Veteran CFL quarterback Bethel-Thompson announces he'll play in USFL

McLeod Bethel-Thompson is leaving the Toronto Argonauts on a winning note.

The veteran quarterback announced on social media Wednesday he'll play with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers in 2023. Bethel-Thompson became a CFL free agent earlier this month after helping Toronto win the '22 Grey Cup.

"My next journey begins with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL and then will continue with considerable NFL interest in the fall," Bethel-Thompson wrote on his Instagram account. "I do not want this decision in any way seen as a dismissal of the CFL.

"I love the CFL and hold it in the highest regard. Playing in the states this year allows family and football to overlap and I could not pass up on that opportunity."

The USFL schedule opens April 15. The Breakers will host the Pittsburgh Maulers on April 16.

The Argos didn't immediately comment on Bethel-Thompson's announcement.

Bethel-Thompson's decision isn't surprising. Following Toronto's 24-23 championship win over Winnipeg last November, he spoke about how hard it was for him to be away from his wife, Chinaka, and their young daughter, Aziza, for long stretches during the CFL season.

Bethel-Thompson added family would figure prominently in his off-season considerations.

"What is the hardest part of playing football?" Bethel-Thompson wrote on his Instagram account. "The time you sacrifice with loved ones.

"My amazing partner Chinaka, daughter Aziza and my whole family have given me space to partake in the insanity it requires pursue perfection. It is time I stay closer to home and chase my dream with family by my side."

The 34-year-old American had spent the last five seasons with Toronto (2017-19, 2021-22), winning a Grey Cup his first year with the franchise as the backup to veteran Ricky Ray.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Bethel-Thompson threw for a CFL- and career-high 4,731 yards last season with 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He led Toronto (11-7) to first place in the East Division for a second straight season before completing 19-of-27 passes for 299 yards and two TDs in the Argos' 34-27 conference final victory over the Montreal Alouettes.

That earned Toronto a Grey Cup appearance against heavily favoured Winnipeg. Bethel-Thompson was 15-of-28 passing for 203 yards before suffering a dislocated right thumb late in the fourth quarter.

Backup Chad Kelly — the nephew of former Bills' star quarterback Jim Kelly — came off the bench to complete four-of-six passes for 43 yards. But it was Kelly's crucial 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette's game-winning five-yard rushing touchdown.

Toronto had been patient with Bethel-Thompson this off-season, giving him all the time he wanted to ponder his football future. Bethel-Thompson's departure would appear to move Kelly up the depth chart, especially considering veteran CFL starters Trevor Harris (Saskatchewan), Cody Fajardo (Montreal) and Bo Levi Mitchell (Hamilton) have already signed free-agent deals.

Veteran Dane Evans could be a possibility. But he's currently under contract with Hamilton, meaning a deal would have to be made between the two CFL rivals in order for Toronto to land Evans.

Bethel-Thompson firmly established himself as Toronto's starter in 2021, winning seven-of-nine starts and leading the franchise to a 9-5 record and first-place finish in the East Division. It marked the first time the Argos had finished atop the conference since 2017.

Bethel-Thompson signed a one-year deal with Toronto following the '21 campaign rather than test free agency. Being the bona fide starter was a nice change for the well-travelled Bethel-Thompson, who was with seven different teams (three times with San Francisco 49ers, twice with Miami Dolphins) spanning three leagues (Arena football, NFL and CFL) between 2011 his arrival in Toronto.

Bethel-Thompson leaves the CFL having played 74 career regular-season games. He completed 1,125 of 1,683 passes (66.8 per cent) for 13,261 yards with 70 touchdowns, with 49 interceptions while rushing 93 times for 513 yards (5.5-yard average) and two TDs.

But Bethel-Thompson was much more than just a football survivor. The San Francisco native remains a free spirit and not only had a way with words, be they spoken or written, but often thought outside the box when answering questions.

Such was the case Wednesday, when Bethel-Thompson bid a fond farewell to the CFL.

"Dear CFL, I came to you 5 years ago dealing with the pain of a dream deferred," he wrote. "I was at a moment in my life where I felt I had self sabotaged my childhood dream away by losing sight of why I played the game.

"For 5 years you tested me, challenged me, battered me, doubted me, cheered me, healed me, strengthened me, crowned me, and freed me. Through that process you rejuvenated my sporting soul and I will forever be grateful."

"You are under appreciated," he wrote of the Canadian game. "Your amazing population of participants are under appreciated.

"You have one of the longest and most storied histories of any sports league in North America and guess what your present is pretty great too. Week in and week out a miraculous and engaging product is on display. It was an honour and a privilege to get to know you."

Bethel-Thompson also paid tribute to everyone associated with the Argos and Canada.

"I want to thank all my teammates, coaches, mentors, friends and colleagues that have made my last five years magical," he wrote. "I have been on multiple championship teams and multiple teams that couldn't find a way to win consistently.

"The difference is inches of play, teamwork, brotherhood, trust, and love. However, every year I became a better person and player. Thank you for chiselling me into my better self."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press