Drugs, COVID-19 & smash mouth football: five Canadians share their experiences in the LFA

The Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional (LFA) is a semi-professional football association in Mexico. Earlier this year, 24 Canadian players suited up for the league’s eight teams as part of the CFL’s global initiative.

Players returned home in the fourth week of March after the season was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each team had played five of ten regular season games.

Five Canadian players have shared their experiences from the LFA over a series of exclusive interviews with 3DownNation. These are their stories.

***

Graham Kelly and Brad Friesen were members of the Naucalpan Raptors, a team that is based 15 kilometres northwest of Mexico City. Their LFA experience left a lot to be desired.

“I had a negative experience, unfortunately,” said Kelly. The Mount Allison product was the fourth overall pick of the inaugural Canadian LFA draft and dressed for two games with the Raptors at quarterback.

Photo courtesy: Graham Kelly

“Everything up until we were there — even the first week we were actually in Mexico — was perfect. Great communication between myself, the head coach, and the offensive coordinator. There was also great communication between us and the owners.”

All Canadians drafted to the LFA were signed to Mexican contracts through the CFL. The terms were clear — transportation, healthcare, food, and lodging were all to be included. Players were also to be paid $350 USD per game (after taxes) with cheques being administered immediately following each contest.

Once practices got underway, issues with the Raptors started to arise.

“The owners were supposed to pick us up and drive us to practice,” said Kelly. “Unfortunately, for the first five or six practices they were late for almost every single one. It was frustrating because we’d show up (fifteen to thirty minutes) late and we didn’t have time to warm-up our bodies. We just had to jump into practice.”

The Raptors had enough equipment to outfit Kelly right away. This was not the case for Friesen.

“I didn’t have a helmet or shoulder pads for the first three weeks of practices,” said Friesen, a linebacker out of the University of British Columbia. “They have live practices and drills with lots of hitting. The coaches wanted me to hit guys without gear. They were like, ‘Brad, get in there!’ but I wasn’t going to hit anyone without gear.”

Equipment was not an issue for Jeremy Fagnan, a defensive back out of St. FX University. He played for the Pioneros Querétaro, based 200 kilometres northwest of Mexico City.

“They had all our stuff (equipment) there,” said Fagnan. “It’s certainly not a pro experience anywhere else where you have the best of everything, but they had everything ready for us when we got there all set up.”

The Canadians who played in the LFA kept in regular contact with one another. Many knew each other before traveling south as the U Sports football community is relatively tight-knit. Fagnan feels the LFA experience was largely dependent on the team with which you played.

“I was friends with a lot of the guys who went down there and everybody seemed to have a different experience whichever team they went,” said Fagnan. “From a team perspective, I would say the Pioneros treated us extremely well.”

“It was totally different from the CFL,” said Drew Morris, a linebacker out of Acadia University. He played for the Pioneros after spending a portion of the 2019 CFL season with the Ottawa Redblacks. “Football down there — the talent is definitely there. They’re just a little miscued with practice and stuff. With the Redblacks we didn’t hit in practice at all and when I got down there, we were full-tilt, like, trying to rip each other’s heads off in practice.”

It’s clear that the LFA fully embraces the physicality of football. Schematically, however, the X’s and O’s weren’t always on point.

Friesen was not given a playbook for the first two weeks of training camp with the Raptors. When he received it, it was unfinished.

“They’d scream at me for not knowing the assignments, but the playbook wasn’t finished and they would change things without telling me,” said Friesen. “None of the defensive coaches spoke English, so I wasn’t given any help.”

Friesen was not the only Canadian who felt the playbook was lacking.

“It’s maybe like a good high school playbook,” said Fagnan of the Pioners’ schemes. “To be honest, it’s just not well put together. A lot of these guys in the LFA from the coaching, they’re not getting paid very much. It’s not full-time (work). They have something else going on, so a lot of them don’t make the time.”

College football is on the rise in Mexico with many schools employing full-time coaching staffs. That isn’t the case in the LFA where the semi-professional nature of the league means that everyone is working a second job.

“Our head coach was also the head coach of a college team down there,” said Fagnan. “It was practicing while we (the Pioneros) were practicing. … Ask any head coach up here in (Canadian) university or pro and they’ll tell you they don’t have enough time on their hands as it is.”

The language barrier wasn’t significant for Fagnan or Morris because so many of the Pioneros’ coaches spoke fluent English. He also estimates 70 percent of his teammates could hold a basic conversation in English, which made it easy to get to know them.

“We had a number of coaches that were able to speak very good English,” said Fagnan. “There was maybe two on the whole coaching staff who didn’t speak great English, but regardless of where we were my [defensive backs] coach spoke fantastic English.”

The language barrier was more of an issue for Mandella Loggale, a defensive back out of St. Mary’s University. The Edmonton native played for the Osos Toluca, located 60 minutes southwest of Mexico City.

“It was enough that you can understand and put things together and understand what they’re kind of asking you to do,” said Loggale. “But it was a little bit frustrating to communicate with guys and the coaches sometimes.”

The Osos’ head coach did not speak English and most coaches who did were on the offensive side of the ball. Loggale’s defensive backs coach spoke little English, though the defensive line coach spoke the language fluently.

Loggale said the Osos’ playbook was on the same level as the Pioneros, matching that of a good Canadian high school program.

“You only really met right before practices or right after for film and stuff. It was like high school,” said Loggale. “There wasn’t really a playbook, it was more like you understood the plays. There was simple coverages — like, we’re playing cover-two on this — and that was pretty much it. That would be the best way to describe that: it was like a good high school playbook.”

***

The language barrier remained an issue with the Raptors. Though two of the team’s coaches spoke fluent English and served occasionally as translators, it was still a major obstacle to overcome.

“It was very difficult,” said Kelly. “As training camp ended and we moved towards the season, it was very tough to have good communication just because all the meetings were in Spanish. … We really had no idea what was going on.”

Juan Carlos, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was one of the few Raptors’ coaches who spoke English.

“When we asked Juan what was going on, he did his best to try to explain everything when he had time,” said Kelly. “But he had a lot on his plate and he had to handle another thirty-plus guys, so he couldn’t always answer my questions.”

Kelly received limited reps in practice with incumbent starter Bruno Márquez taking most of the snaps under centre.

Photo courtesy: Graham Kelly

“I found out after training camp when we had our team meeting with myself, the head coach, the owner, and the offensive coordinator that the reason they drafted me was to be a backup quarterback,” said Kelly. “They had no intention of me actually becoming the starter or getting playing time, really.”

“Graham (Kelly) got shafted pretty hard,” said Friesen. “He was a better quarterback than Bruno, but Bruno was the face of their team. Ownership wanted him to be the starter no matter what.”

“I played against [Kelly] at Acadia when he was at Mount Allison,” said Morris. “If you’re going to draft a guy, especially him being pro, you need to play this man. He can teach your guys and show you things.”

“Bruno was a very talented athlete, don’t get me wrong, but they were very comfortable with their quarterback situation,” said Kelly. “Me hearing that motivated me a little bit more to try harder, however it’s hard to showcase yourself when you’re only getting four to six reps in an hour-and-a-half practice.”

Márquez ended up getting hurt in the Raptors’ first game, allowing Kelly to start the second one. It was a great week of practice — the transportation issues had been resolved — and Kelly saw a lot more time under centre.

It was around this time that Morris started feeling ill with the Pioneros. The Ottawa native was experiencing dizziness, sweating, and difficulty breathing.

“I think I was, like, the third or fourth patient (in Mexico) who had the coronavirus,” said Morris. “I was in hospital for a week.”

Morris was admitted to the hospital in the third or fourth week of February, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. He’s happy with the medical care he received and is thankful to the staff for helping him fight the virus.

“They did everything they could,” said Morris. “The doctor I had was great. Anything I needed, he got it right away. They got on top of my sickness really fast.”

The doctor initially called the illness “influenza-B,” though he later changed his diagnosis to H1N1. Morris remains convinced that it was the coronavirus, which he said was miserable to fight off.

“It hit me like a s*** brick house,” said Morris. “I remember going to the hospital not being able to breathe and my roommate (Jeremy Fagnan) was like, ‘Man, you gotta get your chest x-rayed because you got something going on. You might have pneumonia or something.’

“So I went and it all hit me at once. I have a great immune system but it sat me down on my butt. I was sweating and spinning. I couldn’t stand up. They just rushed me into a room and started swabbing me and poking me. It was a horrible experience.”

The hospital bed was far too small for a six-foot-two, 230-pound professional football player, but that didn’t bother Morris.

“It was an uncomfortable week, but I was so out of it that I couldn’t even register what the hell was going on.”

Morris believes he contracted the virus at the international gym where he and Fagnan were working out. Nobody was seriously worried about COVID-19 at the time.

“They were always saying, ‘Oh, COVID doesn’t like the heat, so it’s not going to be here in Mexico. There’s nothing to worry about.’ But I definitely grabbed the same dumbbell as someone who got off an international flight and it just got me from there.”

Morris remains grateful to the Pioneros for ensuring he received the proper hospital care he required.

“The team took care of it, too. I didn’t have to pay for a thing. They made sure I was fed — my nutrition was on point in the hospital. They had me on IVs. Anytime anything would go wrong they hit me with some antibiotics to make sure I was okay. They really took care of me in the hospital.”

Morris didn’t even miss a game, as the team was on a surprise bye week. The Pioneros were supposed to play the Artilleros Puebla, but a shooting on their campus caused the game to be postponed.

Being fed properly in the hospital was a big deal for Morris, as the team hadn’t always provided meals in a timely fashion for him and Fagnan.

“We were supposed to be getting fed and that was a bit of an issue,” said Morris. “They’d tell us our breakfast would come at nine or ten (o’clock) and it would be there after lunch. So our lunch would come even later and our dinner would come even later. Our practices were at eight at night, so you wouldn’t get fed or in bed until 2:00 a.m. It was definitely a bit of an issue.”

When meals were hours late, the teammates took it on themselves to find their own food. This led to an entirely different problem.

“I did get food poisoning twice when I was down there,” said Morris. “I learned really quick to stay away from the street tacos.”

“In the beginning, the food thing was a little bit annoying,” said Fagnan. “It took a little while to get that sorted out. Probably the last month we were there it was good because we just had a nutritionist bring us food every day, which was a lot better.”

Kelly and Friesen were also not provided meals consistently as per their contractual agreements. At one point the Raptors did not feed them for four consecutive days, which meant they had to spend their own money at a local grocery store. The pair were reimbursed by the team for their expenses two weeks later.

Food was not an issue for Loggale with the Osos. He and his roommates were provided with a vehicle to get to and from practices and go shopping at a local grocery store.

“We were fortunate enough to have a football house where all the international players came in and got our own rooms,” said Loggale. “They just left us alone and we got our allowance like we were promised in the contract. We weren’t really bothered by a lot — it was just living life as a professional athlete.”

“[The Osos] took care of you very well. I’d go to Costco and spend a lot of money there and still have a little bit left over to do this and that. I didn’t have to spend any of my game earnings.”

***

Back with the Raptors, Kelly had become the team’s starting quarterback following the injury to Márquez. Throwing more in practice led him to seek therapy for his shoulder at the end of practice, fearing it would become stiff.

“Their team doctor tried to stick a needle in my arm without asking consent,” said Kelly. “Essentially, I was talking to the therapist and the doctor came up behind me and kind of grabbed my arm and put a needle in it. I had no idea what the hell was in it or anything. I said, ‘No thank-you, please don’t do that. Please don’t ever inject me with anything.'”

“No thank-you, please don’t do that. Please don’t ever inject me with anything.”

Kelly asked the therapist what was in the shot but she didn’t speak English. He asked some of the players who got the injection what it was and they didn’t know — they just said it helped with pain.

The quarterback wasn’t the only member of the Raptors who was offered a mystery shot.

“I went to the team doctor for my back. He tried to give me a needle but I refused because I didn’t know what it was,” said Friesen. “The chiropractor cracked my back and neck and told me to take the needle, but I didn’t. I called my agent and the coach and owner started freaking out.”

All five Canadians in the LFA witnessed players getting needles, though the pervasiveness of shots varied from team to team.

“These guys (on the Pioneros) were dropping their pants and getting needles in the butt,” said Fagnan. “I was like, ‘Dang, okay.’ Obviously there’s no translation, so I thought these guys were straight saucing on the sidelines. But then the doctor just said they’re vitamin shots. So whatever a Mexican vitamin shot is, I don’t know. I was never offered anything and I wouldn’t take it anyway.”

Fagnan said approximately eight of his teammates on the Pioneros would get the shot at least once per week. It wasn’t a daily occurrence.

“The doctors didn’t have an understanding of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) at all,” said Morris. “They would shoot guys up a lot on the sidelines and say it was a vitamin B complex. I was having some nerve issues after the first game — I dislocated my AC joint — and they hit me with the same stuff. I took it at word for being a vitamin B.”

Needles were less common with the Osos, but still present.

“They didn’t even offer it to you, you had to kinda ask for it,” said Loggale. “Actually, when I got hurt, they did give me a shot. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t quite know what it was.”

Loggale suffered a badly sprained ankle in a game versus the Mexicas (coincidentally, this game was attended by our contributor JC Abbott). He was given a shot as he left the field on a cart. He was told the name of the drug but it escaped him immediately. The trainers spoke very little English and it was hard for Loggale to focus while his ankle was in so much pain.

Mr. Worldwide: thoughts on a Mexican football experience

“It was supposed to help with the swelling in my ankle because my ankle blew up like crazy,” said Loggale. “[The shot] helped with that a little bit. I ended up finding out afterward it was like a super crazy anti-inflammatory. I didn’t quite understand why I was shot, but it was supposed to bring the swelling down.”

“The Osos didn’t pressure anyone to do it. You didn’t really know about it unless you went up to the trainer and asked for that kind of stuff.”

Friesen witnessed players with the Raptors who were in rough shape until they received a shot.

“Some guys could barely stand up straight because their backs were so messed up. Then they’d take the shot and feel amazing,” said Friesen. “The whole medical system in the LFA is like the NFL in the ’70s and ’80s where it’s like, ‘Take this drug and you won’t feel a thing!’ They said their drugs were just like the NFL. When I refused to take them they were like, ‘What, you don’t want to go to the NFL?'”

When the two Canadians on the Raptors refused needles, the medical staff offered them an alternative.

“They suggested taking these pills instead,” said Kelly. “They gave the exact same ones to Brad (Friesen) for his hip.”

Photo courtesy: Graham Kelly

The pills turned out to be nimesulide, a drug that has never been approved for use in Canada or the United States. The International Society of Drug Bulletins (ISDB) called for nimesulide to be banned worldwide in December 2007 due to its potential to cause liver toxicity.

“Those pills were everywhere at practice,” said Friesen. “They handed them out like M&M’s.”

Kelly and Friesen chose not to take the nimesulide.

“I don’t take any pills that are given to me, obviously, without looking up what exactly they are — especially when they’re in a Ziploc bag,” said Kelly.

Morris was administered pills by a team doctor shortly after recovering from COVID-19. The virus attacks the lungs, which meant the linebacker was having trouble catching his breath.

“I went up to the doc and said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ … He’s like, ‘Okay, here, take this.’ I thought it was Advil or Aleve or something — something to reduce the inflammation. I took it and said, ‘Oh, what was that?’ and he’s like, ‘Clenbuterol.'”

Clenbuterol is a decongestant that is classified by WADA as an anabolic agent. One of its common uses is in horse racing where animals are administered the drug to improve lung capacity.

“I said, ‘Holy f***, man, you gotta tell me before you give me a heavy steroid. That’s f***ed up,'” said Morris. “My entire life I haven’t done steroids until that day. … Definitely, [clenbuterol’s] not something that a team doctor in the CFL would give you.”

The medical treatment was Loggale’s only complaint from his time with the Osos.

“If there’s one thing that bothered me a little bit, it was the standard of treatment,” said Loggale. “You get used to a certain standard (in Canada). … When I did get hurt, it really showed me how hard it is to deal with an injury when you don’t have access to a lot of the different physios and things that you can use to really bring yourself back as fast as possible.”

***

The Raptors’ medical care was starting to become a serious concern for Kelly and Friesen.

“Neither Brad (Friesen) or I felt comfortable getting any type of treatment that involved needles or pills,” said Kelly. “If it was stretching or a massage gun, anything like that — for sure. Those are more reliable. … But if you’re reaching into a little baggie to give me something, that’s not very sanitary and trustworthy in my eyes.”

The teammates reached out to Eric Noivo, a CFL employee who was overseeing the Canadians in the LFA. Noivo had requested that all Canadian LFA players give feedback regarding their experiences to determine the long-term viability of the partnership. The trio had a conference call during which Kelly and Friesen expressed their concerns.

“I guess Eric (Noivo) emailed or had a phone conversation with the (Raptors’) owners and from that point on I think the owners took that as a very offensive act,” said Kelly. “We weren’t trying to complain about the team, we were just looking out for our health and our safety.”

The relationship that had started off strong between Kelly, Friesen, and the Raptors’ owners was immediately soured.

“From that point on, Brad (Friesen) and I felt a significant amount of neglect from the team itself,” said Kelly. “The owners didn’t really talk to us anymore.”

The owners had a meeting with Kelly to tell him they were looking for a Canadian to play along the offensive line. If they found one, he’d be cut.

“They weren’t happy with how Brad (Friesen) and me handled a couple of the situations,” said Kelly. “They didn’t like the fact that we didn’t feel safe and that we essentially wanted to go home.”

Two days later, ownership arrived at the players’ condominium to tell Kelly he had been released. His flight departed that evening.

“If I was a backup the entire season and I had to wait for my opportunity, I’m okay with that,” said Kelly. “I’m willing to learn. It’s a great experience to be there to play professional football in Mexico. That’s why I wanted to go. But when it comes to our health and safety as well as our food intake and us showing up late for practice, that’s what made our experience with the Raptors a negative one.”

Friesen left the team just over a week later after asking for his release.

“There were lots of very underhanded business practices,” said Friesen. “There’s a certain level of professionalism and respect that needs to exist that the Raptors just didn’t meet. … Their attitude was like, ‘Well, you’re here now, so we don’t have to honour the contract because you’re stuck here.'”

Many of the issues Kelly and Friesen faced with the team seemed to stem from the fact that the Raptors didn’t want Canadians on the team to begin with.

“They basically told us, ‘You’re only here because the CFL said you had to be here.’ They had no interest in us replacing Mexican players,” said Friesen. “Graham (Kelly) was a way better quarterback than Bruno (Márquez) but they didn’t want him replacing the guy who was basically the face of their league.”

This was not the case with the Pioneros or Osos, who welcomed their Canadian players with open arms.

“People were super kind, super welcoming,” said Fagnan. “People would attempt to make you feel like you weren’t just the two guys who didn’t speak the language. Everyone was very friendly, everyone was very accepting.”

“The (Pioneros’) owners did everything they could for us,” said Morris. “They made sure that they put us first. … I love the owners. The owners and the PR people that were down there were amazing people.”

Photo courtesy: Mandella Loggale

“I think the Osos are really good with that part — taking care of the players and making this as comfortable as possible to succeed in a whole different country,” said Loggale.

Morris did not reach out to the CFL to inform the league that he had COVID-19. He didn’t have a cellphone, so he was unable to contact anyone for his entire week in hospital. He only reached out to the league to discuss issues surrounding food and payment.

“I was like, ‘Hey, you gotta talk to the president of this league, he’s not really paying us and it’s in our contract that we gotta get fed, but they’re not feeding us. I’m not getting sufficient calories,'” said Morris. “I was getting skinny-fat while I was there because of the nutrition, getting sick, and the food poisoning.”

Payment was a common issue for Canadian players in the LFA. Owners wanted to pay players in pesos, not U.S. dollars as the contract stipulated. Paycheques were routinely late.

“That’s the thing about the Mexican way — they don’t necessarily have any sense of time, if that makes sense,” said Morris. “It was hard getting a paycheque. And they’d pay us in pesos, right? So, getting it into a Canadian account was a bit of an issue.”

The CFL made the following statement to 3DownNation regarding the experience of Canadians players in the LFA.

The vast amount of Canadian players who travelled to Mexico to play in the LFA have told us they had a very positive experience. They were disappointed when the pandemic shortened their experience. Some did share they found it difficult to adjust to a new country and culture, or struggled with their playing time or other football matters. We had touched base with each player prior to the LFA season and offered to work with them and the LFA to resolve any issues. We did that when required. The CFL never advised a player to come home at anytime. We did offer our help if a player wanted to do so. Given that the overall feedback from Canadian players and the LFA has been positive, we look forward to this initiative continuing in the future.

Morris doesn’t believe any Canadian players received all of their paycheques on time. Friesen didn’t receive his final paycheque from the Raptors until he’d been back in Canada for two months.

Morris said he would go back to the LFA if the league did a better job of providing food for the players and making payments on time.

“The city was beautiful,” said Morris. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — learning the culture, getting to know the people. Avoiding winter, in general, was nice.”

“The talent level was pretty close to par (with Canada). The speed was the same. There were ex-NFL guys on my team, so they definitely knew what they were doing. All in all, I’d give it a good experience. The football was totally different, but different in a good way, also. Personally, I love hitting, so it was good for me.”

“For me to be able to get the opportunity to go down there was a tremendous honour,” said Kelly. “It was a very exciting opportunity, but I think there needs to be a little bit better communication between the LFA and the CFL.”

“My offensive coordinator (Juan Carlos) was one of the best coaches I’ve actually had the pleasure of working with. He was great. He did his absolute best to translate everything for me, took the time to explain everything before or after practice if he had time. He was my go-to guy. He made the experience the best possible.”

Friesen said that playing in the LFA should only be considered by Canadians without opportunities outside of football.

“Look, if you’re someone who really needs football — like, it’s the only thing in the world you want to do — then I’d say, ‘Sure, go for it.’ But for anyone else with a future in any other field, I wouldn’t do it.”

Fagnan recently got married and is using the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to finish his degree online. He’s not sure if he wants to continue pursuing professional football, but he’s not ruling anything out entirely.

“They already talked about having me back and I just told them I’d consider it,” said Fagnan.

“It was a really good experience just to be down there playing football,” said Loggale. “I honestly had no idea Mexicans were so into football, that the sport was so big in Mexico before I went down there.”

“I’d definitely do it again — if I could go back to the Osos, that is. If it was the Raptors, I don’t think I’d go back to that. But if I could go back to Osos, I think I would.”

***

The last remaining question is whether or not the LFA is a legitimate route to reaching higher levels of professional football. A part of the CFL’s global initiative is having Canadians play abroad to develop their skills for a potential return to professional football in Canada or the United States.

“I don’t think it’s realistic,” said Fagnan. “If you’re going down there to get coaching to get better, it’s not feasible. You can go down there and get film — if you go down there and dominate, then great, you can put that on film — but I don’t know if that’s necessarily going to help you get to the CFL.”

Fagnan doesn’t think the semi-professional nature of the league allows coaches to dedicate the time or energy required to really develop players.

“We’ve all played high-level ball and you go down there and there are players that are studs,” said Fagnan. “The coaching isn’t at the next level. That preparation — I don’t think they quite understand where you have to get to yet to be elite. … There are some talented coaches there that know what they’re talking about, but they don’t have the time because they’re working full-time jobs.”

“At the end of the day, you’re either good enough or not,” said Friesen. “You have it or you don’t. You can tell even in high school when someone’s going pro, or if they’re maybe good enough to play some university.”

L-R: Graham Kelly, Jeremy Fagnan, Drew Morris, Brad Friesen. Photo courtesy: Graham Kelly

Loggale thinks the timeline makes it almost impossible to compete in the CFL after completing an LFA season.

“By the time you’re released from your contract (in the LFA) it’s June, so the season’s already started in the CFL,” said Loggale. “You’re kinda hoping that there’s injuries in places and teams are willing to take shots on you that way, but you wouldn’t be in training camp, so that makes things that much harder. … Trying to play from January to June and then from June all the way to November is really, really hard as a football player.”

Comments