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The Stories Behind Canadian Football League Players Who Made It to the NFL

These players used the CFL as a launchpad for productive NFL careers.

Warren Moon and more CFL players who made it to the NFL
Credit-NFL/Joker Mag

The National Football League is one of the premiere sports organizations in the world. NFL football its culture is a dog-eat-dog mentality.

There aren’t many spots and there’s always a surplus of players vying for place on a roster. The traditional route to becoming an NFL player is to go to college and get drafted

Then you get into underdog territory.

The undrafted players and guys that go play in startup leagues to stay ready for the big time on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays.

One of those leagues is the CFL: the Canadian Football League. It’s produced its fair share of NFL players.

Here are the best CFL players who took their own unique paths to the NFL.

Warren Moon, QB

A picture of QB Warren Moon with the Houston Oilers next to text reading "After getting no interest from NFL teams, Warren Moon won 5 Grey Cups in 6 CFL seasons."

Warren Moon is a pioneer of the quarterback position due to his dual-threat ability and as one of the first prominent Black quarterbacks in the NFL. Moon came up through the football ranks in the 1970s, attending two small-time schools – West Los Angeles College and the University of Washington in Seattle from 1974 to 1977.

Due to his circumstances, Moon was not in a favorable position to be drafted to the NFL and instead signed with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos.

Moon led the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup wins from 1978 to 1982, also becoming the first QB to throw for a 5,000-yard season with exactly 5,000 yards in 1982.

1983 was his best year individually as he threw for a then-league record of 5,648 yards and won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award. He finished his six-year CFL career with 21,228 passing yards, 144 touchdowns, and a 9-1 record in playoff games.

Moon finally got his shot in the NFL at 28 years old as he signed with the Houston Oilers after an intense bidding war for his services.

Warren Moon had a decade-long tenure in Houston where he started 203 games and threw for 33,685 yards, 291 touchdowns, 233 interceptions, and a 102-101 career record as a starter. He wrapped up his career with a couple of year stints with the Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, and Seattle Seahawks.

Joe Theismann, QB

A quote from Joe Theismann: "No matter how great you are, the next great one is already sitting there waiting to take your place."

Joe Theismann had an impressive career at Notre Dame from 1967 to 1971. He had dueling contracts from the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Twins in 1971. But after being drafted by Miami, Theismann was not able to agree to terms with the team.

Instead, he pivoted to signing with the Toronto Argonauts.

In two of three CFL seasons, Theismann was a CFL All-Star, throwing for 6,093 yards and 40 touchdowns. Then he got his shot to play in the NFL. The team formerly known as the Washington Redskins acquired Theismann by trading a future first-round draft pick to the Dolphins for his rights in 1974.

Theismann played with Washington from 1974 to 1985 and amassed 25,206 passing yards, 160 touchdowns, and a 77-47 career record as a starter. The pinnacle of his Washington career was winning the 1983 Super Bowl 27-17 over the Dolphins.

Sadly, Theismann is most famous for his career-ending leg injury after being sacked by Lawrence Taylor.

Doug Flutie, QB

Doug Flutie quote that says: "All of those guys who told me that I was too short and how complicated the game was, it is not that complicated. It is the same game I have always played."

Doug Flutie might be best remembered for his Hail Mary pass to help Boston College beat the Miami Hurricanes. But he had a floundering professional career before he made his way to the CFL.

Flutie was initially looked at as too small to play in the NFL and within reason, he was a five-foot-nine, 175-pound quarterback. 

In 1990, he signed with the British Columbia Lions of the NFL, where he spent two seasons. His 1991 campaign was a standout season, where Flutie threw for a record 6,619 passing yards on 499 completions. He also won the first of his six CFL Most Oustanding Player awards with the Lions.

His stellar CFL career allowed him to break back into the NFL. I guess having a career stat line of 41,355 passing yards and 270 touchdowns in the CFL will garner you some interested NFL owners, GMs, and coaches.

He lasted eight seasons in his second go-round with the league, the same amount of seasons he spent lighting up the CFL.

Flutie spent time as a signal-caller for the Buffalo Bills, the San Diego Chargers, and the New England Patriots.

RELATED: Breaking Down The Shortest Players in NFL History

Jeff Garcia, QB

Jeff Garcia quote: "Daily habits are so important to getting yourself out of a funk and redirecting in a positive direction."

Jeff Garcia had quite the journey just to make it to the CFL.

He went from junior college to San Jose State University, but his size was an issue for NFL decision-makers, and he went undrafted in the 1994 NFL Draft.

Garcia played in the CFL for four years from 1994 to 1998 for the Calgary Stampeders. He played so well that he was later inducted into the Stampeders Wall of Fame.

Finally, he was able to get his foot in the door of an NFL team. At 29 years old, Garcia made his NFL debut with San Francisco.

Garcia is one of twelve QBs in NFL history to throw for thirty touchdowns in consecutive years. With that fact, he’s in the same company as all-time greats like Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes.

The California native had an eleven-year career in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Tamp Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions. He accumulated a 58-58 career record with 25,537 passing yards, 161 touchdowns, and 83 interceptions.

Joe Horn, WR

Joe Horn quote: "I had like $2-$3 dollars left to my name. I was in a Blockbuster and saw Jerry’s video for $3.00 so I decided right then and there to invest in my future and learn from the best receiver in the history of the NFL."

Joe Horn was a tremendous high school athlete but could not go to major universities due to insufficient test scores.

He ended up at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, where he put his football journey on hold to work at a fast food restaurant and furniture factory. 

The story goes that Horn had only a few bucks left to his name and bought a Jerry Rice workout video from Blockbuster. He studied what Rice did in the film to replicate himself. Then he made a highlight tape which he sent out to pro teams in the US and Canada.

His story is the perfect blend of nostalgia and the DIY culture that is much more prevalent in modern times.

Horn’s tape got him serious looks as he entered the CFL. He spent time with the Baltimore Stallions, Shreveport Pirates, and Memphis Mad Dogs in 1995, sticking with Memphis for the full season. His 71 catches for 1,415 receiving yards had NFL scouts calling his phone.

The receiver made his way into the league through the 1996 NFL Draft, where he was a 5th-round pick of the Chiefs. In Horn’s career, he spent time with Kansas City, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

Horn played in 163 NFL games, posted 8,744 receiving yards, and caught 58 touchdowns.

RELATED: How Jaylen Watson Went From Working at Wendy’s to Winning The Super Bowl

Cameron Wake, DE/OLB

After going undrafted out of college, Cameron Wake worked as a mortgage broker for two years before landing in the CFL.

Cameron Wake has a different kind of underdog story in how he used the CFL as a springboard to the NFL.

Wake was a defensive end and outside linebacker in for the Penn State Nittany Lions. In four years, he totaled 191 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 24 tackles for loss in his college career.

He went undrafted in 2005, was picked up by the New York Giants, released, and then was out of football until 2007.

Wake worked out hard and his work translated into a phone call from the British Columbia Lions with a one-year, $48,000 offer for the entire season – only if he made the team through camp.

Wake didn’t look back. He straight-up dominated with a second chance and position switch to defensive end. He was named Defensive Player of the Week for the first week of the 2007 CFL season where he tallied seven tackles and three sacks.

Wake accumulated many accolades and statistics including a league-leading 16 sacks, 72 tackles, the only blocked field goal in the 2007 CFL season, and became the first player in CFL history to be named Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

The domination continued in 2008 when Wake again led the CFL in sacks (23) and racking up more individual awards. He was again named a CFL All-Star and a unanimous candidate for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player award.

Suddenly NFL teams were interested.

Ultimately, Wake signed with the Miami Dolphins on January 18th, 2009, to a one-year deal with a one million dollar signing bonus and a contract worth up to $4.9 million altogether. The former mortgage broker went on to have a respectable NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and the Tennessee Titans.

In his decade-long career with Miami, Wake played in 155 games, recorded 98 sacks, 279 solo tackles, and 99 tackles for loss. The CFL product was named to five Pro Bowls, three Second-Team All-Pro teams, and one First-Team All-Pro.

Brandon Browner, CB

Brandon Browner went from CFL All-Star to 2-time Super Bowl Champion.

Brandon Browner went to Oregon State University for four years. After not being selected in the 2005 NFL Draft, he signed as a UDFA with the Denver Broncos. 

A fractured left forearm derailed his season and NFL career as he was waived in July 2006. Looking for a way back, the 6’4″ cornerback signed with the Calgary Stampeders the same year.

He played with the Stampeders for four seasons where he made 242 total tackles, and made 12 interceptions in 68 games. Browner was a three-time CFL All-Star from 2008 to 2010. 

He signed with the Seattle Seahawks to play in the 2011 season, where he was a key member of the historic “Legion of Boom” secondary. In his NFL career, the former Oregon State Beaver played for the Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, and New England Patriots.

He started 61 games, making 218 tackles, 12 interceptions, and finishing his career as a two-time Super Bowl champion.

More players who went from the CFL to the NFL:

  • O.J. Brigance, LB
  • Ralph ‘Dieter’ Brock, QB
  • Mike Vanderjagt, K
  • Raghib Ramadian “Rocket” Ismail, WR
  • Alex Singleton, LB
  • Jerrell Freeman, LB
  • Aaron Grymes, CB
  • Chris Streveler, QB
  • Samuel Eguavoen, LB
  • Jon Ryan, P
  • Ty Long, P
  • Dee Alford, CB
  • Nathan Rourke, QB
  • Brett Jones, C
  • Mike Sellers, FB
  • Harald Hasselbach, DE
  • Joe Kapp, QB
  • Graham Harrell, QB
  • Mervyn Fernandez, WR
  • Casey Printers, QB
  • Stefan Logan, RB

Each of these players found a way to use the CFL as their launching pad to the NFL. A place where they felt they belonged, but were doubted or written off.

If there’s one lesson to take away, it’s to believe in yourself even when no one else does.

Editor’s Note: Is there a CFL to NFL player we missed? Drop a comment below and we’ll get them added.

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Written By

Contributing writer for Fansided's The Sixer Sense and That Ball's Outta Here. Diehard fan of the Philadelphia 76ers and Phillies, NBA, MLB, and enjoyer of sports debates.

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