Regular Joes, regular jobs

Jeff Johnson, left, and Steve Schmidt during the off-season. (Ernest Doroszuk/Dave Thomas/QMI...

Jeff Johnson, left, and Steve Schmidt during the off-season. (Ernest Doroszuk/Dave Thomas/QMI Agency)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

TORONTO - Bryan Crawford won’t forget the feeling of elation when he was chosen in the 2005 Canadian Football League Canadian draft by the Argonauts.

Coming off a successful career at Queen’s, Crawford, a running back who eventually became captain of the Argos’ special teams, was ready to put his football skills to use.

But he also had something else on his mind — what he was going to do with his life when his football career was done.

“I started thinking about my future on Day 1 in the CFL,” Crawford, 28, said. “We make a good living playing football, but when you are talking about four or five or six years, you are talking about an extensive career.

“You hit 30, you’re done football and you still have 30 more years left (in which to earn a pay cheque).

“I’m laying my career path now. You have to start thinking of the bigger picture right away.”

Crawford said all of this as he took a break from his Ontario University Athletics office in Hamilton, where he is the director of sport programming. It’s Crawford’s full-time, off-season job, one that he views as absolutely necessary.

Off-season jobs for CFL players aren’t about finding something to do in the down months when they’re not training at the gym. There’s a real concern that in a split second, a football career could be done.

Any CFL player who hasn’t started thinking of his life when the cleats have been put away for good is cheating himself. The average career, based on data provided by the Canadian Football League Players’ Association, is 3.19 years. The average salary is approximately $60,000, and even if a player can play for, say, a half-dozen years, even shrewd investments would not come close to providing enough to live on in subsequent years.

Consider that in the National Hockey League, for comparison’s sake, the minimum salary for the

2010-11 season will be $500,000 US. The minimum CFL salary is $41,000 Cdn.

For the 2010 National Football League season, rookies will be paid a minimum of $325,000 and play two fewer games than their CFL cousins.

The salary cap in the CFL in 2009 was $4.2-million Cdn per team, and the highest-paid players don’t make much more than $300,000 a season (unless you’re a No. 1 star quarterback, this does not apply to you). Through the end of 2009, New York Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez is estimated to have made just over $230 million US in his Major League Baseball career.

Get the idea why CFLers don’t have much choice but to get a job when their seasons are over?

Of all the ways in which professional sports allegedly have become more fan friendly in the past few years, it’s almost impossible to get into a locker room immediately after a game without the proper credentials.

Football fans would see grown men huffing and puffing, often doubled over in pain before they change into civilian clothes. It’s not uncommon for players, especially linemen, to get bleeding knuckles bandaged after each game.

And that’s what’s visible.

Untold numbers of players get on the gridiron every week with injuries that are treated and soothed so they can continue playing.

A lot of these guys, in the immediate moments after games, look like they’ve been participating in something much more brutal than sport.

“It’s not only a short career, but there are no guarantees,” said Argos running back Jeff Johnson, a 33-year-old father of two young children who sells real estate for Century 21 when he’s not in football mode.

“It’s a game, and it’s a business. I remember driving over that bridge (the Burlington Skyway Bridge) when I was playing for Hamilton (in his first two years in the CFL in 2000 and 2001) and wondering if this was going to be the day I was going to be cut. Once my career started to get going, I was able to relax a little more.

“But I’ve had (real estate) in the back of my mind right from the first year. You don’t want to be left with responsibilities and no income.”

That same kind of thinking has played at the mind of offensive lineman Brian Ramsay, who makes a summertime living butting heads with defensive linemen who are the size of small mountains.

As such, it’s hard to picture the 6-foot-7, 298-pound Victoria native sitting behind a desk in his home town during the winter months. But that’s where one would have found Ramsay, who welcomed daughter Leah in January with his wife Sheri, articling with KPMG to become a chartered accountant.

“It’s what I went to school for (at New Mexico),” Ramsay said. “It’s a good balance with football, but completely the opposite. It’s my second year, and I keep my desk year-round and just jump right back in when the season is done.”

Ramsay got a jolt of reality near the end of last season when he suffered a knee injury and had to have surgery.

“As a player, you have to be realistic,” Ramsay, 30, said. “You don’t know where the end is and you try to prepare for it, because it can come at any time.

“I’m getting a head start so when football ends I will be a step ahead.”

What’s more, Ramsay didn’t miss a day of rehab or working out because he had to be at his office at KPMG. It helps when off-season employers are willing to be flexible.

But there are those who get into situations where other opportunities have to be found.

Balancing act

Tight end Steve Schmidt, who recently was traded to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, realized as much following the 2008 season, when he got a job that involved working with autistic children.

“I enjoyed it, but it was a lot of time and commitment, and you have to be dedicated,” Schmidt, 25, said. “With football, I could not balance the two.”

So Schmidt has spent the past several months working at Homesense warehouse in Clarkson and also drives a delivery truck for National Foods. For now, the jobs are a means to an end.

“I’ve picked them up to help make ends meet,” Schmidt said. “When the money stops after football season, the reality is you have to get a job.”

Of course, it’s not all about getting a job for the sake of working and making extra money.

Linebacker Kevin Eiben went a couple of steps further than most of his Argos teammates, buying a Sports Specific Training franchise in Oakville a year ago this past March.

Down in Jacksonville, Fla., defensive back Lin-J Shell spends much of each week working with underprivileged children, whether it’s as a substitute teacher or with a local Team-Up program.

“These kids have a lot of talent, and I want to give back to the ones who don’t have much, to be a positive role model for them,” Shell, 28, said. “You have to work hard for what you get. Playing pro football is not all about fast money. I have a gift I can use. When I am with these kids, I am big kid myself.”

Eiben opened his gym in December and was working 90-hour weeks to get his business off the ground. With 250 clients ranging in age from eight years to over 60, Eiben appears to set himself up well for life after football.

As a bonus, Eiben has prepared himself physically for the 2010 CFL season simply by going to work.

“Your body is your money maker,” said the 30-year-old Eiben, who has managed to pare his work week down to regular hours as training camp approaches. “Too many players have not prepared for that next step. All it takes is one game or for a coach to say he does not need you any more.”

Everything comes back to what Crawford said — plan now, or get ready to start behind the 8-ball when the final whistle blows.

“Your career could be over and you don’t go out on your own terms,” Crawford said. “Then what? You have to put yourself in a good position where you start to set yourself up. The smart guys are the ones who plan ahead.”


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