If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grey Cup would have been awarded for the 108th time this Sunday in the football-loving city of Regina.
For the first time since 1919, there will be no Grey Cup championship game. In the summer, the CFL kicked about plans for a shortened season in a hub city, then became one of the few pro sports leagues in North America to cancel its 2020 campaign altogether.
There may be hope for next year’s Cup, however. Encouraged by the positive news this week about a vaccine, the CFL released its 2021 schedule Friday – a full slate of games starting on June 10 and concluding with the Grey Cup on Nov. 21 in Hamilton.
“We’re looking forward to hosting our comeback season in our stadiums, in front of our fans,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said.
Without a season, players haven’t been paid. Most under contract with a team qualified for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. For many, this was the first season without football since they began the sport as kids.
During this long pause, many players have taken up other pursuits to make money, to lay the framework for life after football or just to stay active – from coaching to gaming, podcasting to real estate and finance, app-based gigs to entrepreneurial endeavours.
“It’s unlike most other professional sports where everyone is making millions of dollars. For the most part, players in the CFL are making comparable money to the fans that go to the games,” said Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive lineman Jake Thomas, who is a real estate agent in the booming New Brunswick housing market. “I don’t think the average person can go a year-plus without a real pay cheque. So I think a lot of guys have had to find jobs or move into their postcareer plan.”
Players with more lucrative contracts may have put money away, or can live for a while off signing bonuses. Some turned to the second job they already had, such as Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill, who is also a financial adviser. These days, he gets up at 5 a.m. to train before spending the rest of his day helping people manage their money in a complicated economy. He also sells his own speed-training workout regimen to athletes, called The Speed Code.
“It’s interesting to see how guys have adapted,” Bighill said. “They’ve been forced to figure out something they’re passionate about and how they’ll build a career for life after football.”
Nate Behar, a receiver with the Ottawa Redblacks last season, became a free agent and hadn’t secured a contract for 2020, so he didn’t get the Canadian government’s wage subsidy. He has been coaching at football camps and working on his new tech startup, ATNMY Marketing, set for launch soon. ATNMY (pronounced autonomy) is a mobile and web platform that matches Olympians, other athletes and health and wellness professionals with brands that will pay them as social-media influencers.
“I have every intention of playing another season of professional football,” Behar said. “This company has been building more momentum than I could ever have imagined. Making both work is something I know I can find a way to do.”
Natey Adjei, a receiver for the Toronto Argonauts, is busy with two ventures. Several days a week at two Toronto parks, he runs small-group outdoor fun workouts for kids whose sports have been cancelled. He also started the All Ball podcast, chasing down guests from Ricky Ray to Jose Bautista. His talent caught the attention of Toronto radio station The Fan590, which is now using him as a football contributor.
“I always wanted to be in media someday when I’m done playing, so I thought this would be a perfect entry point,” Adjei said. “Everybody’s at home, there is access to Zoom to do interviews and, everyone is looking to have connections.”
The CFL Players’ Association said it noticed a big uptick in players utilizing its CFLPA Academy. It connects players with education, job training, mentorships and a Players4Players program that lists jobs at companies at which CFL alumni and supporters are in positions to hire.
Several CFL players are trying their hand at podcasting, including Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterbacks Cody Fajardo and Isaac Harker, who have started The Rouge Report.
“Well I figured out I’m a hustler – trying to find any way to make some money,” Fajardo said with a laugh on a Zoom call with reporters this week. He’s among many CFL players recording Cameos (personalized messages) for fans.
Argos receiver Juwan Brescacin, an avid gamer, learned about the lucrative world of video-game streaming by launching his own Twitch channel. He is building a community there and entertaining subscribers. He also organized a Call of Duty video-game tournament for CFL players.
Lots of players are leaning on their football expertise.
Bombers running back Andrew Harris and friend DJ Lalama, a Montreal Alouettes linebacker, launched the Pro Prep Flag Football League. With organized tackle football cancelled in Winnipeg for high school and college athletes, they got local approval to run a physically distanced 7-on-7 flag version of the game earlier this fall – before stricter protocols recently took effect in Manitoba and shut things down. Time off football has allowed Harris and Lalama to bolster Pro Prep Academy, their business that trains young athletes. They recently added Canadian soccer star Desiree Scott to their operation.
Alouettes star quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. made headlines in the summer when he was driving for Uber Eats to make a little extra money. He said this week he now spends most of his time on the field working with young quarterbacks and receivers near his home in Tacoma, Wash., picking up experience for later in life.
“I definitely want to coach down the road; I actually got to coach in a high school all-star game a few weeks ago,” Adams said. “Yeah, that’s an experience I wouldn’t have been able to have if I was playing right now. So there’s some beauty in the struggle.”
Hamilton Tiger-Cats pivot Dane Evans accepted a position as a graduate-assistant coach of quarterbacks at North Texas University. He has had a front-row view to a football season operating during a pandemic right in his home state – experiencing the travel, the constant testing, mask-wearing and the last-minute cancellations and quarantining of players who test positive for COVID-19.
“I called [Ticats coach Orlondo Steinauer] right away and told him ‘I’m not retiring, I just have a great opportunity for this season’ and he was really supportive,” Evans said. “Anybody that knows coaching knows it’s all about connections. I knew one coach when I got in the door here, and now I have learned from so many here, so this time has been super beneficial to my future career.”