Skip to main content

Top 10 NFL Stars Who Played in the CFL

TT is an online writer with over seven years of experience writing about sports and pop culture.

CFL to NFL. Players who did both.

CFL to NFL. Players who did both.

CFL Players in the NFL

These guys got notoriety from two different leagues. Here, I rank the top 10 NFL stars who had success in the CFL. It can be at the beginning, middle, or end of their careers, as long as they made an impact.


10. Andrew Hawkins

"Baby Hawk" came into the spotlight from a reality show.

At the University of Toledo, Andrew Hawkins became the first Rocket to play both ways in nearly 50 years by playing wide receiver and cornerback. In four seasons, he finished with 67 receptions for 1,107 yards and five touchdowns and had two forced fumbles, one blocked punt and 21 tackles as a cornerback.

At 5'7" and 175 pounds, it's not hard to picture why he went undrafted in 2008. He worked out with the Cleveland Browns but was not signed and sat out the 2008 season.

In December 2008, he signed with the Montréal Alouettes, but competed as a contestant on Michael Irvin's football reality show 4th and Long before the start of the 2009 season. Hawkins was a runner-up to Jesse Holley. After his appearance on the show, he returned to the Alouettes. In his two seasons, he recorded 41 receptions, 457 yards and five touchdowns while helping Montréal win back-to-back Grey Cup victories.

Hawkins took another stab at the NFL by signing with the St. Louis Rams in 2011, but was waived in training camp and was claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals. Signed to the practice squad, he was promoted to the active roster after an injury to Jordan Shipley. He became a fan favorite for his play on third down as a reliable possession receiver. He had a breakout season in 2012 for the Bengals, playing in 14 games and totaling 51 receptions for 533 yards and four touchdowns, plus six rushes for 30 yards.

Hawkins became a member of the Browns with a reported four-year, $13.6 million contract, including a $3.8 million signing bonus in 2014. In his first season in Cleveland, Hawkins led the Browns with 63 catches for 824 yards and two touchdowns. After a brief offseason stint with New England, he retired from the NFL in 2017.


9. Rocket Ismail

His speed caused the CFL to throw big money at him.

At Notre Dame, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail helped the Fighting Irish win the national championship in 1988 while also being a star on the track and field team. In 1990, he finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy as the top college football player.

Projected as the top overall pick for the 1991 draft, Ismail chose instead to sign with the Toronto Argonauts on a four-year deal worth $18.2 million. He was an instant factor in his first season with Toronto as a return man while helping the Argonauts win the 79th Grey Cup and was named Grey Cup MVP. In 1992, he set a franchise record for kick return yards but Toronto regressed to a 6-12 record and missed the playoffs.

Ismail got fed up with Canada and signed with the Los Angeles Raiders who owned his rights after they drafted him in the fourth round in 1991. After three less than stellar seasons with the Raiders, he was traded to Carolina in 1996. He had a breakout year in 1998 with 69 receptions for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns.

In 1999, he signed with Dallas as the highest bidding team for him. After Michael Irvin suffered a career-ending neck injury against Philadelphia, Ismail became the team's leading receiver with 80 catches, a career-high 1,097 yards, and six touchdowns. However, injuries limited him in his final three seasons and Dallas was forced to release him.

Scroll to Continue

8. Joe Kapp

After a hall of fame career in Canada, he had a short but solid stint in the NFL.

At California, Joe Kapp was a two-sport star on the football field and basketball court. He helped the Golden Bears win the Pacific Coast Conference title in 1958 and a Rose Bowl appearance the following year.

An 18th-round pick in 1959 by the Washington Redskins, Kapp was forced to sign with the Calgary Stampeders after Washington didn't contact him after the draft. the following year, he led Calgary to their first playoff appearance in years. In 1961, the BC Lions traded for players for Kapp as he helped lead them to a Grey Cup appearance in 1963. The following year he led the Lions to their first Grey Cup victory.

Before the start of the 1967 season, Kapp decided to return to the U.S. and play in the NFL. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings in a multi-player "trade" between the CFL and NFL teams, one of the very few transactions to ever occur between the two leagues. In his first season in Minnesota, he went 3-5-3 as a starter. The following year, he helped the Vikings to their first playoff appearance but lost to the Baltimore Colts.

In 1969, Kapp had a standout season by tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a game while helping the Vikings to a 12-2 record and an appearance in Super Bowl IV. However, Kapp and the Vikings played poorly and lost to Kansas City in the big game. In 1970, he signed with the Boston Patriots who made him the highest-paid player in the league. But the season was a disaster for Kapp and the Patriots as they finished with the league's worst record. Kapp retired after the season as a two-time CFL All-Star and a 1969 Pro Bowler. He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 1984.


7. Brandon Browner

He's an original member of the "Legion of Boom," but he had a successful five-year career in Canada before that.

At Oregon State, Brandon Browner made an instant impact by being named a Freshman All-American and the PAC 10 Freshman of the Year. He finished his two-year collegiate career with 87 tackles, a sack, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, 15 pass deflections, six interceptions for 74 yards in returns, and a touchdown.

It's hard to imagine that a 6'4" cornerback could go undrafted, but that's exactly what happened to Browner in 2005. He signed with the Denver Broncos as a free agent but broke his forearm in the preseason and missed the rest of the year. He was released the following year.

In 2006, he signed with the Calgary Stampeders. He became a fan favorite due to his speed and competitive effort. In 2008, he helped Calgary win the Grey Cup. In his five seasons with the Stampeders, he was a three-time CFL All-Star and recorded eight interceptions.

In 2011, Browner signed with the Seattle Seahawks and was immediately named the starter. He made an immediate impact with six interceptions, including a Seahawks record 94-yard interception return for a touchdown, and was named to the Pro Bowl. The following year he was suspended by the NFL for PED use but was still named to the Pro Bowl. He missed eight games dealing with another league suspension as Seattle won its first Super Bowl.

The following year, he signed with New England and helped the Patriots defeat his former team as he won his second straight Super Bowl. He signed with New Orleans in 2015, but had a disastrous year as he was one of the lowest-rated cornerbacks in the league and had the most penalties in a single season since the league started recording the stat in 1999. He returned to Seattle in 2016 but was cut in training camp.


6. Joe Horn

"Hollywood" is a Saints legend, and played a season for the CFL's ill-fated American franchise.

At Itawamba Community College, Joe Horn registered 54 catches for 878 yards and seven touchdowns as a wide receiver and a punt returner, but was unable to qualify for Division I college football and returned to Fayetteville and worked at a fast-food restaurant and at a furniture factory. He didn't play a down of football for two years after leaving college, but rented a Jerry Rice workout video from Blockbuster and studied the drills and moves Rice performed in the film. Horn then made a highlight video of himself working out and sent the tape to multiple professional teams across America and Canada.

In 1995, Horn signed with the Memphis Mad Dogs in the CFL's attempt to expand the league into the U.S. He registered 71 catches for 1,415 yards in his lone season with the team and entered the 1996 NFL Draft.

Horn was selected in the fifth round by Kansas City but was regulated to special teams and reserve receiver duty in his four seasons with the team. In 2000, he signed with New Orleans and quickly developed into a premier NFL receiver. In his first year with the Saints, he finished in the top 10 of the league in every major receiving category. He is also the Saints' all-time leader in 100-yard receiving games with 27. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Horn was noted for his support for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf region.

As a leader of the Saints, he served as a public face of the team in many community events in recent months. He was cut by the team after 2006 when he refused to take a pay cut. Horn spent his final season in Atlanta before retiring after 2007. He was a four-time pro bowler and is the Saints all-time leading receiver.


5. Ricky Williams

He played for Canada while under suspension from the NFL.

In Texas, Ricky Williams was seen as the second coming of Earl Campbell. He holds or shares 20 NCAA records and was a two-time Doak Walker Award winner and the 1998 Heisman trophy winner.

In 1999, The Saints traded away all of their draft picks and two 2000 draft picks to Washington so they could draft Williams fifth overall. The result was not pretty. Head coach Mike Ditka was fired at the end of the season after posting a 3-13 record. All in all, Williams accumulated 3,129 yards and 16 touchdowns in three years with the Saints. He did help the Saints win their first playoff game as a franchise in 2001, but the handicap he put on this team lasted years.

In 2002, he was traded to Miami for four draft picks. In his first season with the Dolphins, Williams led the league in rushing and was named All-Pro and Pro Bowl MVP. After failing a third drug test, he retired but returned in 2005 and split time with Ronnie Brown. After failing a fourth drug test, he was suspended for the entire 2006 season.

In 2006, the Toronto Argonauts signed Williams under the agreement with Miami that he would return to the Dolphins in 2007. Williams played well for the most part with 526 yards and two touchdowns but missed seven games with a broken arm.

Williams returned to Miami in 2007 but played in just one game after tearing his pectoral muscle. He bounced back in the 2008 season, rushing for 659 yards on 160 carries and scoring four touchdowns while playing in all 16 games for the Dolphins. He and Ronnie Brown ran the Wildcat formation together, resulting in an 11-5 season for the Dolphins. When Brown suffered a season-ending injury in 2008, Williams became the starter for the remainder of the year and finished with 1,121 yards. He spent one final year in Baltimore before retiring in 2012.


4. Joe Theismann

Every year he spent in Canada, the team that drafted him was playing in Super Bowls.

At Notre Dame, Joe Theismann set many single game and season passing records for the Fighting Irish. He became so important to the team, Notre Dame's PR director convinced him to change the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with Heisman. In his time at Notre Dame, he went 20-3-2 as a starter while throwing for 4,411 yards and 31 touchdowns.

In 1971, Theismann was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins. After contract negotiations broke down and realizing he would be playing behind Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, He chose to sign with the Toronto Argonauts for $50,000 a season. In his first season, he lead the Eastern Conference in passing and helped Toronto to a Grey Cup appearance. In his three seasons in Canada, he was a two-time CFL All-Star, but in that time the Miami Dolphins went to three straight Super Bowls with two victories.

In 1974, Theismann signed with the Washington Redskins who bought his rights from Miami. He was used as the team's punt returner in 1974 and was the backup to Billy Kilmer the following three seasons. In 1978, he was named the full-time starter and helped Washington to a 6-0 start but the team fell back to earth to finish the year 8-8.

By 1982, in a strike-shortened season, he helped Washington win their first Super Bowl against the team that drafted him. The following year, he was a part of a Redskins team that became the highest-scoring team in NFL history at the time but lost badly in Super Bowl XVIII to the Raiders. His career came to a scary end when Lawrence Taylor broke his leg in 1985. He was a two-time Pro Bowler, the 1983 NFL MVP, and a Super Bowl champion.


3. Cameron Wake

When you look at him, it's hard to imagine he went undrafted and had to prove himself in Canada.

At Penn State, Cameron Wake played mostly linebacker, but occasionally some defensive end. He finished his collegiate career with 191 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 24 tackles for a loss.

After going undrafted in 2005, Wake signed with the New York Giants but was cut before training camp.

After not playing football for two years, Wake signed with the BC Lions and moved to the defensive end. He finished his first season with a league-best 16 sacks and had the only blocked field goal in the CFL that season. He also became the first player in CFL history to be named Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. The following season, he led the league in sacks again with 23 and won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award.

In 2009, Wake signed with Miami. After a fairly productive first season, he came into his own in 2010 by finishing with 14 sacks. In 10 seasons with the Dolphins, he registered 98 sacks and 22 forced fumbles while being named a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro. He signed with Tennessee in 2019 with a chance to join the 100 sacks club.


2. Doug Flutie

He's the greatest CFL player ever, but it took the NFL years to realize how to use him.

At Boston College, Doug Flutie worked his way up the depth chart to eventually become the starter. By 1984, he was a national hero and had one of the most memorable finishes in college football history with the "Hail Flutie" pass. He was named the 1984 Heisman Trophy winner and left school as the NCAA's all-time passing yards leader.

At 5'9" and 175 pounds, Flutie was deemed too small for the NFL and chose instead to sign with the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1985. He led the Generals to an 11-7 record but the league folded the following year.

Flutie signed with the Bears who traded for his NFL rights from the Rams in 1986. He played in four games for Chicago before being traded to New England before the 1987 season. He had some impressive moments for the Patriots but could never win over head coach Raymond Berry.

In 1990, Flutie signed with the BC Lions on a two-year deal. After a rough first season, he bounce back in 1991 by setting the CFL record for passing yards in a season. In 1992, he signed with Calgary Stampeders and immediately led them to a Grey Cup title. He signed with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996 and led them to back-to-back Grey Cup victories. In eight seasons in Canada, he was a six-time CFL All-Star, six-time CFL MVP, three-time Grey Cup Champion, and three-time Grey Cup MVP.

In 1998 Flutie returned to the NFL where the Buffalo Bills signed him along with Rob Johnson, who was the presumptive starter. After Johnson was injured in Week 5, Flute came in and rallied the struggling 1-3 Bills to a 10-6 record and a wildcard spot while being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year and to the Pro Bowl. The following year he was 10-5 as the starter, but a controversial decision to start by Johnson by owner Ralph Wilson led the Bills to fall to the Titans in the "Music City Miracle." In 2001, he signed with a young Chargers team where he helped mentor future All-Pro Drew Brees. He spent his final season back in New England where he successfully made the first drop-kick extra point in over 60 years.


1. Warren Moon

It really is an embarrassment that he had to go to Canada to prove himself.

After two years at West Los Angeles College, Warren Moon transferred to the University of Washington. In his final year as a starter, he led the Huskies to a PAC 8 title and an upset victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Moon went undrafted in a 12-round draft for one reason. He was black. Because of this, he was forced to sign with the Edmonton Eskimos in 1978. In his first five seasons in Edmonton, he led the Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cup Championships and became the first CFL quarterback to throw for 5,000 yards. In six seasons in the CFL, he was a five-time Grey Cup champion, two-time Grey Cup MVP, and the 1983 CFL MVP.

In 1984, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers. In his first season with the team, he threw for a then franchise-record 3,338 yards. In 1990, Moon led the league with 4,689 passing yards. He also led the league in attempts, completions, and touchdowns, and tied Dan Marino's record with nine 300-yard games in a season. That included throwing for 527 yards against Kansas City, the second-most passing yards ever in a single game. In 10 seasons as a Houston Oiler, Moon set a franchise record for wins with 70, which stood until Steve McNair broke it in 2004.

Moon was traded to Minnesota before the 1994 season. He continued to have great success with the Vikings and Seahawks before retiring as a backup with the Chiefs in 2000. In 17 NFL seasons, he was a nine-time pro bowler, All-Pro in 1990, lead the league in passing twice, and the 1990 NFL MVP. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 and is the only man to be a member of the NFL and CFL Hall of Fame.

Questions & Answers

Question: What about Jeff Garcia?

Answer: I completely forgot he played in Canada.


Les on January 17, 2020:

Jeff Garcia would be about fifth on the list!

Related Articles