On Thursday, June 22nd at 4:30 PM PT, the Canadian Football League (CFL) will kick-off the 2017 regular season with a match-up between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Montreal Alouettes. From there, twenty-two straight weeks of regular season and play-off football, lasting from from late June to early November, will culminate in the playing of the 105th Grey Cup between the Eastern and Western Conference champions.
For three former Oregon State football stand-outs, that Grey Cup will be the only focus on their mind, with the glitz and glam of the NFL put on hold, to find glory and keep their professional careers alive in the Great White North. For Dylan Wynn, Victor Butler and Colin Kelly, that Grey Cup is all they have left. One last chance to immortalize themselves forever as champions.
For some players like defensive lineman Dylan Wynn, a recent addition to the Toronto Argonauts, the CFL is simply another chance to keep playing football. Wynn, a second-team All-Pac-12 performer as a senior with the Beavers, went un-drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft and after two injury-plagued seasons with the Cleveland Browns, the league has chalked the the 6’ 2”, 285 pound rusher up as just another causality of the brutal nature of the sport.
But Wynn and Toronto thought otherwise.
The Argonauts, one of the league’s more beloved franchises, have won more Grey Cups (16) than any other active team, but as of late, the affectionately known “Argos” have fallen on some hard times. Toronto is coming off a 5-13 campaign, which saw aging CFL quarterback legend Ricky Ray, ungracefully began to pass the torch to a new slew of gunslingers in Dan LeFevour, Logan Kilgore and Cody Fajardo. Yet, with a new head coach in tow in former NFL head coach Marc Trestman, a two-time Grey Cup winner himself with rival Montreal, the Argos are optimistic about their potential for the 2017 season.
So is Wynn. And so is new teammate Victor Butler, a fellow Beavers alumni who is hoping to anchor the defensive front for Toronto.
The 29 year old edge-rusher, who had stints in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts, went to Canada himself to simply keep a dream alive. After getting suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and then subsequently released from the New York Giants practice squad in 2015, Butler’s career looked over for good.
Toronto gave him a chance at something new.
Butler’s biggest challenge at the moment will be providing experience and leadership to the Argos defense, who ranked as the league’s worst in points-allowed a year ago and is undergoing some serious changes for the 2017 season. It’s safe to say that Butler is as well, as he tries to cope with the differences in the higher-octane, Canadian style of play, especially as he ages into the final years of his career.
“It is a faster game as far as rushing the passer, you have to be more efficient, there is no time for wasted movement, hand placement or bad eyes. Everything has to happen right now as far as getting you dialed in and focused and I love it,” Butler told David Morassutti of Fansided.
While Butler may be making the most of the football he has left in him, in a new and more refined role, other players like offensive lineman Colin Kelly, simply see the league as a source of true glory.
Like Wynn before him, Kelly was also passed upon during the NFL Draft process and his status to ever make the league remained largely uncertain over the past few years. Back during the 2013 season, he spent thirteen months on the Kansas City Chiefs injured-reserved list after sustaining a knee injury. He never saw the field and the Chiefs sent him packing.
That’s when the Ottawa Redblacks, the CFL’s newest team, saw an opening.
With Kelly mixed into the line-up, Ottawa overcame a 2-16 record in their inaugural season to reach the 2015 Grey Cup, with Kelly inserted as a full-time starter in the second season of play. Suddenly, just shy of his 25th birthday, Kelly was one of the CFL’s rising stars.
Then, the San Francisco 49ers came calling. A chance to return to the NFL was there. A chance to truly make it. A chance that never materialized.
While the NFL is a dream destination of almost every American-born football player, the “dream” was not fulfilled by Kelly’s time in the NFL. The 6’ 5”, 300 pounder spent time only on practice squads for the aforementioned 49ers, the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars between 2016 and 2017. His best shot at playing came when he was getting regular second-team practice reps with San Francisco under then-head coach Chip Kelly. It didn’t take long for the NFL luster to fade. Football was football, no matter what way you sliced it. And Kelly simply wasn’t playing the game he loves.
In a twist of fate, Edmonton reached out to the once-CFL star for the 2017 season. His answer meant a return, not only to the CFL, but also to playing meaningful football once again. Kelly was sold.
The quest for a Grey Cup, the greatest trophy in purely Canadian sports, is now on the minds of Wynn, Butler and Kelly, who all sit at different vantage points from the potential prize. Toronto’s Wynn and Butler, are hoping that the insertion of a new culture under coach Trestman is the jolt of confidence that the legendary franchise needs to rise out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference. Wynn, a younger player, may be able to grow with the franchise through it’s rebuilding stages and reap the fruits of his own labor down the road. For Butler, time is of the essence. If his impact is going to be felt by the Argos, it needs to be now.
As for Kelly, the Eskimos will be a different but unique challenge. Edmonton went 10-8 in 2016 but finished towards the bottom of the league’s brutal Western Conference. The “Esks” are an intriguing group but the road ahead is daunting. Overcoming fellow powerhouse teams in the West, specifically the Calgary Stampeders and the B.C. Lions, is the tallest task for a team like Edmonton. Kelly is expected to be a major part of that growth process.
However, more than anything else, all three of them will just be hoping to play. To keep the football dream alive. For at least one more season.
With a few weeks until the CFL’s regular season officially gets going, the league’s pre-season began on Tuesday night, in which the Calgary Stampeders defeated the B.C. Lions (who also sport one-time Oregon State player and Simon Fraser graduate Keynan Parker on their roster). For the Beavers alumni, the pre-season slate begins for Toronto on Thursday night against Montreal and on Sunday for Edmonton, who will play a tough aforementioned Calgary team.