2012 in the Canadian Football League will be remembered for more than just the 100th Grey Cup celebration. It will be noted as the centennial anniversary when, if things remain the way they are right now, 18 all-star players finished up their careers and another six dipped their toes into NFL waters.
As it stands, four days away from the commencement of training camp for most teams, the number of accomplished and "face of the franchise" players in this league that are either unsigned or retired is staggering. We are talking about players that as a group have earned 62 divisional all-star nods. Athletes that have been named to the all-CFL team a whopping 43 times. And for the awards that are handed out once a year to the absolute best in their category, five Most Outstanding Canadian awards are now finished, three Most Outstanding Defensive player selections have left the building, two Most Outstanding Rookie performances are a distant memory, and two Most Outstanding Linemen have reached the end of the road.
Whether the CFL knew this was coming, or was caught off guard by an exodus of avalanche proportions, there are big shoes to be filled, in both the hero and villain department. Here are a few of the most glaring vacancies.
When you think of homegrown Canadian superheroes that defied both preconceived notions of American superiority and competed at a level all their own, say adieu to Jason Clermont and Brent Johnson.
Not only were these a pair of the most talented non-imports to play this game, but they were some of the classiest league ambassadors the CFL has seen over the last decade.
Clermont has to be remembered as one of the toughest slots to play this game, period. Long before Nik Lewis was acquiring his reputation as an ear-hole technician, Clermont was being used by the B.C. Lions to trap and wham-block defensive tackles in a blunt instrument-type fashion that would make Hines Ward blush. Yes you read that right, a wide receiver that fearlessly waded into the heart of the line of scrimmage, time and again, to block players that outweighed him by 100 pounds. Which is to say nothing about his tough-catch abilities.
At the apex of his career, there was no better defensive lineman in the CFL than Brent Johnson -- American, Canadian, or otherwise -- who was a walking, talking, teaching tape of "motor" and "hustle." Nobody was more relenting or determined to get to the QB than this original product of Richard Harris tutelage. And nobody did it with more humility and reverence.
Two great offensive line talents, at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, have also bowed out gracefully. Gene Makowsky, who is the face and gold standard of offensive line play in Saskatchewan, retired after an incomprehensible 17 years. He is the CFL's version of NFL great Bruce Matthews. Playing Saskatchewan, you could never be sure where Gene was going to line up -- he was that versatile -- but if you drew the short straw, you weren't going to get any breathing room for the next three hours. And when you think of villains, which every league requires and relishes, Rob Murphy was a fire-breathing example of unnecessary roughness. For a number of years, there was no more disruptive agitator capable of taking defensive players off their game than Murph. Anytime the parent of a defensive end confronts an offensive tackle after a game (Mr. Braidwood), because of the abuse his son received over the course of 60 minutes, you know that player was a force to be reckoned with.
These are merely four of the 25 plus players that are either retired or not currently on rosters of CFL teams, that were not only high-calibre players, but men on the front lines and in the storylines of Canadian football.
Who will replace the tenacity and surgical play of the Minister of Defence, Barrin Simpson? The big-play, game-changing ability of Anwar Stewart? Will the next generation of tailbacks in the CFL match the accomplishments, efficiency and skill set of a Joffrey Reynolds, Wes Cates, Fred Reid and Avon Cobourne backfield consortium? Can you name the next ratio-breaking cover man with the acumen of Davis Sanchez or a player with the receiving polish of Jeremaine Copeland? Who worked in their community more diligently than an Obby Khan, or was a better, more selfless, teammate than Eric Wilson? Will there be another larger than life, enveloping, man-mountain like Patrick Kabongo?
It's time to call up the marketing and public relations high rollers and kick them into gear. It's too late to turn the page and write the next chapter of CFL history. This league has an entirely new book about to make its way onto the shelves, with plenty of roles waiting to be cast and filled.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.