Player bounties are making headlines in the NFL but former CFL defensive tackle Adriano Belli says the practice is also commonplace in Canada.
“Players put up bounties all the time,” said Belli, a 10-year CFL veteran who retired last May.
“We all got per diem when we travelled, you’d get a couple of hundred bucks or even more depending on your contract for spending money on road trips.
“I’ve seen guys before the game put $100 a pop into a pot and go into the locker room and say, ‘Okay, first sack or the first guy to knock the quarterback out of the game gets the pot.’ That’s fairly normal.”
Two CFL players currently in the league but requesting anonymity also told The Canadian Press that cash pools and bounties are alive and well in Canada.
“The thing with the Saints is it’s the first time I’ve heard of a coach being involved,” one player said. “It’s always something between us players.”
Late last week, an NFL investigation found between 22 and 27 New Orleans defensive players and former defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams maintained a bounty pool for three seasons that rewarded Saints defenders for knocking opponents out of games due to injury.
The league found the Saints targeted players such as quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
If a player was knocked out of a game, the reward was $1,500 (U.S.). If he was carted off, it was $1,000. The NFL said the pool was as high as $50,000 or more in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.
The CFL pool would seem paltry by comparison, comprising a few hundred dollars, depending on the number of players kicking money in.
The NFL has yet to announce any sanctions but commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to come down hard on those involved.
Michael Copeland, the CFL’s chief operating officer, says commissioner Mark Cohon is an advocate of player safety and won’t tolerate those who deliberately injure others.
“It’s hard to imagine anything that is more disparaging or potentially harmful to an opponent or the game than deliberate attempts to injure,” Copeland said in a statement to The Canadian Press. “We have not received any allegations, and certainly no proof, of this practice in our league.
“If we were to discover hard evidence of this in the future, it would be met with severe discipline.”
Of course, that would not affect the retired Belli – dubbed The Kissing Bandit because of his penchant for giving people a peck on the cheek. But the six-foot-five, 290-pound tackle said whenever he stepped on the field, his intent was clear.
“My goal was to get their quarterback out of the game,” said the 34-year-old Toronto native. “I didn’t want to injure him so he couldn’t play anymore but certainly hurt him so he couldn’t play anymore against us in that particular game.
“I’m not a hateful guy, I never wanted to injury somebody. We’re all professional athletes and have to make a living and I love quarterbacks, I think they’re so cute in their little uniforms. However, my job was to get them out of the game.”
Belli even made sure quarterbacks knew there was a price on their head.
“Sure, we’d tell him to his face,” Belli said. “I even said to Anthony [Montreal Alouettes star Anthony Calvillo]a few times, ‘Hey, let me get to you, pal, and I’ll split the money with you.”‘ Trouble was, Calvillo, one of the CFL’s highest-paid players, never went along.
“He’s one of those guys who is stone-cold out there,” Belli said. “But what’s the purpose of defence in football? It’s to hit the guy with the ball as hard and fast as you can.”
Belli was a tenacious player who went all-out and did whatever he could to be effective. He was also an expert in verbal warfare, using his tongue to get under the skin of his opponents and get them off their game.
News of the Saints’ bounty program comes at a time when the NFL has placed significant emphasis on player safety and how to treat and ultimately reduce concussions in the game.
“I think what bothers the public is the word ‘bounty’ because it suggests clear intent to hurt a specific player,” said one of the CFL players. “I don’t think anyone steps on to the football field looking to end another’s career.
“At the end of the day it’s football and it’s a tough game.”
But money isn’t always the driving force for a player.
“I remember in university [at Houston]we were playing against a hotshot running back in the SEC, not sure if it was Tennessee or Alabama, and he used to wear a gold chain,” Belli said. “Our defensive line coach said, ‘The first SOB who gets me that gold chain, I’ll have my wife cook him dinner.’ “Even before the game started, I went and ripped his chain off.”
Traditionally, pools are established as incentives for defensive and special-teams players. They ante up cash that’s offered for such things as a first interception, sack or fumble recovery or even a crucial tackle on a punt or kickoff return.
Often quarterbacks, receivers and running backs are the targets because they’re the main cogs of any offensive unit.
Belli said defensive linemen often pooled their money to be given to the one who knocked the opposing quarterback out of the game. But bounties didn’t stop there as Belli added he was often a marked man by opposing offensive linemen.
“I know offensive linemen put bounties on defensive linemen because I was on the other end of that several times,” he said. “But it comes from, ‘Hey, he hit our quarterback late last game, let’s hit that S.O.B.’ “That happens all the time.”
Rewarding players for on-field accomplishments is a long-standing tradition in football.
“Back in Pop Warner (youth football in U.S.), when you did something good you got a sticker for your helmet and it was a big deal because it was recognition in front of your teammates,” one of the CFL players said. “And when you got to college, you got the game ball and that was a really big deal.
“This is nothing new. It’s no different than millionaire golfers making side bets during a tournament. It’s part of the game.”
On defence, the aim is to hit an opponent as hard as possible to separate him from the ball. Even if the opposition gets up, the thinking is, because he knows he’ll be hit just as hard the next time, he’ll be tentative and therefore less effective.
For example, if a receiver trying to make a catch over the middle is rocked by a defensive back, the next time he might be more concerned about contact than catching the football and drop a crucial pass.
The same logic applies to a quarterback who has been continually hit or harassed getting antsy in the pocket and hurrying a pass that disrupts his timing with a receiver. Belli said his coaches often overlooked his penchant for taking penalties so long as he got to the passer.
“The quarterback, at the end of the day, is the guy who leads the squad,” Belli said. “Without your starting quarterback playing well, you don’t win.
“And that’s what I appreciated about my position, you had a chance to ruin the game.”
Belli offers no apologies for his approach.
“This is not two-hand touch, it’s an intense sport,” he said. “You get a chance to see guys when stuff hits the fan and if they’re a man or a mouse.
“I miss the guys and the sport was kind of fun but what I miss now more than anything is the combat. I miss the offensive linemen, I miss scrapping with big, mammoth men and getting under their skin.”