It sure ain't the money
With an average salary of $45,000, playing in today's CFL is no ticket to riches. Most players have to take off-season jobs just to make ends meet. George Hudson and Greg Bearman steal cars.
By JAY TEITEL -- SportsXtra
Ottawa Renegades players Greg Bearman, left, and George Hudson are repo men during the off-season.
Photo by Bruce Berman
It's a good day to steal a car.
George Hudson's truck is already in the Road-runner Towing and Recovery Agency parking lot in downtown Las Cruces, New Mexico, when I pull in in my own rental - a modest silver Malibu - and make my way around the back of the single story building, through the wire-gated compound and into the office. George and his partner, Greg Bearman, are there, cutting keys from dealer codes for the day's work. George, who's 26 years old, 6'4" and goes about 310 pounds, is wearing a dark t-shirt and shorts, and exudes a round affable power and incandescent smile that makes him seem less huge than he is - until you get close up. Greg Bearman, 27, is maybe 5'9", but incredibly well-built in the upper body; he looks like a video-game Matt Damon. George describes Greg as, "the fastest white guy I've ever seen, one of those sub-4.4 guys. Which is why he's the one who usually has to go get the keys. Also, there are a lot of little cars I tend to get stuck in."
Both are native Canadians (George from St. Catherines, Ont., and Greg from Richmond, B.C.) and in three months time both will be playing for the Ottawa Renegades in the CFL, George at centre, Greg at defensive back. For now, though, they're plying their regular off-season job, which is as "probably the two most highly educated" repo men in Southern New Mexico. Or, as George put it the night before in Chili's restaurant, just after he was carded. "We steal cars - legally."
It's the car stealing I'm here for.
"Hey," George is leafing through pages on a clip-board. "Ready to get going? We might have some interesting stuff for you today. What do we have besides that boat at Elephant Butte?" he asks Greg.
"Well, we could make that Alero later," says Greg. He's holding a shoe-box full of classical dash-board-glove compartment detritus: combs, double-a batteries, coins. "You can't believe what people will leave behind in their cars. You just have to shake your head and go "Wow." Especially when they're living in them."
Photo by Bruce Berman
"Yeah," says George, "like that one big 18 wheel rig guy we did over at the Good Year Tire service place. He lives in Phoenix but he doesn't have an apartment there, he lives in his truck. We pulled up on a Friday at four o'clock and said get your shit out."
"Just like that," Greg says a bit languid and hoarse; he's nursing a cold he caught in Las Vegas. "Get your shit out."
"So basically you repossessed his house," I say.
"Basically. What else could we do? It's our job."
"Although we do hear the phrase 'heartless bastards' a lot," says Greg.
A pretty, dark-haired, trim woman emerges from the washroom facing the office and introduces herself as Cathy Lind, George's mother-in-law. Her daughter Shannon was a scholarship tennis player at the local New Mexico State University when George, playing on the football team with Greg, met her. The owner of Road-runner Towing and Recovery, Shannon's father, Ray Lind, is now in semi-retirement mode, and planning to eventually transfer most of the day-to-day operations of the company to his young son-in-law.
"You think maybe we should check on that bankruptcy over at EMS?" George asks Greg. "Before we go get the boat?"
"The CFL is actually more like my off-season job. In fact my career in the CFL wasn't planned. It just happened to work out around my real job."
-- Cory Mantyka
We say good-bye to Cathy, as we might departing a family barbecue, go outside to climb into George's truck (a raised-chassis repossession itself), and head out onto Wyatt Drive toward South Main Street. The sky is high and cloudless, the mid-March temperature already pushing 20 degrees C at 9:00 in the morning. The Las Cruces downtown streets are like one extended industrial park cum/strip mall, low-rise plazas that somehow seem more fitting here than anywhere else, consistent with the traditional pueblo architecture. The dun-coloured Organ mountains, afterthought of the Rockies, sit on the horizon in front of us like majestic slag-heaps.
The plaza we pull into, fast, is maybe three blocks from the agency. George checks the license-plates against the list in his lap as we roll,
Greg holding the dashboard. "Is it here?... 836... there it is." The car in question, parked in a row of vehicles, is actually a truck, a wide-wheeled maroon Chevy pick-up. "Should we call Henry?" says George. "Or do you want to take it?" Henry operates the company's tow-truck.
"Definitely take it," says Greg.
"Okay. I think the over-ride switch is in the cigarette lighter."
"With the key in or out?"
"I'm guessing in. Ready?"
"Ready." Greg puts his hand on the door, as taut as any three point stance.
The average player in the Canadian Football League makes CDN $45,000 a year. The average NFL player, by comparison, makes about $1,600,000 CDN, the average NHL player $2,300,000 CDN, the average NBA player $6,100,000 CDN, and the average MLB player $3,100,000 CDN. This means two things: first, that the average player in each of the four major sports leagues makes between 35 and 135 times more annually than the average CFL player, or that a journeyman tackle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would have to play 38 years of football to make what a journeyman tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs makes in one year. And secondly, and most critically, that the CFL player of today is far closer occupationally to a professional athlete from the year 1950 than the year 2,000. As was the case for NHL players of that era, who shilled for Labatt's in the summertime, off-season employment, and sometimes a second job during the season - a job that can be waiting when age or a torn ligament or too many years of living at the poverty level ends a career - isn't a perk for CFL players, it's a fact of life.
"The average life-span of a player in the CFL is about four years," says Stu Laird, a former Calgary defensive tackle who's now president of the CFL Players Association. "The pension plan kicks in at age 60. So one of the things that we try to impress on our players is that very few of them will have the ability to retire from the work-force when they're retired as football players. Which means they need to develop a secondary career concurrent with their football career. One of the areas that naturally attracts people are sales-type jobs, because of their exposure or notoriety. Matt Finlay was an active stock broker while he played. Greg Peterson was a lawyer while he played. Terry Vaughn who played with the Eskimos has a business where putting greens are installed in back yards, which he developed while he was playing."
Or, as Cory Mantyka puts it: "The CFL is actually more like my off-season job. In fact my career in the CFL wasn't planned. It just happened to work out around my real job." Mantyka, a 6'-5" 310-pound right tackle with the B.C. Lions, works in Bellingham, Wash., in the off-season as a registered nurse. Noah Cantor, an offensive lineman who just signed as a free agent with the Argonauts, co-owns a pair of very popular gourmet hamburger joints in Vancouver called Vera's Burger Shack, which he hopes to turn into the Tim Horton's of ground beef. Duane Forde (whose contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was not renewed) is a personal trainer. Giulio Caravatta, who used to Q.B. for B.C., is a firefighter, the chosen trade of at least half a dozen other CFLers. It's almost as popular as the oil industry, which counts Scott Deibert, a backup fullback with the Calgary Stampeders (who moonlighted last summer as a sports anchor), in its ranks, thanks to an introduction from Laird.
Above, Noah Cantor owns a pair of very popular gourmet hamburger joints in Vancouver called Vera's Burger Shack.
Photo by Bruce Berman
If the gamut of jobs sounds as weird as it is wide, it's no accident. Today's CFL players are a new kind of dual-occupation throwback, not so much 1950's sad-sack, as third millennium innovative. Football, as Laird points out, is unique among professional sports in that it offers no recreational carry-over possibility, as do baseball, and basketball and even hockey. Once football is over, it's over. So CFL players gravitate toward occupations that can provide them with the intangibles that are integral to a professional athlete's life. The camaraderie of the locker room is one of the intangibles. "And the other big one," says Giulio Caravatta, the firefighter, "is the adrenaline rush. Most guys favour jobs that can provide that adrenaline rush."
Some jobs just happened to provide a bit more of it than others.
"It's not often you're confronted with two repo-men with university degrees, especially two who went through the Canadian education system first, and can quote the Supreme Court decision allowing them to take your car."
-- Greg Bearman
"You seem a little pumped still from that truck job back there," says George Hudson.
"I do, don't I?" says Greg Bearman.
It's an hour after the maroon Chevy pickup heist, and I'm crammed once more into the back of George's truck, travelling north on the highway out of Las Cruces, on our way to Elephant Butte Reservoir to repossess a boat. I had no idea you could even repossess a boat; it sounds vaguely unconstitutional. But then I had no idea two guys who took back important things from unfortunate people could go at it with such an appealing (and unapologetic) satisfaction - just like two guys going to, well, play football. The Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vibrations seem stronger than ever; it's like "Good Will Repossessing."
In fact actually stealing a vehicle is not always George and Greg's preferred modus operandi. "If you were to watch how we go about repo-ing a car, and our guys in El Paso," says George, "you'd see two very different philosophies. They want no contact. They prefer to steal cars in all circumstances. If the key doesn't work, they have these very fast wreckers they'll call, and if they get there in time that's that. Whereas us, if the key doesn't work, we're just as likely to knock on the door."
"Our advantage is our articulation," says Greg. "It's not often you're confronted with two repo-men with university degrees, especially two who went through the Canadian education system first, and can quote the Supreme Court decision allowing them to take your car. If we do have a fixed philosophy, it's giving no one an out.
Can you not just leave it? they'll ask. No. Can you not wait till tomorrow, I can pay at 8 a.m. Great, come to the agency, we say, pick up your car at 8:30. Is this legal? You throw a case at them, Pilgrim vs. Austin 1967 allows me to come across and trespass on your property."
"We have to take the car, we tell them," says George, "it's the rules. Fortunately they never ask whose rules."
"Haven't you ever had any bad incidents?"
I say. "Violence-wise?"
"Only with women," says George.
"Women are the worst," says Greg. "Bar none."
"They're ruthless," says George. "Because they know we can't do anything to them. They're not afraid to say anything. They will slap you, they'll scratch you, they'll push you, they'll cry. Cry, cry, oh my God, tell the worst sob stories you ever heard in your life."
"Whereas most of the guys look at you and say, 'Thanks, dude. You know, I'm going to actually sleep tonight. I haven't slept in nights thinking about payments.' We're doing them a favour, it's a relief to them. Or if they are inclined to be pissed off, they get dis-inclined as soon as George stands up. By the way, if they ask you up here, we're all Americans."
Photo by Bruce Berman
Up here is a forced exit off the highway onto
a siding, all the traffic slowing and funnelling into what I first take to be a truck inspection or weight off-ramp. But instead of a truck inspector it's a New Mexico Border Patrol cop who leans through the window, checking for I.D. He waves us through quickly. Amazingly, it's a kind of internal customs patrol. "Not to be racist in any way," says Greg, "but three white guys in a tow truck is not what they're looking for." What they are looking for, apparently, is illegal Mexican immigrants, hidden marijuana shipments, and more disorientingly still, Arab terrorists.
"This area was number three on the lists as a potential terrorism target after September 11th," George explains, "because of the weapons testing that goes on here. We've got the Lyndon Johnson Space Center, and the White Sands testing range." He indicates the mountains to our right, closer now, the land rolling and getting greener, the air cooler as we climb toward Elephant Butte. He and Greg will often check the radio in the morning for missile-test road closures, he says, to make sure they don't get stuck on the highway. "One morning I was going to get a car in Hatch, and I saw three Patriot missiles come over the top of that mountain right there, with two F-16's riding shot-gun on them, making sure they didn't fall in anybody's backyard."
New Mexico, it occurs to me, contains Los Alamos, birthplace of the atom bomb, and Roswell, birthplace of a thousand conspiracy theories.
It also contains the smartly dressed business-woman who came striding up the sidewalk into the Roadrunner parking lot about an hour ago, five minutes after George and Greg effected the successful relocation of a maroon '97 Chevy pick-up truck.
"Did you just happen to take a car off our lot?" she said angrily.
"You'll have to check inside, ma'am," said Greg, as nice as nice could be.
Now he says, "I have no tolerance for the tears of women."
"The average life-span of a player in the CFL is about four years. The pension plan kicks in at age 60."
-- Stu Laird - former Calgary defensive tackle, now president of the CFL Players Association
The average football game lasts 2.5 hours. Of those 2.5 hours, the ball is in play for about 14 minutes. With most players playing either offense or defense, the average actual playing time for a given player is seven minutes per game, or about two hours in an 19-game season, or 12 hours total in an entire six-year career. But those 12 hours are intense and gruelling enough that it's the rare football player who finishes a career without some kind of chronic disability (George Hudson's back is already chronic.) "I once had a coach," says Laird, "who said that if you play football correctly during a game, the next day you should feel like you were in a car accident." If a football player continues to play football for modest compensation, and work at an ancillary "real" job besides, that is, you can assume he probably loves to play his sport as much as any professional athlete alive.
NEXT: It sure ain't the money, Pt. 2