One and done: that sums up Johnny’s Manziel’s experience in the Canadian Football League.
The polarizing quarterback couldn’t match the hype that came with him – drumming up memories of another big name signing that also failed to deliver in Montreal. Vince “the Prince” Ferragamo was considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks when he arrived in Canada in 1981 – but unlike Manziel, he came to the CFL for the money.
Ferragamo and friends
Every off-season, players who have established themselves in the Canadian Football League leave for the greener pastures of the NFL. Although it stings to watch players who have developed their talents in our league take their shot south of the border, everyone understands why: most professional athletes have a short window in which they will try to make as much money as possible. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar business and players who prove their worth south of the border might be in store for a big pay day. That said, it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, in 1981 exactly the opposite was happening. And one can’t help but wonder what the CFL would look like today had things turned out differently.
Vince the Prince
After the 1980 CFL season, flamboyant businessman and real estate mogul Nelson Skalbania bought the Montreal Alouettes – and he had big plans for his Canadian Football League team. At the time, Skalbania’s sports empire included the NHL’s Calgary Flames and it was Skalbania who signed 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky to a contract with Indianapolis in the WHA in 1978. Skalbania liked stirring the pot and wasted no time making headlines across North America. Just two days after he became owner of the Alouettes, Skalbania rocked the football world when he told reporters he had signed Los Angeles Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo to a four-year contract. This was no small feat. Ferragamo had led the Rams to the Super Bowl in 1980 and was coming off a season in which he tossed 30 touchdown passes and boasted the second-best pass efficiency rating in the NFL. Ferragamo was due for a new contract and raise from the Rams but the big money deals that are so common today were still just a pipe dream – free agency as we know it was still over a decade away. Ferragamo rejected the Rams offer of $250,000 and when the deal in Montreal was finally made official it was reported the all-American could make as much as $600,000 with incentives. “Vince the Prince” was coming to Canada.
Raider from the north
Skalbania was just getting started in his attempt to lure big-name NFL players to Montreal. He was nicknamed “the Raider from the North” and would empty the vault to fill the Als roster with high priced American talent. Skalbania lured veteran receivers James Scott and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson to the CFL simply by outbidding NFL teams for their services.
Scott had played the previous five seasons with the Chicago Bears racking up over 3,000 yards receiving. He was thought to be the perfect complement to Ferragamo. Johnson was a two-time pro bowler who broke into the league with Houston and added another weapon on offence. Skalbania wasn’t finished. Running back David Overstreet was selected 13th overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 1981 NFL draft – he shunned the Dolphins for a more lucrative deal with Montreal. Defensive end Keith Gary was also picked in the first round that year by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He too turned his back on the NFL and inked a deal with the Als. Montreal also had the No. 1 pick from the 1979 NFL draft on their roster. Linebacker Tom Cousineau was picked by the Bills but chose to play in the CFL when the Alouettes offered twice the cash. And there could have been more. The Alouettes had expressed interest in Steelers’ free agent and three-time Pro Bowl receiver Lynn Swann. Skalbania also had University of Georgia All-American running back Herschel Walker in his sights. The future Heisman Trophy winner was only a sophomore at the time but had spoken to the Alouettes about skipping the NFL draft and playing in the CFL.
Three down football
The Alouettes roster was brimming with talent and expectations were high. Montreal was hosting the Grey Cup in 1981 and most pundits believed they had booked their ticket before the season started. Skalbania had built a football team loaded with NFL superstars. Others around the league accused him of trying to buy a championship but there was little doubt that everyone across the country wanted to see if these high-priced players could acclimate to three-down football.
On July 4th, the Alouettes opened their season on the road at Empire Stadium in Vancouver. A near capacity crowd was on hand the see the hometown Lions maul the Alouettes 48-8. Ferragamo completed just 13 of 30 passes and threw a pair of interceptions. After the game, Ferragamo admitted the adjustments to the Canadian game hadn’t been easy but he wasn’t discouraged. “I wish the Rams well this season but I’m not going to have any regrets about coming here.” After the Week 1 debacle, the Alouettes returned home to face Toronto in their home opener. Ferragamo engineered a last-minute touchdown drive and the Als pulled out a 23-22 win before 35,000 onlookers at Olympic Stadium. In Week 3, Ferragamo passed for over 350 yards in a two-point loss at Ottawa. Despite the setback, Alouettes head coach Joe Scanella suggested his star pivot was beginning to find his groove: “By the fourth or fifth game he’s going to be where he belongs. He is a great talent.” As it turns out, Ferragamo’s talent wasn’t suited for the CFL. In fact, his win against the Argos would be his only victory as a CFL quarterback.
The 12th man
By Week 6, it was clear Ferragamo was overwhelmed by the Canadian game and the so-called “best quarterback on the continent” could not wrap his head around an extra defender on defence. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers showed no mercy embarrassing the Als 58-2 in front of a packed house at Winnipeg Stadium. Ferragamo was ineffective and managed just four first downs. The season spiralled out of control and, as the interceptions began to pile up, Ferragamo found himself on the bench. The Alouettes lost nine in a row that culminated with an embarrassing 62-11 rout at the hands of the powerful Eskimos. By then Joe Scanella had been fired, attendance plummeted to 15,000 and Ferragamo had been relegated to spot duty – by the end of the season, he didn’t travel with the team. Remarkably, the Alouettes qualified for the post-season after winning just three games in the weak East Division. They played at Ottawa in the East semi-final and almost pulled out an upset in the game’s final moments. Ferragamo watched his last CFL game from the press box. His stat line from the year was miserable: in 13 appearances he completed 175-of-342 passes for 2,175 yards, with seven touchdown passes and an incredible 25 interceptions. Colour analysts suggested that when he dropped back in the pocket he was “scared to death.”
Back to the NFL
Not all of the big-name signings were a bust. David Overstreet almost rushed for 1,000 yards and was Montreal’s rookie of the year. He was hampered by injuries the following season and returned to Miami in 1983. James Scott racked up over 1,400 yards receiving and was the only Alouette named to the CFL all-star team. He signed with the Bears in 1982.
Billy White shoes Johnson was also 1000-yard receiver – he signed with Atlanta in 1982 and was named to the Pro Bowl team a year later. Keith Gary finished with 9.5 sacks in a total of 20 CFL games. He was released in 1982 but found a home in Pittsburgh where he played six more seasons with the Steelers.
When the smoke cleared Skalbania’s wild spending spree had resulted in a reported loss of three million dollars and the chaos and lawsuits that followed sent shockwaves through the CFL. To no one’s surprise, Skalbania declared bankruptcy and his failure would change the landscape of the CFL. At the time, many fans across the league were pleased to see the Alouettes fail as completely as they did. The optics suggested Skalbania was trying to buy a championship and the idea that a group of NFL stars could waltz into the CFL and dominate was distasteful. However, the disaster that was the Montreal Alouettes would have a ripple effect. After Skalbania declared bankruptcy, it was left to Montreal businessman Charles Bronfman to continue football operations. He made it clear he would not take on any of the team’s debt – in essence, he was granted an expansion franchise. The Concordes were born in time for the 1982 season but by 1987 the team would fold and Montreal would be without a CFL team for a decade.
As for Ferragamo, he returned to the Rams and picked up where he left off. He threw for 509 yards in a game against Chicago – at the time the second highest total in NFL history. In 1983 he led the Rams to the playoffs and win over Dallas in the wildcard game. Ferragamo would miss the majority of the 1984 season after breaking his hand and finished his playing career with stops in Buffalo and Green Bay.
Almost 40 years later it’s worth wondering what the CFL would look like today had the Alouettes thrived? Ferragamo had all the attributes to become the new darling on the Montreal sports landscape. If the 1981 Alouettes had lived up to expectations would other teams have followed Skalbania’s lead? It may have led to a new era for the Canadian Football League. Instead, it wouldn’t be long before the league lost its lucrative TV deal and faced a financial crisis – a crisis which could only be solved by expansion into the U.S.