At just 28, Andy Fantuz suddenly finds himself a CFL elder statesman.
On Tuesday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats introduced a tanned Fantuz, who spent last week on vacation in Africa, after agreeing to terms with the free-agent slotback last Friday. Fantuz will call Ivor Wynne Stadium home for the next four seasons after spending the first six years of his career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Hamilton dug deep to secure Fantuz – the native of Chatham, Ont., will reportedly earn $190,000 annually. And while the Ticats are expecting a definite bang for their buck from Fantuz, the CFL’s 2010 top Canadian will open the season as their second-oldest receiver behind 32-year-old slotback Dave Stala.
Fantuz sees adopting a dual role in Hamilton of not only becoming quarterback Henry Burris’s go-to receiver but also serving as a mentor to talented sophomores Chris Williams, Aaron Kelly and Bakari Grant.
“The great, young receivers on this team, I can help them out and teach them some of the things I’ve acquired and the knowledge I’ve acquired and some of the tips on the field,” Fantuz said. “I want to work with the whole group, really bring the team together and try to make it a cohesive unit and become a family and try to get us working as a team.”
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Fantuz not only gives Hamilton another set of reliable hands but also enhances its inside presence, where he can create mismatches with linebackers and come up with the tough catch. Those are qualities new Hamilton coach George Cortez says make a player like Fantuz “a quarterback’s best friend.”
“Andy is driven, wants to be successful and wants the ball thrown to him, which is really important for a receiver,” Cortez said. “We’re looking for big things from the position. He’s a more physical receiver than most people give him credit for.”
Fantuz had 289 receptions for 4,311 yards and 23 touchdowns with Saskatchewan. He was named the CFL’s top Canadian in 2010 after posting 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs.
Fantuz missed the first half of last season while attending the Chicago Bears’ camp before being released. But he only played in four games with Saskatchewan because of an ankle injury.
Fantuz will also be preaching the value of patience with his new teammates, that wins are more important than statistics and teams succeed collectively, not with individuals. Fantuz certainly knows what it takes to get to the Grey Cup, playing in three CFL title games with the Riders and winning in 2007 when he was named the top Canadian in the Riders’ win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Hamilton hasn’t played in the Grey Cup since winning it in 1999.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how teammates work together and how they respect each other,” Fantuz said. “It’s teammates wanting to play for each other, wanting to play for the coach and fans.
“You must have that family-type feel to the locker room and I feel that’s a major part of it. … If we can all work with each other, for each other and realize it’s about the victory and not about ourselves I think we can really excel and shine on the field.”
Saskatchewan and Hamilton both pursued Fantuz hard, with the former University of Western Ontario star saying the opportunity to play close to home and reuniting with Cortez factored into his decision. Cortez served as Saskatchewan offensive co-ordinator during Fantuz’s rookie season.
“Having something that was stable and great for me was very tough to leave,” Fantuz said. “But I’ve always wanted to come back home and get a chance to play in Southwestern Ontario and when the opportunity arose, all the pieces fell into place.
“It definitely wasn’t about the money. It’s about winning championships, the football aspect, coach [George]Cortez, the fans in the city. It seems like a good fit for me … but I’m going to miss it out there.”
Ironically, Fantuz and the Ticats kick off the 2012 season playing host to Saskatchewan on June 29. Fantuz will make his return to Regina on July 28 and expects a mixed reaction.
“Rider fans have always been at my side, I feel the majority of the reaction [to Hamilton signing]has been positive, they wished me the best and understand my decision and I have to thank them for that,” Fantuz said. “Of course, there’s going to be some booing when you’re playing against their team but I’m not going to take it personally.
“I feel like they’re knowledgeable, they understand the game, they understand what a player has to do personally for himself and family. I’m not too concerned with dealing with that stuff, I don’t think it’s going to become an issue.”
Landing Fantuz was one move in general manager Bob O’Billovich’s whirlwind makeover of Hamilton’s roster this off-season. Since the Ticats’ 19-3 loss to Winnipeg in the East Division final, they’ve fired a head coach (Marcel Bellefeuille), hired a replacement (Cortez), lost defensive end Greg Hicks (NFL), released running back Avon Cobourne, traded quarterback Kevin Glenn and offensive lineman Mark DeWit to Calgary for Burris, released offensive lineman Simeon Rottier and defensive end Luc Mullinder and either dipped into free agency or traded for the likes of tailback Martell Malett, defensive end Greg Peach, offensive lineman Tim O’Neill and linebacker Kevin Eiben.
“I think we’re on the threshold now of being the kind of team you need to win the Grey Cup,” O’Billovich said. “You need good players to win the Grey Cup.
“Coaches are very important but there’s no coach that’s going to win if he doesn’t have good players. We’re working hard to provide coach Cortez and his staff with as many good players as we can and when they get on the field it’s up to them to do what they need to do.”
And in the mind of Cortez, who will also serve as Hamilton’s offensive co-ordinator this season, there’s no such thing as too many weapons on offence.
“It’s a bigger problem not to have enough,” he said.