Editor’s Note: The history of the CFL is filled with stories of players who have gone on to careers in the NFL after their years in Canada. Not all of them have won Grey Cups though. In this article, Kean Doherty has picked out 12 of the most outstanding players who have won a Grey Cup and then found success in the NFL.
By Kean Doherty
Here are 12 NFL/CFL crossovers who won one or more Grey Cups in their careers.
12. WR Mervyn Fernandez – B.C. Lions
“Swervin’ Mervyn” Fernandez picked up his great nickname while a standout player at his high school in San Jose, CA. He parlayed that talent into a place on the San Jose State team in 1981, where his physical gifts caught the eye of Oakland Raiders staff, who made him the 10th pick in the 1983 draft. Prior to that draft, Fernandez had already gone way up the coast to Vancouver to star with the B.C. Lions in 1982, logging a 1,046 yard season as a rookie. In 1985, Fernandez had a career year with the Lions in 1985, catching 95 passes for 1,727 yards and 15 touchdowns. Fernandez, unfortunately, wasn’t able to compete in the ’85 Grey Cup, won 37-24 by B.C. over Hamilton. He was, however, voted CFL Most Outstanding Player. He made the leap to the NFL in 1987 and played with the Raiders for six seasons. As of today, he still sits 16th all-time on the Raiders list of receivers with 209 receptions and his 18.01 yards per reception (3,764 yards) is tops on the team.
11. WR/RB Rocket Ismail – Toronto Argonauts
For a brief and glorious period in the early 1990s, the Toronto Argonauts competed with the money-bags owners of the NFL. Owner Bruce McNall, he who owned the L.A. Kings and would later be convicted of fraud and spend time in prison, outbid his NFL brethren for the services of dual threat Notre Dame wide receiver/running back Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. McNall, in tandem with co-owners Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, forked over an unprecedented $18.2 million contract for four years (using the marquee player exemption) to get Ismail in 1991. He had a superb first season, gaining 1,571 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs. Ismail then played a huge role in Toronto winning the 79th Grey Cup, reeling off a record 87-yard kickoff return for a key score in the fourth quarter as the Argos beat Calgary 36-21. He would play one more season in the CFL before going to the NFL, starting in 1993. He played nine years in all, his best two seasons coming in 1998 with Carolina (1,024 yards, 8 TD) and 1999 with Dallas (1,097 yards, 6 TD).
10. FB Cookie Gilchrist – Hamilton Tiger-Cats
In and out of football, Cookie Gilchrist had an amazing life. The Pennsylvania native was signed out of high school by Cleveland’s Paul Brown in 1953, but when the contract was voided because he was too young, he bolted to Canada to play semi-professionally. By 1956, he was with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and would play an instrumental role in helping them win a Grey Cup in 1957 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (32-7). Gilchrist was a force on both sides of the ball — also playing linebacker — in a six-year career that also included stops with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Toronto. He was an All-Star five of those six seasons and MOP runner-up in 1960. In 1962 he joined the Buffalo Bills of the fledgling American Football League as a free agent and would go on to win a championship with them in 1964. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who topped the loop in rushing yards twice and touchdowns three times.
9. QB Joe Kapp – B.C. Lions
In one of the most rare trades ever made in football, CFL star QB Joe Kapp was traded from the B.C. Lions to the Minnesota Vikings in 1967. The former University of California star and Washington Redskins pick (209th overall in 1959), ended up being dealt to the Vikes in a multi-team trade that including all-star defensive lineman Dick Fouts and Canadian Football Hall of Fame running back Bill Symons and WR Jim Young. Before going to the NFL, where he would play three seasons with Minnesota and one with the Boston Patriots, Kapp starred in the CFL, leading the B.C. Lions to their first ever Grey Cup victory in 1964. As far as his NFL career went, Kapp still holds the distinction for being on one of eight QBs (including Y.A. Tittle, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees) to throw for seven touchdowns in a game. Kapp was also the quarterback of record in Minnesota’s 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV.
8. DE Harald Hasselbach – Calgary Stampeders
Hasselbach was unique as a pro football player, having the distinction of being a part of a small cadre to win both a Grey Cup (with Calgary in 1992) and a Super Bowl (with Denver at XXXII and XXXIII). Hasselbach was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands and played his high school football in Delta, B.C. From there he went to the University of Washington, went undrafted and joined the Stampeders for four seasons. He moved over to the NFL in 1994 and stayed with the Broncos of the John Elway era for seven years. He started 29 of 112 games and had 154 tackles, four forced fumbles and 17.5 sacks. He didn’t start in Super Bowl XXXII, which the Broncos won 31-24 over Green Bay, but did in a 34-19 victory against Atlanta in XXXIII, recording two tackles during the first quarter.
7. OT Ed George – Montreal Alouettes
Instead of blocking for Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and winning a couple of Super Bowls, Pittsburgh Steelers draftee Ed George decided to take his talents to the CFL in 1970. A star offensive lineman at Wake Forest University, George was drafted 80th overall with the Steelers, but would play OT for the Montreal Alouettes for three seasons and then guard for two more. He won Grey Cups with Montreal in 1970 and 1974 (under future Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy) before going to the NFL to play with the Baltimore Colts for one season and the Philadelphia Eagles for three. He would end up back in the CFL with Hamilton in 1979 and played for, and lost, another Grey Cup with the Tiger-Cats in 1980, his last pro campaign. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
6. LB O.J. Brigance – B.C. Lions, Baltimore Stallions
O.J. Brigance arrived in the CFL with the BC Lions in 1991 after a stellar three-year career at Rice University. He played for three years with the Lions starting in 54 games. In 1994, when the CFL expanded to include American franchises, he signed with the Baltimore Stallions where he played for two years (1994, 1995), helping them to win the Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders in 1995. He joined the Miami Dolphins in 1996 and was a standout for four seasons, being named a team captain twice during that time. In 2000, he became a member of the Baltimore Ravens and was a key contributor, especially on special teams as the Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XXXV, thus making Brigance the only player in history to win the Grey Cup and Super Bowl for a team in the same city. He played for the St. Louis Rams in 2001 and 2002 and wound up his playing career with the New England Patriots in 2003.
5. CB Brandon Browner – Calgary Stampeders
Even though he was never drafted after a standout collegiate career at Oregon State, Browner forged All-Star seasons south and north of the border. He originally signed with Denver Broncos in 2005, only to break his arm and never play one down for the Broncs. He was waived in 2006 and end up with the Calgary Stampeders, where he would use his speed and tenacity at corner to help the Stamps win a Grey Cup in 2008. He was a three-time CFL All-Star before signing with the Seattle Seahawks in 2011. He was a Pro Bowler with the club that year, and would later be part of a mild controversy over prescription drug use, causing him to miss the Seahawks title run at Super Bowl XLVIII against Denver. He would finally “officially” win a Super Bowl with New England in XLIX against his old club, where he made three tackles and made a crucial block on Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse on a pick play that resulted in Malcolm Butler’s big interception to win it.
4. LB Tom Cousineau – Montreal Alouettes
Tom Cousineau had the fortune to play his college football at Ohio State in the 1970s for legendary coach Woody Hayes. Those teams he played with between 1975 and 1978 won 36 of 48 games and three Big 10 championships, while Cousineau set tackling records like the single game mark of an incredible 29. Cousineau was so good, he was the first overall pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1979. But, the Montreal Alouettes were offering twice the money to sign and so he went north. It was in Montreal that he became a star, eventually earning Grey Cup MVP in a 17-9 loss to Edmonton. In 1982, Cousineau went to the NFL, his rights traded from Buffalo to Cleveland, where he signed for a then monstrous five years and $2.5 million. He would play six seasons, four with Cleveland and two with San Francisco, finishing with 10 interceptions and 6.5 career sacks (tackle stats weren’t available).
3. QB Jeff Garcia – Calgary Stampeders
Quarterbacks achieving success on both sides of the border isn’t rare, but not overly common either. Garcia was a standout QB at San Jose State in the early 1990s, but didn’t catch the eye of any scouts and went undrafted in 1994. The CFL and the Calgary Stampeders beckoned and it was there that the Gilroy, CA native fluorished as a pro pivot. At first, he was back-up to another great crossover QB, Doug Flutie, but took over starting duties in 1995 when Flutie got hurt. In his last year with the Stamps, Garcia took the team all the way to the Grey Cup, executing an 80-yard drive in the final minutes to set up a game-winning field goal in a 26-24 win over Hamilton. He was named MVP for that performance. In 1999 he signed with San Francisco and was Steve Young’s understudy, but again, he gained the no. 1 job when Young suffered a career-ending concussion. Garcia was excellent in his next two seasons, 2000-01, becoming one of few quarterbacks ever to pass for over 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons. He would play for five teams in 10 seasons and go to the Pro Bowl four times.
2. QB Doug Flutie – Calgary Stampeders And Toronto Argonauts
Doug Flutie was a star in just about every league he played in. A Heisman Trophy winner at Boston College, he is best remembered for “The Pass” that beat Miami in 1984. When he opted to play with Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals of the USFL, he then wasn’t drafted until 284th overall by the Rams, who had reservations about his short height. He put in one season in the doomed USFL, then bounced between Chicago and New England of the NFL before heading to B.C. in 1990. He would be one of the league’s greatest players ever, winning three Grey Cups (two with Toronto), three Grey Cup MVP awards and six Most Outstanding Player awards in eight years. A return to the NFL in 1998 proved fortuitous, as Flutie compiled a 21-9 record for Buffalo in three seasons (including a 10-5 season in 1999, the year he was controversially benched in favor of Rob Johnson when Buffalo lost in the “Music City Miracle” playoff game) . He was also the shortest QB ever to be named to the Pro Bowl in ’98 and was the NFL’s comeback player of the year, too.
1. QB Warren Moon – Edmonton Eskimos
For a guy who was never drafted out of college, Warren Moon sure proved to a lot of teams that they missed out on a special player. Moon started his pro career with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos in 1978 and would have a hand in winning five straight Grey Cups between 1978 and 1982. He was MVP of the game twice and was the league’s MOP in 1983 before heading to the NFL. When he joined the Houston Oilers in 1984, Moon was already a relatively old man at 28, but his skills only got better with age. In 1990 and 1991, when he was 34-35, Moon passed for over 4,600 yards both seasons and a combined 56 touchdowns. In 1994 and 1995 with Minnesota, when he was nearing 40, Moon had two more seasons with over 4,200 yards passing, along with a collective 51 TD passes. In his Hall of Fame career (he is in both the Pro Football and Canadian Football halls of fame), Moon was a Pro Bowler nine times, two-time passing yards leader and NFL Offensive Player of the Year.