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At home in the CFL

Several former EWU stars have thrived in football north of border

When T.J. Lee III dreamed of playing football “at the next level,” he didn’t expect the Canadian Rockies.

An All-America cornerback at Eastern Washington, Lee is a rookie again, trying to land a spot on the roster of the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.

“I’m sure it was in God’s plan for me to be training in Kamloops,” joked Lee, who after two weeks has yet to see Vancouver. Instead, he’s coping with “bi-polar weather,” a new culture, a bigger playbook and the challenge of a game that’s not quite the same as the American variety.

“I just want to prove myself,” Lee said.

Lee is one of several hundred American CFL “imports” who are chasing dreams and cutting the U.S. trade deficit at the same time. Almost all are former college players, including eight who once played in Cheney.

And while the CFL isn’t the National Football League – especially in salaries – the challenges and the dreams are the same.

Says former Eastern defensive lineman Greg Peach, a six-year CFL veteran who currently plays in Winnipeg: “I thought this would be a stepping stone to the NFL. But how can I ever get mad about playing professional football for going on six years?”

Latitudes and attitudes

According to Peach, the biggest mistake a flashy new CFL import can make is “thinking that you’re going to walk in and be the guy.”

“You have to earn the job,” said Peach, an All-American and Buchanan Award winner at Eastern in 2008. “But I understood that – anyone from Eastern has had to work for everything they’ve had.”

That underdog mentality has come in handy in a league that most CFL veterans say is far beyond the college game and just a notch below the NFL.

The biggest difference is salary: just under $90,000 a year in the CFL, compared with $1.9 million in the NFL.

“Some people see the CFL as a second-tier league, especially at the skill positions,” said Ryan Phillips, a 10-year veteran with the Lions and the senior Eagle north of the 49th parallel. “But there are a lot of similarities – this is an elite level of football,” said Phillips, who said he’s taken Lee under his wing.

Indeed, the NFL is full of success stories that began north of the border. None is bigger than former University of Washington quarterback Warren Moon, who began his pro career in Edmonton before taking the Houston Oilers to the brink of the Super Bowl.

Other CFL-to-NFL stars include Joe Theisman, Joe Kapp, and Joe Pisarcik – hardly average Joes, but they prove Phillips’ point. So do Mark Gastineau and Ricky Williams – NFL stars who later struggled in the CFL.

The imports’ success can also be limited by the CFL’s roster rules: 42 players, of which no more than 22 can be imports. That leaves 20 spots for native Canadians who played in college at Guelph and Laval – the rough equivalent of Division II in the United States – or for junior clubs such as the Saskatchewan Hilltoppers.

Of those 20 Canadians, at least seven must start, which inevitably leaves some former Division I U.S. college stars facing a cold reality: the bench.

It’s a different game, eh?

Of course, the native Canadians have a head start, having played all their lives by Canadian rules that include three downs instead of four, 12 men instead of 11 and 20 seconds to run a play instead of 40.

There’s another dimension: the length and breadth of the CFL field. Counting the 20-yard-deep end zones, it stretches 150 yards.

“Even in a goal-line situation, they can still run 20-yard routes and they can still run their full scheme,” said Phillips. Even worse for the defense, the field is 65 yards wide – 12 yards wider than in the NFL.

In other words, Phillips and Lee have a lot of ground to cover, even in the base formation that usually includes five defensive backs instead of the customary four in the NFL.

Lee, a traditional boundary cornerback at Eastern, now finds himself in the middle of the action, often facing a receiver who’s at full speed as he crosses the line of scrimmage.

“That’s the biggest surprise,” said Lee, who saw his first action Friday in an exhibition game at Edmonton.

“Now I’m getting the full variation of the sport, with these guys running right at you,” Lee said.

Peach faced a similar adjustment; the line of scrimmage is 36 inches in the CFL, compared with 11 inches in the American game. Offensive linemen have added momentum on running plays, and the pass rush “is a lot different, so you have to adjust to that,” Peach said.

Lee and Peach aren’t getting much sympathy from former Eastern teammate Bo Levi Mitchell, who said he adapted just fine to the Canadian game thanks partly to the coaches back in Cheney.

“Once I gained coach Baldwin’s trust, he let me control the offense,” said Mitchell, who quarterbacked the Eagles to the FCS national title in 2010 and now is a backup for the Calgary Stampeders.

“That’s allowed me to know how to change protections and why you’re changing protections,” said Mitchell, who said the Eagles’ no-huddle offense gave him an advantage when facing a 20-second time clock.

That same clock makes it difficult to change plays at the line of scrimmage, but Mitchell doesn’t mind. “You have to do it fast, but that’s just something I love,” he said.

A comfortable fit

At the end of the game, it’s still football, and at at the end of the day, Canada is home.

“I love this place,” said Peach, who’s known three of them: Edmonton, Hamilton and now Winnipeg.

Mitchell also got a pleasant surprise when he arrived on the Alberta plains in the spring of 2011. “Calgary is a lot like Houston,” said Mitchell, a native Texan who said he enjoys the oil and cowboy culture.

“It’s also a lot cleaner with a lot less crime,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell, now starting his third year in Calgary, has seen extensive action so far, but dreams of competing for the starting spot – “and getting further in the playoffs” and the ultimate prize, the Grey Cup that goes to the CFL champion.

Phillips has been there, done that twice, winning Grey Cup titles with the Lions in 2006 and 2011. He also has a wife and family with two boys – all less than three hours from his native Seattle.

“It’s been a great 10 years – priceless,” said Phillips, who’s still an American citizen and still an import even after a decade in Vancouver.

“I really don’t feel like I’ve been away from home,” Phillips said.

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