Friday Conversation: Your Favourite CFL Player Growing Up

HAM0722- WINFIELD RETURNSChildhood is when most of us probably fell in the love with the game of football and where our loyalties were most likely formed. We pick our favourite teams as youngster and those bonds usually last the rest of our lives.

One of the strongest bonds fans make as youngsters is with players. Athletes are larger than life, and perform feats that make them look like real-life superheroes. Every fan, especially as a child, attaches themselves to that one player who they deem “their guy,” and while that player inevitably fades out of the spotlight, everyone always remembers that first player that made them go, “WOW!”

So with that said, this week’s Friday Conversation asks a simple, but fun, question: who was your favourite CFL player growing up?

I had the privilege of seeing a lot of great players come through Hamilton, from Tony Champion and Grover Covington to Danny McManus and Joe Montford, but the one guy who made me want to watch the Ticats more than any other player was Earl Winfield.

The man known as “The Pearl” was simply a sight to behold. Whether is was his scintillating three-touchdown performance against the Argos on Labour Day in 1988 or his record-tying two punt return touchdowns against the Eskimos in 1993, Winfield’s career is not short on highlights and he still holds many Tiger-Cat receiving and special teams records. He was a dual-threat player and stood out in an era that included many of the all-time great receivers and return men.

When Winfield returned to Ivor Wynne Stadium, on Labour Day in 2012, for the final late-summer classic in that storied venue, it was the first time Winfield had been at the stadium since he retired. At the time, Winfield had gone unrecognized by the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, but just one year later an injustice was rectified as Winfield finally took his place amongst the league’s greatest in the hallowed halls in downtown Hamilton. It was wonderful to see the former North Carolina Tar Heel return to where he made so many memories. I was in the crowd that day and I got goosebumps when Winfield was introduced during halftime. Seeing him back on the field where he made so much magic happen took me back to my childhood.

One of greatest travesties in sports is that Winfield never won the Grey Cup. He arrived in Hamilton one year after their 1986 triumph and left two seasons before they would win their latest championship. He played in what is arguably the greatest game in CFL history, the 1989 Grey Cup, but unfortunately the Ticats came out on the losing end. In a just world, Winfield would have been able to pick up the Grey Cup ring he so rightfully deserved.

Perhaps I would have been a Tiger-Cat fan regardless of Winfield, but he was my first connection with the team and the man who I credit with taking me from interested young lad to full-blown diehard nutcase.

In the nearly 20 years since Winfield hung up the cleats — he retired following the 1997 season — many players have become my favourite, but no one has ever been able to take the place of Earl Winfield.

So who was your football idol growing up? With the wide range of ages amongst the readership, I imagine that there will be plenty of different answers.

Let’s get the conversation started.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.