First & 10 | Previewing the CFL Draft

Mention the Canadian Football League Draft to any fan and invariably there are four different responses.

  1. There’s agreement the draft is critical in building Canadian content, which has been the backbone of every championship for the last century-plus.
  2. Didn’t a team draft a dead guy back in the day?
  3. Wasn’t there once a reference on The Simpson’s about the CFL Draft?
  4. And why can’t the CFL Draft be somehow presented like its NFL counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale?

Let’s examine these further, bit by bit.

The first one is easy, given 21 players on a CFL’s team roster must be Canadian. We pointed out in our first draft preview piece this week that of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 2019 Grey Cup championship roster – including injured players and those on the practice squad – 15 were drafted by the club. Another 12 were added in free agency and one, guard Pat Neufeld, was acquired in a trade.

Canadians have played critical roles in all 11 of the Bombers’ championships dating all the way back to 1935, through the glory years of the late 1950s/early 1960s, the three titles over a span from 1984-90 and then again in 2019.

Second, yes, a CFL team once drafted a dead guy. Believe it or not, it actually happened twice. The first time, back in 1994, was actually in a dispersal draft of Las Vegas Posse players after that franchise folded. The Ottawa Rough Riders selected defensive end Derrell Robertson fourth overall and, contrary to folklore, didn’t just pull his name off a list. They had spoken to former Posse head coach Ron Meyer and offensive coordinator Ron Smeltzer about Robertson in advance of the draft but, alas, both coaches were unaware he had died in a car crash.

Two years later, in the 1996 CFL Draft, the Montreal Alouettes selected defensive end James Eggink in the fifth round, only to learn a few hours later he had died of cancer the previous December.

Neither the league or Eggink’s school, Northern Illinois, were aware he had died. Afterwards, then Alouettes owner Jim Speros called the family to apologize.

You can’t make this stuff up, people.

As for the third point – The Simpson’s reference – it comes up every year right around now, just a few days before the draft, and features Homer watching the 15th round while avoiding going to Ned Flanders’ barbecue.

The announcers, previewing the upcoming pick of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, announce that the club ‘scored only four rouges all of last season.’

Priceless.

As for the fourth point listed above, it’s one that has been discussed many, many times over the last few years. For the record, TSN will televise the first two hours of next Tuesday’s CFL Draft before the names called in the remaining four rounds – this year’s event will only be six rounds – will be available on the league’s draft tracker on CFL.ca.

Now, there’s long been the argument that because so many of the players drafted play Canadian college football and that the interest in those teams is tepid in this country there is no larger audience for telecasting the entire draft. “Nobody knows who these guys are” is the common refrain.

The thing is, the talent this country is developing has never been better, or deeper, with Canadians now dotting rosters all over the NCAA and at big-time programs like Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma State and Oregon. The U Sports programs, also, are as talented as ever.

We’d also suggest this: even after the first round of the NFL Draft most fans are simply following who their teams pick and then doing further research. Let’s be honest… when the New York Giants, for example, pick a guard from Bowling Green in the fourth round how many of their fans truly know anything about that player?

One more on all this – sometimes proceedings like this are made into ‘events’ by the networks that cover them.

The NFL Draft – which has unfolded over three days this weekend – was hardly the behemoth it is now when ESPN first televised the event back in 1980.

It could be said the same applies to TSN’s coverage of the World Junior Hockey Championships or how the network turned ‘Friday Night Football’ into much-watch TV for CFL fans.

So, the question is, if you commit to televising all of it, will the audience will come? Just a thought.

More CFL Draft stuff and other notes, quotes and links in this week’s 1st & 10…

1. There’s always been a bit of a homespun element to the CFL Draft, especially compared to the NFL, NHL and NBA.

There’s no ‘green room’ where the top prospects camp out with their family and agents. There’s no player procession to the stage after the names get called, with the picks slipping of their Armani suit jackets for a team jersey, or donning a ball hat of their new club before hugging the commish.

Now, it’s not like the league hasn’t tried.

The first draft yours truly ever covered was in 1991 and it was a live event in Hamilton. The top prospects were feted at a soiree the night before the draft at the old Royal Connaught Hotel and then the event was held in an auditorium with team tables and the picks coming to a stage when their names were called.

Just FYI, the Ticats had the first overall pick that year and selected receiver Nick Mazzoli. The rest of the first round, FYI, featured SB Dan Farthing (Saskatchewan), DB Dan Murphy (Edmonton), FB Bart Hull (B.C.), OL Paul Vajda (Saskatchewan), FB Duane Forde, now with TSN (Calgary), OL Brett MacNeil (Ottawa), DE Bruce Beaton (Edmonton, switched to OL after college).

Hull, by the way, was one of Bobby Hull’s son and the brother to NHL star, Brett. He was traded to Ottawa and suffered an ACL injury, ending his career.

In ‘normal’, non-pandemic years the CFL would hold regional combines before inviting the best prospects to a national combine where they would be tested, interviewed and participate in drills.

In 1991 the CFL held an evaluation camp in Edmonton and then invited 10 players to attend the draft in Hamilton. All of them were among the first 18 players chosen.

2. I honestly can’t remember if the 1992 draft was a live event, but I did cover the ’93 Draft, too, which was held at Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium. The Lions made Fresno State DB the first pick overall that year. Going fourth to Edmonton, FYI, was a linebacker out of Guelph – Mike O’Shea. Interestingly, he was then flipped to Hamilton in a trade – along with LB DeWayne Odom and the rights to a negotiation-list player for QB Damon Allen.

Linebackers Mike O’Shea (50) and Kevin Eiben (35) look at each other during a time out on Saturday, July 7, 2007. CFL PHOTO/K. Rodriguez

3. As for the Bombers in the ’91 draft… as was the case for many drafts in the 1990s and 2000s, the Bombers never had a first-round pick – incredibly they were without their first-rounder in 15 of the 21 years from 1990-2010.

That year the Bombers first pick was fullback Guy Battaglini, from Ottawa, who was selected 16th overall. It was actually a solid draft class for Winnipeg as they followed that up by taking DL Steve Grant 24th overall, LB Brendan Rogers 32ndoverall, K Troy Westwood 48th overall and D Jayson Dzikowicz 56th overall. All five of them played for the club, with Westwood the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

4. FYI, I checked in with Westwood this week to see if he could remember how he had found out he had been selected by the Bombers back in ’91.

His reply, via text:

“I don’t remember how I heard, brother. What I do remember was that everyone at my school thought that being picked in the 6th round was pretty cool… they didn’t realize there were only eight rounds. My signing bonus was $500, which allowed me to pay my phone bill.”

5. Mock drafts are all the rage at this time of year, and here’s one from CFL.ca’s Marshall Ferguson.

He has the Bombers selecting University of Saskatchewan DB Nelson Lokombo third overall, FYI, and UBC LB Nick Cross 16th overall. Winnipeg has the third, 16th, 21st, 34th, 39th and 48th selections in next Tuesday’s draft.

6. One more from Marshall, who ranked the top defensive positional groups in a recent piece. (Hint: he has the Bombers with the best D-line and linebacking corps)

7. ICYMI, powerful story this week courtesy CJOB’s Breakfast with the Bombers segment, which was turned into this piece.

Abou-Mechrek, a fifth-round selection of the Bombers in 1999, played five seasons in Winnipeg in a 10-year career. He is back in Regina now after surgery in which he donated one of his kidney’s to his father.

“Anybody can do it,” he told CJOB. “It’s is special, I suppose, but it really wasn’t a decision for me – my dad needed help, I could help him, so you do it. It’s such an easy process. A week out my life gave my dad another 10 years.”

8. We introduced you to the Bombers Global Draft class a couple of weeks ago, including linebacker Les Maruo, who was born in Japan but grew up in the U.S. and played college ball at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Just this past week Maruo was a guest on XFL Xtreme podcast. Check that out, here.

9. The Bombers have done some solid work in recent drafts finding players who can contribute right away on special teams – Nick Hallett and Kerfalla Exumé from 2019, being the latest examples.

Interesting that on the list of the CFL’s all-team special-teams tacklers more than half have Bomber ties. Mike Miller ranks second to Jason Arakgi with 185 (Arakgi is at 190), current Bombers President and CEO Wade Miller is third at 184, Sean Millington – who played for the club in 1998 – is tied for fourth with Brendan Rogers, a 1991 draft pick of the team while current head coach Mike O’Shea ranks eighth all time at 169.

10. And, finally, excuse us while we reach around and pat ourselves on the back. Or attempt to, without pulling a major muscle… On Friday our ‘For the W’ book – the look at the Bombers 2019 Grey Cup championship season – has been shortlisted for two Manitoba Book Awards:

  • The Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction
  • The Manuela Dias Award for Illustration.

Many thanks to those who helped put the book together, especially editors Rhéanne Marcoux and Carrie Berndsen and the many photographers who contributed their work.

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