The dream that wouldn't die

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:04 AM ET

The 32 years have gone by quickly. That is how long Paul Godfrey has been chasing his tail, trying to land a National Football League franchise for Toronto.

He has been to 14 Super Bowls, eight league meetings, is on his third commissioner and has sat down with 20 different NFL owners -- all the while, selling something that no one is buying. There is no death of this salesman. The pitch continues -- even with the first NFL regular season game about to be played here on Sunday afternoon. One game a year isn't his goal.

"I've made no secret of the fact I want an NFL team in Toronto," said Godfrey, the outgoing Blue Jays president. "I believe Toronto is a perfect NFL market. A few times, I think we've been close, honest. If it wasn't for some circumstances I believe we would have been in years ago. But each time, disaster struck."

NO KIDDING

He isn't kidding. In 1995, the NFL was reeling after it went from having two teams in Los Angeles to having none. The Raiders moved back to Oakland. The Rams moved to St. Louis. That was considered good news for Toronto.

"They were talking expansion," Godfrey said. "One team for Los Angeles."

The other team, he believed, was going to be Toronto.

"But all of a sudden," he said, "the Browns are moving to Baltimore and all the anti-(Art) Modell forces were at work. The politicians got their noses out of joint."

And almost immediately after the move of the Browns, Bud Adams moved the Houston Oilers to Tennessee. The NFL did expand by two teams -- adding franchises in Cleveland and Houston.

That was the first time Godfrey thought Toronto was close. The second time was a disaster not of the sporting variety.

Godfrey has maintained a philosophy while chasing a dream: Don't anger the NFL.

"I've basically taken this approach from the beginning," he said. "One, you have to be visible. Two, you have to be persistent. Three, you have to be Mr. Nice Guy."

All of that paid off in 2005 when the league quietly gave him and MLSEL chairman Larry Tanenbaum permission to negotiate to purchase the New Orleans Saints.

"We never did meet the owner (Tom Benson)," Godfrey said. "We met other family members in San Antonio. We met with the lawyer. The team was definitely in play. And then (Hurricane) Katrina hit. The Saints became a symbol for that community. Whatever deal there might have been disappeared."

The assumption now is that the Buffalo Bills eventually will end up in Toronto. Barring a change in the inheritance laws in the United States -- which incoming president Barack Obama has talked about changing -- the estate of 90-year-old owner Ralph Wilson will put the franchise up for sale upon the death of the owner and it will go to the highest bidder.

Prior to this week, many believed that bidder would be the late Ted Rogers, along with Tanenbaum. Godfrey never has seen it that way.

"I've always thought an NFL with Toronto and Buffalo in the same division would be amazing," he said. "Can you imagine Buffalo, Toronto in the same division with Miami, New England and the Jets? Can you imagine the rivalries?"

He can imagine the rivalries: Others have never been so sure.

Godfrey began his pursuit of the NFL in 1976, when Montreal politician Gerry Snyder approached him with an idea. Like Godfrey in Toronto, Snyder had played a large role in landing the baseball Expos in Montreal. "Now that you're finished the baseball chase, why not chase the NFL, with one team for Montreal and one for Toronto," Snyder said.

"At that time I decided, that's my next project," Godfrey said.

He had no idea that, three decades later, he still would have his line in the water, without too many nibbles.

"The first time I met (then commissioner) Pete Rozelle, he said to me: 'One day, we're going to have a team in Toronto because Kerry (his wife) wants that.' " Godrey said. "He then tells me that Kerry lived on Don Mills Rd. She was from Toronto. I would call Rozelle three or four times a year. What he said to me privately and what he said publicly weren't always the same."

Whenever he was asked about Toronto, Rozelle always would protect the interests of the Canadian Football League.

"The CFL has always been a natural stumbling block in this," Godfrey said. "There have been a lot of obstacles, but none greater than that. I really believe today that part of any (Toronto) solution has to involve the CFL with the league benefitting financially."

At one time, Rozelle's assistant, Don Weiss, who was Godfrey's closest NFL contact, informed him he was about to retire. "I'm going to take you down the hall to meet this guy," Weiss said. "He's going to be commissioner one day. His name is Roger Goodell."

"I've had a good relationship with Roger ever since," Godfrey said. "He knows what we want."

But as good as that relationship may be "Roger has never made any commitment to Toronto. He has a constituency to keep happy. They have to avoid creating controversy when there isn't one."

In between Rozelle and Goodell, Paul Tagliabue was commissioner. In fact, he has been the only NFL commissioner to provide public hope that Toronto would get consideration in the NFL. Tagliabue actually made that announcement at league meetings in Orlando in 1998. But prior to that, while at dinner with Tagliabue and some prospective Toronto investors, they were discussing the territorial rights of the Buffalo Bills. Ralph Wilson had claimed Toronto was in Buffalo's territory.

"I asked Tagliabue about the territorial rights because Wilson had said he wouldn't allow a team in Toronto," Godfrey said. "Tagliabie said there are no such things as territorial rights in the NFL."

Again, optimism was nice, but it got him nowhere. That is the pattern in all this.

"We have been the prospective bride that never caught the bouquet," Godfrey said. "And I truly believe Toronto is a better NFL market than 50-60% of their markets, right now. And I believe Toronto wants it. When I walk around this building (Rogers Centre), I get asked: 'Godfrey, when is the NFL coming?' That keeps me going. I've never been discouraged doing this.

"The thing is, I want to preserve the CFL. I believe the CFL and the NFL can co-exist in Toronto. You have to establish a game plan and the CFL has to have the comfort level that it works for them. I believe an NFL team in Toronto would nudge the Maple Leafs for popularity in the city."

For now, the chase continues. Godfrey believes the most vulnerable franchise in the NFL is the Jacksonville Jaguars. He'll keep watching, knocking on doors, anything to make the sale. In January, he turns 70. Almost half his life has been spent in pursuit of the unattainable.

"Why continue? I'm still breathing, aren't I? I've never been a quitter," Paul Godfrey said. "And I'm not quitting now."

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ONES THAT GOT AWAY

Chronology of NFL franchise movement in the Godfrey years:

1982 Oakland Raiders move to Los Angeles

1984 Baltimore Colts move to Indianapolis

1988 St. Louis Cardinals move to Arizona

1993 NFL expands to Carolina, Jacksonville

1995 L.A. Rams move to St. Louis; L.A. Raiders to Oakland

1996 Cleveland Browns move to Baltimore

1997 Houston Oilers move to Tennessee

1998 NFL expands to Cleveland

2002 NFL expands to Houston


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