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Earl Winfield - Wide Receiver 1987-1997 - University of North Carolina

Article: Pleasant change: athlete takes pay cut and runs – Stephen Brunt – Globe&Mail-May1996


If they were all Earl Winfields, the Canadian Football League would be a happier, more prosperous place, atleast for the guys paying the bills.

Find a home and stay there. Thrive in the environment of the three-down game, while giving up the notion of greener pastures. Take the money that’s offered, and when the time comes to share the pain, do that as well.

            A vestige of a simpler – if not always better for the athlete – time.

Yesterday, Winfield signed on for his 10th and presumably final season as a wide receiver with the Hamilton Tiger Cats. That’s a full decade in the league, a full decade with the same franchise, where he holds or is closing in on most of the individual receiving records,

            Last year, his best yet, with 92 catches and 13 touchdowns, he earned in the neighborhood of $100,000. This year, in times of retrenchment, he’ll make substantially less.

“With all that the league has been through, you can’t talk about the money, because you ain’t going to get a lot of money out of it right now,” Winfield said. “I knew I might have to give up a little bit. I’d rather be working and making $50,000 than being at home and not making anything.”

            The fact is there aren’t many players, even in what is often a league of last resort, who are willing to acknowledge that hard reality. Every year, the U.S. college system cranks out a wealth of football-playing talent. Every year, only a tiny fraction of that talent is invited to a National Football League camp.

            Those rejected  - because they’re not good enough, because they’re not big enough or fast enough, because they were hurt in college or they alienated a coach or scout somewhere along the line – have only a couple of options. One is real life, 9 to 5, punch the clock, put that fine athletic scholarship education to work. The other is to get paid to play football elsewhere – in arena ball, in the World League of American Football, or, for the best of the rest, in the CFL. Which certainly beats option 1. But the problem has been that there remained very much a sense that each year’s talented arrivals were just passing through. Very, very few come with the intention to become career CFLers. Their plan is to put in a year or two in exotic foreign locales such as Saskatchewan or Steeltown, get noticed and then head south.

            The disparity in salary is such that it’s entirely worthwhile taking even a long shot with an NFL team. A low-end signing bonus can be as much as a full-season CFL salary and a year on an NFL practice roster can pay three or four times what even established stars, other than quarterbacks, are making. So they come, they go; sometimes they come back to a different team and sometimes they go again. At least two of Winfield’s Hamilton teammates from last year, cornerback Eric Carter and middle linebacker Mike O’Shea, a University of Guelph homebrew no less, are gone in pursuit of that dream. The same story holds for every team in the league. And as every once-a-year observer of the CFL will tell you, that’s part of the problem, You can’t tell the names without a scorecard; you can’t pick a hero without worrying that he’ll be history before you know it. Not like the good old days.

            Winfield did it himself back in 1989, taking a flyer with the San Francisco 49ers, Then he was cut and came back in time to play in the final nine games of the season, the playoffs and the Grey Cup. After that he shelved the notion of heading somewhere else, even as so many others lived the itinerant life, so many quarterbacks who threw him the ball, so many receivers who played at the other end of the line. Winfield never made the big score – at least financially – but he did build a career, find a second home and become if not Jerry Rice, then one of the little big stars of the CFL, the toast of Ivor Wynne.

            To close it out Winfield would like to get back to the championship once more, especially with Hamilton as host of the game this year. And after that, after a 10-year hiatus, to the working man’s grind – unless there are extenuating circumstances.

            “I will be officially retired after this year,” he said, “unless there’s something special, or something huge, or I have such a great, great year they won’t allow me to retire.”