Fantuz is now the face of football in Hamilton

Tigar-Cats wide receiver Andy Fantuz (centre) holds his jersey with vice-president of football...

Tigar-Cats wide receiver Andy Fantuz (centre) holds his jersey with vice-president of football operations Bob O'Billovich (right) and head coach George Cortez at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ont., Feb. 21 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:02 PM ET

HAMILTON - As the new face of the franchise, Andy Fantuz will face his share of obstacles.

And let’s face it, it’s never easy going home, despite what an athlete says.

But as he faced the media on Tuesday, a well-tanned and well-polished Fantuz said all the right things, hoping to do all the right things when he suits up for the Ticats this year.

Since their last Grey Cup title in 1999, the Ticats have had more faces than wins, it seems, more heartache, more reasons to get a fan base’s hopes high, only to have them plummet.

Fantuz is no stranger to the market and is not foreign to the demands and expectations of an educated football following.

In Regina, fans of Rider Nation are as passionate as any, but Hamilton represents an entirely different animal, a beast that will tear a player down — and that’s even after a win.

While he couldn’t escape the football madness associated with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Fantuz will find it equally different in The Hammer.

By own admission, Fantuz reckons as many as 100 family and friends would turn out to Rider games to watch his every move off the line of scrimmage and every catch down field.

Admittedly, part of his decision to vacation in Africa during the peak of the CFL’s free-agency period was to get away from the constant buzz of where Fantuz would possibly land.

And he acknowledged during his Ticat unveiling, that playing at home will be different.

“I’m going to keep as much commotion away from me,’’ said Fantuz. “My family’s been pretty good. I’m sure I’ll have to figure out a way to get things done that don’t have to come through me all the time.

“But I don’t think it’ll be a distraction. I know I’ll have a big following and I have to make sure it doesn’t become an issue. And I don’t think it will.”

Whispers around the league suggest Fantuz’s family did delay his arrival in The Hammer, which was quite aggressive and intent on landing this big-time talent, a Canadian that is known as a ratio changer and game changer.

In the days since free agency opened last Wednesday, it became increasingly clear that money was not the primary issue with Fantuz, who could have stayed with the Roughriders, a team that offered more dough, a team that ultimately spent a huge chunk of its money on two Canadian offensive linemen.

For the next four years, perhaps even beyond, Fantuz, a well-educated and well-spoken athlete who is a natural for the camera and the microphone, is assured of being the face of football in Hamilton.

From this day forward, it’s incumbent on Fantuz to eliminate as many distractions as possible, learn how to say no and learn how to filter the crap he is sure to face from friends and family.

At the end of the day, pro football, even the small-scale CFL, is a business where an athlete, no matter his designation or profile, has to produce or face the music.

Ultimately, that’s how Fantuz will be judged and the Ticats for that matter, a team vice-president of football operations Bob O’Billovich deemed to be “on the threshold of being a team that can win the Grey Cup.”

That’s how high the bar has been set in The Hammer, and justifiably so, how low spirits are certain to drop if nothing short of a Grey Cup berth is achieved.

Fantuz embodies everything a CFL team covets, a proven commodity on the field, a highly marketable asset to push ticket sales and entice corporate support off it.

With Ivor Wynne Stadium open to get a face lift, an air of nostalgia will accompany every home date this season.

Fantuz will feel it, experience it and will now help fuel the football buzz.

When he decided Hamilton would be his new football home, Fantuz discussed it with his family.

“It was worth the leap of faith,’’ Fantuz said. “It’s been nothing but positive since then.”

As Fantuz put it: “It’s a great marriage.”

All the pieces appear to be in place, the missing ones O’Billovich and his staff will no doubt address, and all the attention will fall on Fantuz and the Ticats.

Tiger Town is all abuzz.

Andy Fantuz has to learn how to deal with it and accept it.

WESTERN WINDS BLOWING

Andy Fantuz has maintained a connection with his alma mater and the city of London, ties that are certain to be strengthened.

While nothing is official, it’s looking like the Ticats will play at the University of Western Ontario in 2013 when Ivor Wynne Stadium gets remodelled, a scenario that excites Fantuz.

“I hope that happens because it’ll be great,’’ Fantuz said on Tuesday when he was formally introduced by the Ticats.”

As a Mustang, Fantuz wore jersey No. 2.

When he turned pro in 2006, he embraced the No. 83, his birth year, a number he’ll wear in Tiger Town.

“Eighty-three was a great year for me,’’ enthused Bob O’Billovich, Hamilton’s vice-president of football operations who helped the Argos end their long Grey Cup drought in 1983 with that classic win over the Lions at newly minted B.C. Place.

Hamilton hasn’t won a title since 1999, but Fantuz’s arrival makes the Ticats a legitimate contender.

Head coach George Cortez served as offensive co-ordinator in Regina during Fantuz’s year and was asked what kind of impression the rookie slotback made.

“He never dropped a ball, which is a pretty good impression from a receiver,’’ Cortez said. “Andy’s willing to stick his nose in. And honestly, it’s not the first thing receivers think about when they wake up in the morning.

“He’s got great hands and Andy knows how to make catches in tight space with people around him, which makes him a friend of the quarterback.”

In Cortez’s offence, Fantuz will serve as the 3 receivers role, a position that will allow Fantuz to catch plenty of balls.

It’s likely some will be caught at his university stomping ground.


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