Entering season of sky-high expectations, Riders’ QB Cody Fajardo looks for validation

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Canadian Football League has seen its share of one-hit-wonder quarterbacks.

Casey Printers electrified the west coast and drew comparisons to Doug Flutie during his sizzling Most Outstanding Player award-winning season in 2004 with the B.C. Lions. Then, he became one disappointment after another.

Jonathon Jennings teased Leos fans again with flashes of brilliance in leading Wally Buono’s
coming-out-of-retirement party in 2016 with a 12-win season and thrilling playoff win over the Blue Bombers. But he, too, would fade into obscurity before long.

The Calgary Stampeders once benched Henry Burris and let him leave town because an up-and-coming Drew Tate was supposed to be the next big thing and put up a strong 2011 season. And then injuries slowed Tate down enough to finish his career as a perennial backup watching Burris on TV get to a Grey Cup with one team (Hamilton) and then win a ring with another (Ottawa).

You get the picture: one great season does not a star career make.

Enter Cody Fajardo and his 2021 season at the controls of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
A career backup over his first four years in Canada and two different teams, there was
absolutely nothing that would indicate Fajardo would amount to anything more than a career clipboard-holder.

Then an early-season injury to then-Roughrider starting quarterback, Zach Collaros.
From there, the rest has been history in the making.

Fajardo stunned the football world by giving Saskatchewan general manager Jeremy O’Day and head coach Craig Dickenson something no one could ever give their predecessor, Chris Jones: a consistent and dependable star quarterback who could ease the pressure off of the Riders world-class defence.

In capturing the West division nomination for the CFL MOP award, Fajardo turned out to be competent, playful, consistent, entertaining and likeable. Above all else, he looked like a winner and made people in Saskatchewan feel like he wanted to be one of them. A perfect fit for the prairies and one helluva good quarterback.

But some Rider fans are proceeding with caution with this guy.

If there’s anything the Printers, Jennings or Tate’s of the world have
taught us, it’s that if a gunslinger looks too good to be true, he just might be. Some fans and naysayers have pointed this out but no one has pointed it out more than Fajardo, himself.

“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan” Fajardo said while in preparation for the 2021 CFL season.

He’s lost weight and adopted veganism since he last played, although he’s not full-on vegan and enjoys the odd burger. In Fajardo’s dream season of 2019, he came off the bench as an absolute nobody to boldly go somewhere only two other Rider QB’s, Ronnie Lancaster and Darian Durant, have gone in the past 60 years: a first place finish in the West.

In a world where star pro football quarterbacks routinely get long-term big-money contracts in both Canada and the U.S., Fajardo settled for a two-year extension with the Roughriders. That $512,000 for one season in hard money for year one, reported by 3DownNation, doesn’t go nearly as far in U.S. greenbacks for the resident of Nevada, especially after the Canadian taxes get taken off.

The message is clear: Fajardo gets a good payday but only a two-year payday as reward for his one year of star play. If he does it again this year, we’ll be talking about a long-term extension and some really big money by CFL standards or maybe even one last crack at the NFL. Fajardo admits he feels the pressure to avoid a sophomore jinx in this ever-so-critical year.

“Usually, the athlete is the hardest on themselves and for me especially, but I don’t like to show it to other people. I don’t like to get on myself too hard in front of other people. But when I’ve got some alone time, I’ll yell at myself a little bit if I miss a throw.”

But Fajardo also points out that he needs to stick with the fun-loving, let-it-all hangout attitude that elevated him into this position in the first place.

“I just want to stay positive. I think that’s probably one of my favourite things that I’ve heard from the players in 2019 was no matter what was going on, players could draw to me for some positivity,” Fajardo said.

“I don’t want to get overwhelmed in expectations if things aren’t going right or just to fall into the tank. I want to be able to stay positive, even when things don’t go right, I might not play the best game of my life on Friday but it’s not the end of the world. There’s more to life than football and that’s what helps me get through these high-expectation things.”

Dickenson knows it’s a critical year for Fajardo to solidify his rockstar status but is quick to point out that he’s feeling less pressure, in some ways, than he did as a backup going into last season.

“He knows he’s the guy. He’s not trying to win a job. It’s his job and he knows it,” Dickenson said. “So, I think you’re seeing a more confident, more self-aware (Fajardo) and more of a leader. And it looks good on him. He’s had a great camp.”

Could the bar be set any higher for Fajardo? Perhaps at minimum slightly higher than the crossbar at Mosaic Stadium.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.