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Top 10 NFL Stars Who Played in the CFL

TT is an online writer with over eight 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. In this article, I'll rank the top 10 NFL stars who had success in the CFL. That success could have been at the beginning, middle, or end of their careers.

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

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

10. Andrew Hawkins

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. He 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 he was not signed and sat out the 2008 season.

In December 2008, he signed with the Montréal Alouettes, but he 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 he 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. He played in 14 games and had 51 receptions for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also had 6 rushes for 30 yards.

Hawkins became a member of the Browns in 2014. He had a reported four-year, $13.6 million contract, which included a $3.8 million signing bonus. 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.

Rocket Ismail's speed caused the CFL to throw big money at him.

Rocket Ismail's speed caused the CFL to throw big money at him.

9. Rocket Ismail

At Notre Dame, Raghib "Rocket" Ismail helped the Fighting Irish win the national championship in 1988. He was also 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 he 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 he 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 8 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 6 touchdowns. However, injuries limited him in his final three seasons, and Dallas was forced to release him.

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

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

8. Joe Kapp

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 they had a Rose Bowl appearance the following year.

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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 four 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 they 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.

Brandon Bower is an original member of the "Legion of Boom," but he had a successful five-year career in Canada before that.

Brandon Bower is an original member of the "Legion of Boom," but he had a successful five-year career in Canada before that.

7. Brandon Browner

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, 5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, 15 pass deflections, 6 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 he 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 94-yard interception return for a touchdown that would be a team record. He was also named to the Pro Bowl. The following year he was suspended by the NFL for PED use, but he 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 he had a disastrous year as he was one of the lowest-rated cornerbacks in the league. He had the most penalties in a single season since the league started recording the stat in 1999. He returned to Seattle in 2016, but he was cut in training camp.

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

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

6. Joe Horn

At Itawamba Community College, Joe Horn registered 54 catches for 878 yards and 7 touchdowns as a wide receiver and a punt returner. However, he was unable to qualify for Division I college football and returned to Fayetteville. He 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 he 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 before he entered the 1996 NFL Draft.

Horn was selected in the fifth round by Kansas City, but he 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. 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 in 2008. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and ranks in at third for the Saints' all-time receiving yards record.

Ricky Williams played for Canada while under suspension from the NFL.

Ricky Williams played for Canada while under suspension from the NFL.

5. Ricky Williams

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. He was also 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 results were 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. He 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 2 touchdowns, but he missed seven games with a broken arm.

Williams returned to Miami in 2007, but he 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 4 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.

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

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

4. Joe Theismann

At Notre Dame, Joe Theismann set many single game and season passing records for the Fighting Irish. He became so important to the team that 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 that 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 he 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. Unfortunately, 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. However, they 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.

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

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

3. Cameron Wake

At Penn State, Cameron Wake played mostly in the linebacker position, but he occasionally played as a 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 he 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 he 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 and joined the 100 sacks club. Wake retired after being released from the Titans in 2020.

Doug Flutie is the greatest CFL player ever, but it took the NFL years to realize how to use him.

Doug Flutie is the greatest CFL player ever, but it took the NFL years to realize how to use him.

2. Doug Flutie

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. Instead, he chose 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 he 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 bounced back in 1991 by setting the CFL record for passing yards in a season. In 1992, he signed with the 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 when the Buffalo Bills signed him along with Rob Johnson, who was the presumptive starter. After Johnson was injured in Week 5, Flutie 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. He was also selected to the Pro Bowl. The following year, he was 10-5 as the starter, but a controversial decision fro owner Ralph Wilson to start Johnson 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.

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

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

1. Warren Moon

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 12 rounds for one reason. The NFL did not want a black quarterback. 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 he 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, an All-Pro in 1990, league leader in passing twice, and the 1990 NFL MVP. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, and he is the only man to be a member of the NFL and CFL Hall of Fame.

Other Notable NFL Players That Played in the CFL

Here are some noteworthy NFL players that made the trip up north. These are players that only had a cup of Tim Hortons during their tenure in the CFL.

Jeff Garcia

This quarterback from California spent the first five years of his pro career playing for the Calgary Stampeders after going undrafted in 1994. He would join the San Francisco 49ers in 1999 and would stay in the NFL for a little over a decade. He was a Grey Cup champion in his final season in the CFL and was a four-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.

Fred Biletnikoff

Fred Biletnikoff played for 14 seasons with the Oakland Raiders as a wide receiver. He was a Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl MVP, a four-time Pro Bowler, and he led the league in receptions in 1971. He retired from the NFL in 1978, but in 1980, he joined the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. He would only spend one season in the league, but he would get 38 receptions for 470 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Chad Johnson

After spending 11 seasons in the NFL, the infamous Chad Ochocinco signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Alouettes in 2014. The four-time Pro Bowler was only able to play in five games in his first season due to injuries. He was able to make seven receptions for one touchdown. Ochocinco ended up getting suspended in his second season due to his failure to show up to training camp. He was not offered a new contract afterwards.

Mark Gastineau

Mark Gastineau spent 10 seasons in the NFL as an impressive defensive end for the New York Jets. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and led the league in sacks in two seasons. He is considered to be one of the best defensive linemen to not yet be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Gastineau would retire during the 1988 season. He attempted a comeback in the CFL when he joined the BC Lions in 1990. Unfortunately, he was released after playing in only four games.

Willie Middlebrooks

Cornerback Willie Middlebrooks was a first-round pick in the 2001 Draft. He spent most of his NFL career playing for the Denver Broncos; he spent one season in San Francisco. He was out of the NFL in 2006, and he joined the Toronto Argonauts in 2008. He spent three seasons there before he retired due to a neck injury.

Andre Rison

Wide receiver Andre Rison spent 13 seasons in the NFL. During his NFL career, he became a Super Bowl champion and a five-time Pro Bowler. The 2000 season would be his last in the NFL. Rison would sign with the Toronto Argonauts in 2004. He would play in the CFL for two seasons, and he won the Grey Cup in his first season.

Football Players That Won a Super Bowl and a Grey Cup

The Super Bowl and Grey Cup are the NFL and CFL championship games, respectively. Here are a few players that can claim to have won both accolades.

Barry Wilburn

Barry Wilburn won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in the 1987 season. The cornerback would win a Grey Cup with the BC Lions in 1994.

Bobby Singh

Bobby Singh received a Super Bowl ring as a member of the St. Louis Rams in the 1999 season. However, he was only a member of the practice roster, and he was released after the season. The offensive guard would spend most of their career in the CFL. Singh would win the Grey Cup in 2006 with the BC Lions. Interestingly, Singh played in the short-lived XFL. He would win the championship in the league's only season. Singh is the only player to win championships in the NFL, CFL, and XFL.

Harald Hasselbach

Harald Hasselbach was a defensive end that played four seasons in the CFL and seven seasons in the NFL. Hasselbach won the Grey Cup in 1992 with the Calgary Stampeders. He would win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998 with the Denver Broncos.

Daniel Federkeil

Daniel Federkeil was an offensive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts. He won a Super Bowl with the team in the 2006 season. He would join the CFL in 2013, and he would win the Grey Cup with the Calgary Stampeders in 2014.

Terry Greer

Terry Greer was the first player to win a Super Bowl and a Grey Cup. The wide receiver won the Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts in 1983. He would win back-to-back Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in 1988 and 1989.

Tyrone Williams

Tyrone Williams captured back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and 1993. The wide receiver only played for two seasons in the CFL, but that was long enough to win a Grey Cup in 1996 with the Toronto Argonauts.

Tim Jessie

Tim Jessie was a member of the Washington Redskins when the team won the Super Bowl in the 1987 season. That would be his only season in the NFL. The running back would sign with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and win a Grey Cup in 1988.

Alvin Walton

Alvin Walton would pick up two Super Bowl championships with the Washington Redskins in the 1987 and 1991 seasons. The safety would later play in the CFL for two seasons. He would win a Grey Cup with the Baltimore Stallions in 1995.

Josh Miller

Josh Miller started his career with the Baltimore Stallions in 1994. He would win a Grey Cup with the team in 1995. Miller would join the NFL afterwards. The punter won a Super Bowl in 2004 with the New England Patriots.

O.J. Brigance

O.J. Brigance started his pro career in the CFL. In 1995, the linebacker won a Grey Cup for the Baltimore Stallions. He would join the NFL in 1996, and he would win a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.

Questions & Answers

Question: What about Jeff Garcia?

Answer: I completely forgot he played in Canada.

Comments

Les on January 17, 2020:

Jeff Garcia would be about fifth on the list!

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