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Five of the Most Interesting Canadian NFLers

By Max Toth

Canadians have always been football fans. After all, the Grey Cup is older than the Super Bowl and it was the 1874 McGill university team from Montreal that came up with core concepts like tackling, the forward pass and using an oval shaped ball instead of a round one. Despite this rich history, however, Canada hasn’t been known as a hotspot for NFL talent. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that some great (and colourful) players have indeed hailed from the “Great White North.”

1. Rueben Mayes

Arguably the best Canadian NFLer in the modern game, North Battleford, Saskatchewan’s Rueben Mayes was an All-American running back at Washington State and has since been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He parlayed his collegiate success into a third round selection by the New Orleans Saints and was the 1986 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and a pro bowler in his first season. The rest of his seven year career was unfortunately marred by injuries, but he still managed to be selected to another Pro Bowl and amass 3,484 career rushing yards - the most ever by a Canadian.  

2. Mark Rypien 

Like Mayes, Mark Rypien was a college star at Washington State. (Hey! If Canada wants to become a more prominent NFL nation, maybe they should consider sending everyone to Washington State.) The Calgary, Alberta born Rypien was selected in the sixth round of the 1986 NFL draft by the Washington Red…I mean the Washington Football Team and became the starter three years later. In 1991 Rypien took Washington all the way to Super Bowl XXVI, where they beat the Buffalo Bills 37-24, as Rypien was named Super Bowl MVP and became the first, and only, Canadian to take home the award.

3. Tony Mandarich 

As a high schooler, Tony Mandarich earned a scholarship to Michigan State when a young assistant coach named Nick Saban discovered the Oakville, Ontario offensive lineman. Once Mandarich arrived in East Lansing, “The Incredible Bulk” became a national sensation, both for his gigantic 6’6” 330 lb. frame and his even bigger personality. While at Michigan State, he challenged Mike Tyson to a boxing match, appeared on one of the most iconic Sports Illustrated covers of all time (where they called Mandarich the “best offensive line prospect ever”) and, oh yeah, he also took a ton of steroids. The 1989 NFL draft is known for sending four of the top five picks to the Hall of Fame; but unfortunately for Tony, he was the odd man out. Picked second by the Green Bay Packers, after Troy Aikman and right before Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, Tony was put in the terrible position of trying to keep up with his legendary draftmates. Due to the NFL’s rigorous PED testing, Mandarich decided to stop taking steroids once he made the NFL and struggled mightily. He lost the size and ferocity that made him a star in college, along with about five inches of his iconic mullet. He was still a bit of a loudmouth though, and made a number of negative comments about the Packers that ultimately led to him getting cut after three seasons of riding the bench and another less flattering SI cover, this time labelling him the “Incredible Bust”. There is, however, some evidence that Mandarich could’ve become a solid pro. After recovering from an alcohol addiction, Mandarich made a comeback with the lowly Indianapolis Colts, where he started all sixteen games before retiring for good.

4. Bronko Nagurski 

Born in Rainy River, Ontario but raised in Minnesota, Nagurski is more so remembered as a Minnesota sports legend. But his legacy as the first of two Canadians to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame makes him a bonafide Canuck pigskin hero. (For the record, the other Canadian in the Canton, Ohio shrine is Arnie Weinmeister of Rhein, Saskatchewan, who starred with the New York Giants in the 1950’s.) Nagurski became a star at the University of Minnesota, playing both tackle on defense and fullback on offense and was chosen as an All-American at both positions. Some of his other collegiate accomplishments include a college football hall of fame induction, being named the starting defensive tackle on Sports Illustrated’s NCAA Football All Century team, being ranked seventeenth on ESPN’s top twenty five college football players of all time list and being the namesake for the trophy given to the top defensive NCAA player. Nagurski became a Chicago Bear in 1930 and his physical dominance has spawned a countless number of tales - some true and some greatly exaggerated. One of the confirmed stories is if he got hurt and couldn’t play his regular positions, the Bears would throw him in at offensive line, which I guess was so easy for him he didn’t even need to be healthy to play it. A story that I don’t think is true but is still an indicator of how incredible the Nagurski legend was, is that after one of his 25 career rushing touchdowns, he tripped over the goal posts and crashed into the brick wall behind the Wrigley Field end zone, and actually put a big crack in the barrier. Nagurski won three NFL championships (now known as the Super Bowl) with the Bears, was a seven time All-Pro, has had his number three jersey retired by the Bears, was named the 19th greatest NFL player by the NFL and is a member of the first ever Pro Football Hall of Fame class.

And one more thing.

While he was serving as one of the greatest NFL players of all time, Bronco was also wrestling professionally. He was a two time heavyweight champion of the world who wrestled until he was fifty-two years old and is a member of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.

The bottom line?

Bronko Nagurski was one tough cookie.

5. Brian Fryer 

You may be wondering why someone who spent two seasons in the NFL is on this list. Well, the truth is, Brian Fryer is actually my late Grandma's cousin. But it’s not just good old fashioned nepotism that places Fryer on this list, because he was actually one heckuva player. A star for the Alberta Golden Bears in his Edmonton hometown, Fryer rewrote the Canadian U Sports record book in his four seasons as a wide receiver. Fryer set the record for receiving yards in a game with 227 yards, the record for receptions in a season with 58, the record for receiving touchdowns in a season and was the first receiver to register a one thousand yard season. Fryer was a two-time All Canadian and won the 1974 Hec Crighton award, which goes to the most outstanding player in Canadian U Sports (basically the Canadian version of the Heisman trophy) and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Fryer was selected by Washington in the eighth round of the 1976 NFL draft. He joined 34 rookies at Washington training camp but was the only one who made the final roster. He spent his first four games in the NFL returning kickoffs before he suffered a knee injury that ultimately ended his NFL career. Washington obviously had faith in Fryer though, as an injury so severe would usually mean an immediate end to a late round pick’s career. But Fryer stuck around in Washington for a whole season before ultimately being released. Fryer then signed with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL, who were led by future Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon. Fryer won five straight Grey Cups with the Eskimos, and was a vital part of the 1982 and 1983 championship teams after a slow start due to his lingering knee injury.

Although you might not think of Canada when you think of the NFL, that may be changing. Some pretty promising Canadian players have entered the NFL in the past couple of years. 22-year old wideouts N’Keal Harry and Chase Claypool have both been promising so far in their young careers. Montreal native Laurent Duvernay-Tardif isn’t suiting up for the Chiefs this season, but he’s started 57 of 60 games on the Kansas City offensive line. So, although it has been almost forty years since a Canadian was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a new era of Canadians in the NFL may be just on the horizon.

And if they perform like I think they should, they won’t even have to be my distant relative to get a little love from Toth Sports Inc.

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