I started my newspaper career covering a high school football game in Ashland, Ala., in 1987. The last game I wrote about as a credential-carrying member of the media was Clemson’s victory over Wake Forest last fall at Memorial Stadium.
In between I had “beat” duties for Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Clemson in the college ranks, as well as the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons of the NFL.
But I guess after all this time I’m finally free to admit that my favorite brand of outdoor tackle football isn’t even played in the United States.
Thursday starting at 8:30 p.m., I’ll be situated on the far right corner of the futon watching the Edmonton Eskimos go head-to-head with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
A day later, at 9 p.m., I’ll take in the Toronto Argonauts vs. Saskatchewan Roughriders game.
And on Saturday, it’ll be a six-hour marathon for me, beginning with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats challenging the Calgary Stampeders and ending with the Montreal Alouettes trying their luck against the BC Lions.
Yep, it’s a new season of the Canadian Football League, and for me, it’s the most wonderful time of the gridiron year.
Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been enamored with the Canadian game for more than 40 years, so I won’t waste your time with an origin story.
I will tell you, however, that I started rooting for the Ti-Cats back in the 1970s, and last season adopted the Alouettes as my “backup” team.*
* I cheered for the Birmingham Barracudas in 1995 during the CFL’s brief stop in the southeastern United States (and still miss them).
And after all these years it’s funny to me that so many people seem gobsmacked that I dare take the CFL “seriously.”
Not only do I take it seriously, but I’ll take it over every other brand of tackle football that exists.
The answer is simple: I like the rules better.
Teams have 12 players to a side (an extra back on offense and an additional secondary player on defense).
The field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide, and end zones are 20 yards deep with goalposts located on the goal line. So you might actually hear the announcer say, “Hamilton has first down at the Calgary 53.”
Teams have only three downs to make a first down, so you don’t see a lot of line plunges to test the opposing “D.”
If a ball is fumbled out of bounds, it becomes the possession of the last team to touch it.
Then there’s the rouge … the beautiful, quirky rouge.
It’s a 1-point score (also called a single) awarded to a team that kicks a ball into the end zone that isn’t returned (except on an extra point, or in CFL terminology, a “convert”).
Even if a kicker misses a field goal, his team still gets a point if the ball goes out of the end zone or if a kick returner takes a knee.
Yet my favorite play – albeit a rarity – is the “onside punt.”
Yep, any player who lines up behind the punter is considered “onside” and can recover a punted ball. Oh, and no fair catches are allowed on punts, either.
If you don’t follow the CFL, you may see these rules as gimmicks.
Not me … I view them as upgrades, and they make the game faster and more wide-open.
That translates to a more enjoyable experience for me.
This isn’t to say that I don’t also love “traditional” football.
On Saturdays in the fall I’ll watch an American college game, and on Sundays I’ll make room for the NFL.
As a graduate of UAB, I’m extremely interested in the Blazers’ revived program, and I’ve been a New York Jets fan since their American Football League days.
But nine times out of 10 – if I have to choose between the NCAA, NFL or CFL – I’m going to watch the game played north of the border.
It might not feature the world’s best football players, but I think it features some of the world’s best football games.