Newly-signed Montreal Alouettes' defensive end Michael Sam is the first openly-gay player in the CFL, but he's far from the first trailblazer. Over the decades, the CFL has welcomed all sorts of football players turned away from the NFL for one reason or another, whether their exclusion was about race, position, size, college experience or something else. As Mike Freeman wrote in an excellent piece at Bleacher Report, Sam's signing bears many similarities to when Warren Moon came to the CFL in the late 1970s:
The best comparison to Sam is Warren Moon. Whenever I make this comparison, it drives a certain percentage of readers to hysterics. But it's completely accurate. The NFL was still backward when it came to black quarterbacks after Moon came out of the University of Washington in the late 1970s, just as the NFL (and really all of sports) is still backward when it comes to gay athletes now. For gay players, in terms of sports, this is the 1970s. That's what many people, especially when it comes to Sam, fail to realize.
Moon was only one of many talented players overlooked by the NFL who wound up succeeding in the CFL, though, and while some of that was racial prejudice, some of it was about concerns about size, speed, college experience or more. Those elements come into play with Sam, too; in particular, some have used his size (he's listed as 6'2'', 260 pounds) and his speed (he has a best 40-yard-dash time of 4.71 seconds) as reasons to write him off despite the incredible level of college production that makes his exclusion from the NFL highly unusual. Thus, regardless of whether it's bigotry, on-field concerns or a mix of both that have kept Sam out of the NFL so far, there are past CFL players who have been through similar situations. Here are five of them, just a few of the numerous cases over the years:
Herb Trawick: Following an All-American career at Kentucky State and several years serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Trawick became the first black player in professional Canadian football in 1946 with the Montreal Alouettes, where Lew Hayman and Leo Dandurand brought him in after seeing how well Jackie Robinson was received while playing minor-league baseball in Montreal. Trawick played on both the offensive and defensive lines, spent 12 years with the Alouettes and earned seven divisional all-star nods. He won the Grey Cup with Montreal in 1949.
Johnny Bright: Bright shone for Drake University throughout his career, starring as a halfback and quarterback. He was involved in the infamous "Johnny Bright Incident" in 1951, where white Oklahoma players specifically targeted him, knocked him out and broke his jaw. Although Bright was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1952 NFL draft and could have been their first black player, he turned them down, citing concerns about the numbers of Southern players joining the NFL at that time. Instead, he came to Canada and joined the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union, one of the two main predecessors to the CFL. This was before the CFL itself was even officially formed in 1958, and it was before even the East-West merger of 1954 that essentially created the modern CFL. Bright turned into an incredible Canadian football player; he spent three seasons with Calgary as a fullback and linebacker, leading the WIFU in rushing in his rookie season, and he then found even more success after being traded to Edmonton in 1954, including winning three straight Grey Cups from 1954 to 1956 and leading the league in rushing for three straight years from 1957 to 1959. 1959 saw him become the first black player to win the league's Most Outstanding Player award. Bright had significant NFL interest over the years, but turned those offers down to stay in Canada. He finished with 10,909 career rushing yards, a CFL record at the time.
Bernie Custis: Custis became the first black starting quarterback on any professional football team with Hamilton in 1951. He did very well with the Tiger-Cats, leading them to the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (the predecessor to the CFL's East Division) final that year and earning an all-star nod. Unfortunately, he was shifted to running back before the 1952 season, and traded to Ottawa in 1955 after a mishandled injury. His trailblazing is still remarkable, though, as he paved the way for subsequent black quarterbacks such as Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway and Moon. He also went on to be a great teacher and football coach in the Hamilton area. Hopefully, Sam won't have to endure the kinds of bigotry that sometimes plagued Trawick, Bright, Custis and others (yes, even in Canada) went through, but their examples show that even that can be overcome.
Doug Flutie: Flutie never had to endure racial bigotry, but despite a brilliant college career at Boston College (including one of the most memorable Hail Marys ever) and success in the USFL, he didn't get much of a chance as a quarterback in the NFL with Chicago and New England, thanks largely to his small size (5'9'', 182 pounds). He was a perfect fit for the CFL game, though, coming north in 1990 with B.C. and then destroying league records for much of the next decade with the Lions, Stampeders and Argonauts, winning three Grey Cups and six league Most Outstanding Player awards before heading back to the NFL and finding further success there with Buffalo, San Diego and New England. Like Sam, Flutie always had doubters thanks to his size. We'll see if Sam can show them up the same way Flutie did.
Cameron Wake: Wake is another player who was initially overlooked by the NFL thanks to size concerns; he's a defensive end listed at just 6'3'', 262 pounds, about Sam's size. He had a solid college career as a linebacker and defensive end at Penn State, recording 191 total tackles and 24 tackles for loss, but went undrafted in 2005 and only lasted a couple of months as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants. When he came to the CFL in 2007 with B.C. and switched to defensive end permanently, though, he set the league on fire. Wake was named the league's defensive player of the week following his very first game (a seven-tackle, three-sack performance against Toronto), and he finished the season with a CFL-high 16 sacks, earning rookie of the year and defensive player of the year. He was even better in 2008, recording 23 sacks (just three less than an entire team) and earning another defensive player of the year nod. That got him noticed by the NFL again, and he's turned into a perennial Pro Bowler with Miami. Sam isn't in quite the same athletic league as Wake, and he's a little slower, but he has similar instincts for tracking down quarterbacks and far more college sacks than Wake recorded. We'll see if he can follow Wake's path to CFL and then NFL success.