Pless one of the best

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

They will give Willie Pless his own sculpted bust today at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

He already holds the distinction of growing half a foot in one night -- at least according to one of football's greatest coaches.

The 42-year-old Pless, a former Argo, was playing in a high-school all-star game.

Alabama coach Paul (Bear) Bryant wondered why the kid from Anniston, Ala., who spent the night whacking the far more celebrated Bo Jackson, was committed to the University of Kansas and not the Crimson Tide.

The next day, Bryant started making calls. He finally was told Alabama's recruiters had decided that at 5-foot-10 and under 200 pounds, Pless was too small to be a linebacker.

"I think he grew about six inches last night," he said.

That Pless never stopped growing, if not in height, then in stature, is what gained him a perch among the game's greats along with fellow inductees Rod Connop, Ray Nettles and Ed George as well as builder Gord Currie.

Pless played just a shade under six feet and 210 pounds, but in more than 250 games with the Argos, B.C. Lions, Edmonton Eskimos and for one last season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Pless was the perfect CFLer.

"I was just born to play that inside position," he said as the golf carts were assembled for a Hall of Fame golf tournament near Hamilton. "I could do things at that position that I wouldn't have to think about. I would see it and without thinking, react. Usually those reactions were the right choice."

Willie Pless probably was the most dominant linebacker ever to play in the CFL. He was a five-time outstanding defensive player and won the award for four consecutive years, beginning in 1994.

Pless, an eight-year Eskimo, was an 11-time all-star over 14 CFL campaigns. He retired in 1999 as the league's career leading tackler.

Quarterback Matt Dunigan, who went to the Argos in exchange for Pless and five others in 1991, said it wasn't hard to define the commodity that made Pless unique.

"Speed. Speed. Just speed. You can talk about the recognition and his approach to the game but when it comes down to it, Willie beat everybody with speed. He was able to cover every square inch of the field to get to the ball."

Pless was the Argonauts' outstanding defensive player in his rookie season and repeated the trick in his third season.

But Dunigan's rocky relationship with management in British Columbia would end Pless' stay with the Argonauts. The Argos were desperate for a marquee quarterback and a few days after Dunigan refused to attend a meeting with club management without his agent, he was dealt.

Even before Pless had settled in Vancouver, he was courted by the Eskimos.

"I got a call from (Esks' linebacker) Danny Bass to see if I was interested." Pless said. "I said, 'Are you kidding me, absolutely.'

"I played against Edmonton for a lot of years and you could see they had something special. I wanted to be a part of it."

Pless signed with the Eskimos after one year in Vancouver. He won a Grey Cup with Edmonton in 1993 and tried out for a few NFL camps, but the idea of shifting from the middle of the action into the defensive backfield left him cold. He always would be what he always had been.

"Sure I had the desire to go to the NFL, but the prototype of a linebacker at that time was 6-foot-4, 250 pounds so there was no way I was going to play that linebacker position," he said.

Pless owns a workout studio in Edmonton. A father of three, he works as a personal trainer and has long since settled into the community.

Pless was the perfect linebacker, just not in his first choice of leagues.

"That's life," said one of the CFL's newest Hall of Famers. "You have to make the best of your opportunities. Sure, some things didn't work out the way I originally wanted, but I have no regrets. Absolutely none at all."

WELCOME TO THE HALL OF FAME

The four players to be inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame today (Amateur football coach Gord Currie was selected as a builder):

WILLIE PLESS, LB

* Career: 1986-1999

* Teams: Toronto, B.C., Edmonton, Saskatchewan

* Stats: League all-star 11 times ... Most career tackles in CFL history.

ROD CONNOP, OL

* Career: 1982-1998

* Teams: Edmonton

* Stats: League all-star six times ... Played 210 consecutive games ... Won three Grey Cups.

RAY NETTLES, DL

* Career: 1972-1980

* Teams: B.C., Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary

* Stats: League all-star two times ... Was CFL's top lineman in 1973.

ED GEORGE, OL

* Career: 1970-1980

* Teams: Montreal, Hamilton

* Stats: Won Grey Cup in rookie season with Montreal ... Was CFL all-star as both guard and tackle ... Spent four seasons in NFL.


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