform. With Montreal, he excelled. In 1960, he rushed for 902 yards, and another 1,143 yards in 1961, then left the game the good after two injury-laden seasons at age 27.

So, what changed in the 1960s and after that to eventually widen the gap between the CFL and NFL?

One game, actually, had a lot to do with it. Millions liked what they saw in the televised 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, a nail-biting affair that went into overtime and won by Johnny Unitas’ Colts. Due to the TV exposure, the National Football League grew to become a larger than life entity. Another factor was the popularity of the rejuvenated Green Bay Packers under the tutelage of coach Vince Lombardi who turned the team into a powerhouse dynasty in the 1960s, after being the laughingstock of the league for over a decade. These two factors plunged the NFL into a new era of huge television deals and sold-out stadiums.

Once again, it all boiled down to money. Only this time it worked in the NFL’s favor.


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