A football fan making a delivery to one of the big oil rigs around Stoughton, Sask., last winter might have run into a rookie roughneck who seemed familiar.
"Say, has anyone ever said you look like Chris McKenzie, the Rider defensive back?"
"Yeah, man, I am Chris McKenzie."
"Naah ... you can't be. I mean ... seriously?"
Chris McKenzie knows how to adapt to his surroundings, and that makes the New York City native and former NFLer a great source to go to for young Americans coming up to the Canadian Football League for the first time.
It's not easy. It can be a shock competitively, culturally, socially, mentally and financially.
First of all, there's an obvious question for the raw American rookie. Just where the heck is Saskatchewan? Or Hamilton, for that matter.
"Regina's not the biggest place, there's not that much stuff to do, and it's just different," says McKenzie, who now loves it and stays year round. "And you know, compared to back home [in New York], it's like real small.
"Even though some people back home, they don't do anything anyway, you have the option to do it, so not having it kind of messes with them."
That's just the first of the adaptations needed. There's also:
- Money. There is no comparison between what you can make in the NFL and the CFL. Here, you might come in at $50- to $60,000 Canadian, an amount that is taxed (if you still live in the States you get some of that back) at a much higher rate than you're used to.
- Family. Do you bring the family with you? If not, that means you have to pay for housing and expenses in two places on a comparatively small salary.
- Loneliness. If you don't bring family, or are single, it can be an isolating experience, especially at first.
Culture. This is not moving from Wyoming to Texas, it's coming to a new country, with different ideas and traditions. Even the Loonies and Toonies can be confusing.
Uncertainty. Imports are easier to replace (because there are so many of them coming out of college and the NFL cuts each year), and with the ratio problems (each team has 20 Canadians) you can lose your job for reasons other than talent and ability. They might simply need your spot to slip in a non-import to keep the ratios intact.
The first bump comes, McKenzie says, with understanding the CFL is not some powder puff league. It's real pro football.
"Some guys from the States come up here and think they'll play right away because they came from the NFL," says the Rider defender. "They don't know that [most of the imports] who come up here came from the NFL, so you can't come in with a big head, you've got to come to play."Quality of football a shock to incoming Americans
Chad Owens, now a star with the Toronto Argonauts, remembers how it felt to come out of an NFL environment (Jacksonville and Tampa) and onto the practice roster of the Montreal Alouettes in 2009.
"I did not have any idea what the CFL was all about," he said, after practice last week. "I had no idea, nothing."
People who don't know, Owens says, believe the CFL is "not a legit league, a semi-pro league, not too much talent up there."
Friends back home in his native Hawaii thought he was playing semi-pro and wondered when he was going to get back into real ball. Owens found out right away this was real ball when he saw what coach Marc Trestman was doing.
"The way he ran his stuff is real NFL-like ... the tempo of practices, the details, the expectations, although he didn't have the same locker room, the nice wood grains, the big facility, but as far as the football aspect was, and what is expected, that was similar."
Then there's the game itself.
"When you finally get to play, and you get in the game, you see the speed of the game, you watch film you see the talent, you sit back and realize, damn, this is real, this is real football," Owens says.Teams play pivotal role
Bob O'Billovich, the Hamilton GM who has been in Canada since the Denver Broncos cut him back when John F. Kennedy was president, says teams put a lot of effort in acclimatizing players and families when they arrive.
"We are very active in our community, and we have a good group of people on the business side to direct players for accommodations, all the little nuances, becoming residents, coming in to try out," he says. "We have a nice handbook with all the information about Hamilton, and all of that."
At first, Obie says, for the players it's the game.
"Most of the guys, when they get here, the No. 1 focus is the chance to play football," he says, adding the hard part is getting settled in to your surroundings.
Veterans in the dressing room are an important resource while outside, it's the veteran wives who take the newcomers under their wings and help them. This is crucial, Obie says, because that's where problems can also lie.
"The player is doing what he wants, but if it's becoming a tough thing for the wife or the family, then sometimes they may make a decision ... she may go home. They may not live together for the football season."
McKenzie points to the 14-16 game mark as the time when you really see how things are going with the rookies.
"In the early season ... you have that excitement," he says. "But when that goes down you start to see some of that [homesickness]."CFLPA needs more help
Mike Morreale, head of the CFL Players' Association, believes his organization needs to do more to help with the transition, and it's something he wants to work on.
Right now, he says they rely "a lot on the clubs to help the guys out."
There are things they do get involved in, including off-season work visas, helping players with real estate or banking. They also have people who can explain why so much tax is coming off the pay cheque.
He'd like to get into camps, which are so short coaches are reluctant to give up time, so the CFLPA can talk about "a financial overview, drug overview, laws of the country, where to be careful, some of the ins and outs of what it's like to walk into a new situation."
In his long CFL career as a receiver, Morreale saw how difficult the American transition could be.
"I don't think anything prepares you to move from Texas to Hamilton, or come from a large university where you are used to having everything at your disposal you can ask for in terms of opportunities and facilities, food, their life very structured, and you don't have to do much yourself."
Then there's the culture.
"There are less barriers here. Racism is everywhere ... but you don't see that black and white separation [as in the States]."
Some separation, though. On the Riders, when new coach Corey Chamblin came in this year, the first thing he did was stop the defensive and offensive players from eating as a group, and the Americans and Canadians.
McKenzie already was.
"I hang out with [Rob] Bagg and [Graig] Newman. I'm versatile."
You bet he's versatile. And adaptive. This winter, you see, he's going back to the oil fields again.In Part 2, Malcolm Kelly will explore one American family's experience in the CFL.
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