There have been quite a few CFL players to make their way to the NFL. Stars like Cameron Wake, Brandon Browner, and Joe Horn, in fact, all got their big breaks at the CFL (for the B.C. Lions, Calgary Stampeders, and Memphis Mad Dogs, respectively).
There have also been a handful of NFL players who have taken their talents to Canada. One such player is Johnny Manziel, who, unfortunately, seems to have blown his shot at football redemption in the CFL.
The four players in this list, however, are unlike Manziel. They had stellar NFL careers, to begin with. Then after the NFL, most made good of their time in the CFL.
As a journeyman, Flutie started his career in the USFL then played for the Chicago Bears in 1986 and the New England Patriots from 1987–1989. In 1990, Flutie took his talents to the CFL and signed with the B.C. Lions.
He spent eight seasons in Canada, where he was named Most Outstanding Player six times. He also won three Grey Cups and three Grey Cup MVPs. Flutie returned to the NFL in 1998, and played for eight more years, including a quartet of spectacular seasons from 1998 to 2001. He reportedly plotted a return to the CFL in 2006 but chose to stay retired.
Biletnikoff is a beloved figure in Oakland. He spent his entire 14-season career as a Raider and registered 8,974 receiving yards on 589 receptions (with 76 total touchdowns). In 1976, Biletnikoff helped the Raiders win Super Bowl XI, and was named MVP.
Three years later the Raiders released the four-time Pro Bowler. Then in 1980, he signed with the Montreal Alouettes. He amassed 470 yards and got to the end zone four times in his lone season for the Als.
Rison, like Biletnikoff, was a sure-handed receiver. He played for seven franchises in the NFL from 1989 to 2000. In all, Rison recorded 743 receptions for 10,205 yards and 84 touchdowns. He made five Pro Bowl appearances in his stellar career and won Super Bowl XXXI as a wideout for the Green Bay Packers.
Rison bid the NFL goodbye in 2000. Then in 2004, he signed with the Toronto Argonauts and helped them win the 92nd Grey Cup.
Johnson, aka Chad Ochocinco, was one of the NFL premier wideouts in his prime. In his 11-year career, Johnson compiled 11,059 receiving yards on 766 catches and got to the end zone 67 times. He made it to the Pro Bowl six times and led the league in receiving yards in 2006.
Controversy always seemed to follow Johnson, who last played in the NFL in 2011. In 2014, he signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. He played 10 games for the team and scored a single touchdown.
NFL Stars Who Nearly Went to the CFL
This is no doubt an impressive list. That being said, there are a few that got away — NFL players who wanted to play in the CFL but were unable to do so. Most notable is a certain two-time NFL MVP by the name of Kurt Warner.
In The Globe and Mail’s report on Warner’s supposed CFL stint, they note how a young Warner was open to playing in Canada just prior to signing with the Rams. At the time Warner had been released by the Green Bay Packers and was toiling in anonymity in the Arena Football League. So, he asked his agent to send his game tapes to CFL teams.
Unfortunately, no Canadian team took a chance on Warner, who ended up signing with the Rams in 1998. A year later he was shredding defences as the Rams’ signal-caller and leader. In Lottoland’s list of the 10 most inspirational athletes the world has ever seen, the detail of how Warner led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Warner’s is a story of resilience and perseverance, and it is quite surprising that no CFL team gave this man a chance back in 1997.
Now, fans can only wonder at what could have been had a CFL team signed Warner back then. Then again, things worked out just fine, both for the Hall of Fame quarterback and the CFL. But moving forward, you best believe that a talent like Warner would find a spot in Canada’s preeminent football league, just as Rison, Johnson, Flutie, and Biletnikoff all did.