You don’t have to spend long on the CFL’s or NFL’s social media to stumble across the seemingly whimsical musing of a fan who wishes that the two leagues would go head-to-head in an exhibition game.
While the dream of seeing a CFL team matched up against an NFL one are highly unlikely today for a myriad of reasons, some fans might be surprised to know that such games have already happened, numerous times in fact.
The first recorded matchup of a professional Canadian team football vs an American team took place back in 1941 when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers played a three game exhibition series against the AFL’s Columbus Bulls. After winning the opening game, the Bombers scored a single point over the course of the next two games, predictably losing both.
It wasn’t until August 12th, 1950 that the two leagues came together again, this time in Ottawa, as the Rough Riders hosted the New York Giants. The game was played with two sets of rules, Canadian in the first half, American in the second. Unfortunately for the 11,000 home fans, the Giants rolled the Rough Riders, cruising to a 27-6 victory.
The rematch one year later proved to be another New York victory but the Rough Riders gave the home crowd a bit more to cheer for, as the offence mustered 18 points. Unfortunately those touchdowns didn’t come close to denting the 41 points the Giants hung on Ottawa’s defence that day.
The next three CFL vs NFL exhibition games featured the Toronto Argonauts. Between 1959 and 1961, the Argos played (and badly lost to) the Chicago Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis Cardinals. To add insult to injury, the Argos wound up losing multiple starters to injury in the games against Chicago and Pittsburgh, which in turn negatively impacted their CFL season.
Despite the lack of on-field success, CFL teams were enjoying extremely positive results at the box office, as the games against NFL teams never failed to pack the house.
In 1961 the Montreal Alouettes got in on the action, hosting a game against the Chicago Bears at Molson Stadium. While Montreal went on to lose 34-16, the game was noteworthy for a late hit by an Alouette player which sparked a bench clearing brawl and four player ejections.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats also played an NFL exhibition game in 1961, beating the AFL’s Buffalo Bills 38-21.
Looking back, it’s worth noting that all of the games took place in August or September; during the NFL’s pre-season and smack dab in the middle of the CFL’s regular season. While the games were treated as tune ups by NFL teams as they trudged through training camp, the injuries sustained in these contests had serious and lasting consequences on CFL teams chasing a playoff spot.
That’s why today, an exhibition game between a CFL club and an NFL one is so unlikely. Legitimate concerns over injuries cannot be ignored and player unions, insurance lawyers, compensation between the leagues and scheduling conflicts would probably sink the concept long before it ever even got off the ground.
Full list of CFL vs NFL games
August 26th, 1941: Winnipeg Blue Bombers 19, Columbus Bulls 12 (Osborne Stadium)
September 1st, 1941: Columbus Bulls 6, Winnipeg Blue Bombers 0 (Osborne Stadium)
September 10th, 1941: Columbus Bulls 31, Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1 (Osborne Stadium)
August 12th, 1950: New York Giants 27, Ottawa Rough Riders 6 (Lansdowne Park)
August 11th, 1951: New York Giants 41, Ottawa Rough Riders 18 (Lansdowne Park)
August 5th, 1959: Chicago Cardinals 55, Toronto Argonauts 26 (CNE Stadium)
August 3rd, 1960 Pittsburgh Steelers 43, Toronto Argonauts 16 (CNE Stadium)
August 2nd, 1961: St. Louis Cardinals 36, Toronto Argonauts 7 (CNE Stadium)
August 5th, 1961: Chicago Bears 34, Montreal Alouettes 16 (Molson Stadium)
August 8th, 1961: Hamilton Tiger-Cats 38, Buffalo Bills 21 (Civic Stadium)
Final tally: NFL 8 wins, CFL 2 wins