The best CFL players of all time
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The best CFL players of all time

The Canadian Football League does not generate the same collective level of excitement in North America as the NFL, but the league has a storied history. And, featured some of the greatest individual performers in the history of professional football.

Here's our ranking of the top 25 players to call the CFL home. Listed in alphabetical order.

 
1 of 25

Damon Allen, Quarterback (1985-2007)

Damon Allen, Quarterback (1985-2007)
David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One of the most versatile quarterbacks in the history of professional football, regardless of the league. Allen, who won four Grey Cup titles with three different teams (Edmonton, British Columbia, and Toronto), recorded 84,301 combined passing and rushing yards -- the most of any pro player -- during his Canadian football career. He was named Grey Cup MVP three times and in 2005, at age 42, Allen was awarded the CFL Most Outstanding Player Award.

 
2 of 25

John Barrow, Offensive/Defensive Lineman (1957-1970)

John Barrow, Offensive/Defensive Lineman (1957-1970)
YouTube

A two-way standout, Barrow  spent all 14 of his CFL seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. A first-team All-American at Florida, Barrow was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but all of his pro success came in Canada. In addition to being recognized as a CFL All-Star six times, Barrow was part of four Grey Cup-winning teams (1957, '63, '65, and '67). Barrow also served as general manager of the Toronto Argonauts from 1971-'75.

 
3 of 25

Less Browne, Defensive Back (1984–1994)

Less Browne, Defensive Back (1984–1994)
YouTube

Browne's pro football career began in the USFL, but it was the CFL where he blossomed as one of the elites in the game. While playing for Hamilton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and BC, Browne set the league record with 87 career interceptions and posted 1,508 regular-season interception return yards. He also blocked eight kicks during his brilliant CFL stay. Browne earned All-Star status six times and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

 
4 of 25

Anthony Calvillo, Quarterback (1994-2013)

Anthony Calvillo, Quarterback (1994-2013)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

As far as professional quarterbacks go, no matter what league we're talking about, Calvillo is one of the best. Only Drew Brees and Tom Brady have thrown for more professional yards than Calvillo's 79,816. Meanwhile, his 455 touchdown passes are fifth among pro quarterbacks. Calvillo's CFL career began with the expansion Las Vegas Posse in the "Border Wars" days of the mid-1990s. He then went to Hamilton but earned essentially all his success with Montreal. Calvillo helped the Alouettes to three Grey Cups (2002, '09, '10) and was the league's Most Outstanding Player in 2003, '08, and '09).

 
5 of 25

Michael "Pinball" Clemons, Running Back/Returner (1989-2000)

Michael "Pinball" Clemons, Running Back/Returner (1989-2000)
John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images

There's no doubt that Clemons is one of the most exciting pro football players of all time, despite standing just 5-foot-6. For his career, Clemons, also one of the most popular figures in CFL history, posted 682 receptions for 7,015 yards and rushed for 5,341 while recording 85 total touchdowns, including his work as a returner. Clemons spent his entire CFL playing career with Toronto, for which he's served as head coach (2000-'01; 2002-'07) and is currently in the front office. All totaled, Clemons has been part of six Grey Cup championship teams.

 
6 of 25

Sam Etcheverry, Quarterback (1952-1960)

Sam Etcheverry, Quarterback (1952-1960)
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Though born in New Mexico, Etcheverry is one of the most beloved figures in Montreal sports history because of his success with the CFL's Alouettes. From 1954-'56, set a CFL record of 34 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Sporting the No. 92, Etcheverry was also the first pro quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season (4,723 in 1956). His 508 passing yards against Edmonton in the 1955 Grey Cup are still a record.

 
7 of 25

Doug Flutie, Quarterback (1990-1997)

Doug Flutie, Quarterback (1990-1997)
Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 2006, TSN ranked the "Top 50 CFL Players" of all time. Flutie, to no surprise, topped that list. Between his stints in the NFL, Flutie enjoyed the greatest success of his pro football career in Canada. A six-time CFL Most Outstanding Player Award winner, Flutie won a Grey Cup with Calgary in 1992 and two with Toronto in 1996 and '07. He still holds CFL records for single-season passing yards (6,619) and touchdowns (48). Overall during his time in Canada, Flutie threw for 41,355 yards with 270 passing touchdowns, 4,660 rushing yards, and 66 scores on the ground.

 
8 of 25

Tony Gabriel, Wide Receiver (1971–1981)

Tony Gabriel, Wide Receiver (1971–1981)
YouTube

The Canadian-born Gabriel starred for both Hamilton and the Ottawa Rough Riders and was named a CFL All-Star eight times and twice won the Grey Cup (1972, 1976). Gabriel, the league's Most Outstanding Canadian in 1974, '76, '77, and '78, is Ottawa's all-time record holder in receptions (444) and receiving yards (7,484). Gabriel's late touchdown catch from Tom Clements vaulted Ottawa past Saskatchewan for the 1976 Grey Cup title.

 
9 of 25

Wayne Harris, Linebacker (1961-1972)

Wayne Harris, Linebacker (1961-1972)
Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame after starring at Arkansas, Harris was a fierce defender for the Calgary Stampeders. Not only was Harris one of the great tacklers in league history, he also recorded more than 25 career interceptions. On eight occasions, Harris was named a CFL All-Star, and part of the Stampeders' Grey Cup-winning team of 1971. Many CFL pundits consider Harris to be the greatest player in the history of the Calgary franchise.

 
10 of 25

John Helton, Defensive Lineman (1969-1982)

John Helton, Defensive Lineman (1969-1982)
YouTube

Speaking of great Calgary defenders, Helton  could go down as the greatest defensive lineman in the history of the CFL. He was a 10-time All-Star, the league's Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 1974 -- three years after he joined Wayne Harris as a Grey Cup champion with the Stampeders. Helton finished his CFL career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

 
11 of 25

Garney Henley, Wide Receiver/Defensive Back (1960-1975)

Garney Henley, Wide Receiver/Defensive Back (1960-1975)
YouTube

Another two-way star in the league, Henley won the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award in 1972, the same season he claimed the last of his four Grey Cups -- in seven total appearances -- with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Drafted by the Green Bay Packers, Henley quickly made his way north of the border, where he recorded 59 career interceptions and five defensive touchdowns. He's a member of both the College Football and Canadian Football Hall of Fames.

 
12 of 25

Russ Jackson, Quarterback (1958-1969)

Russ Jackson, Quarterback (1958-1969)
YouTube

When it comes to Canadian football, Jackson is CFL royalty. Jackson was a native of Hamilton, Ontario, but he's like an adopted favorite son of Ottawa after he helped guide the Rough Riders to Grey Cup titles in 1960, '68, and '69. A three-time CFL Most Outstanding Player (1963, '66, '69), Jackson posted career totals of 24,593 passing yards with 185 touchdowns, and also rushed for 5,045 and another 54 TDs. Following his playing career, Jackson spent two seasons as head coach of the Toronto Argonauts (1975-'76).

 
13 of 25

Danny Kepley, Linebacker (1975-1984)

Danny Kepley, Linebacker (1975-1984)
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

In the annals of the Edmonton Eskimos, Kepley is an icon. He won an astounding eight Grey Cup titles with Edmonton -- as both a player and an assistant coach. Kepley, who teamed with fellow linebackers Dale Potter and Tom Towns to form one of the most formidable units in league history, won CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award three times. 

 
14 of 25

Ron Lancaster, Quarterback (1960-1978)

Ron Lancaster, Quarterback (1960-1978)
YouTube

Lancaster  spent his first two CFL seasons with Ottawa, but his legacy was established as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The beloved signal-caller led Saskatchewan to its first Grey Cup title in 1966. And, when Lancaster's brilliant CFL career ended in the late 1970s, he totaled 50,535 passing yards, 333 touchdowns, 396 interceptions, and 3,384 completions -- all Saskatchewan franchise records. Following his playing career, Lancaster was a longtime CFL analyst for CBC.

 
15 of 25

Warren Moon, Quarterback (1978-1983)

Warren Moon, Quarterback (1978-1983)
YouTube

Before Warren Moon starred in the NFL, he solidified himself as one of the greats in CFL history over a rather short period of time. In his six seasons with the Eskimos. Moon threw for 21,228 yards with 144 touchdowns to 77 interceptions and won five Grey Cup titles. In 1983, Moon was named CFL's Most Outstanding Player. The next year he was headed to Houston for the start of a stellar NFL career. 

 
16 of 25

Jackie Parker, Quarterback/Running Back/Defensive Back/Kicker (1954-1968)

Jackie Parker, Quarterback/Running Back/Defensive Back/Kicker (1954-1968)
YouTube

Talk about versatility. Parker, who spent nine seasons with Edmonton before concluding his stellar CFL career with Toronto and British Columbia, threw for 16,476 yards with 88 touchdowns -- and 123 interceptions. He also rushed for 5,210 yards with 67 touchdowns. If that was not enough, Parker totaled 135 career receptions for 2,308 yards with 19 touchdowns, recorded 12 interceptions, and made 40-of-62 field-goal attempts. Not to mention, Parker won three Grey Cups with Edmonton during the 1950s.

 
17 of 25

Lui Passaglia, Kicker/Punter/Wide Receiver (1976-2000)

Lui Passaglia, Kicker/Punter/Wide Receiver (1976-2000)
YouTube

Come on, even kickers need some love. The Vancouver, B.C. native played his entire -- and lengthy -- CFL career with his hometown club. A four-time All-Star and three-time Grey Cup champion (1985, '94, 2000) with the Lions, Passaglia set the league record for seasons played (25), regular-season games (408), and recorded 3,991 regular-season points. He kicked the Lions to the 1994 league title on their home field with a last-second field goal in the Grey Cup.

 
18 of 25

Hal Patterson, Wide Receiver (1954-1967)

Hal Patterson, Wide Receiver (1954-1967)
Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum

Dubbed "Prince Hal." Patterson starred on both sides of the ball, but earned most of his success as a receiver for Montreal and Hamilton. A three-time All-Star, Patterson posted a 338-yard receiving game in 1956 (a league record), scored 54 career touchdowns and totaled more than 30 contests of 100 or more receiving yards. Patterson and the aforementioned Sam Etcheverry were part of perhaps the most infamous trade in CFL history, when Montreal dealt the fan favorites to last-place Hamilton in 1960. A year later, Patterson helped the Tiger-Cats reach the Grey Cup.

 
19 of 25

Allen Pitts, Wide Receiver/Slot Back (1990-2000)

Allen Pitts, Wide Receiver/Slot Back (1990-2000)
Calgary Stampeders

Pitts played his entire CFL career in Calgary, and when he retired, he was the league's all-time leader with 14,891 receiving yards. That record has since been broken, but Pitts remains one of the legends of the Canadian game, while also recording 966 receptions and 117 touchdowns for the Stampeders. He was a six-time All-Star and part of two Calgary Grey Cup champion squads in 1992 and '98.

 
20 of 25

Willie Pless, Linebacker (1986-1999)

Willie Pless, Linebacker (1986-1999)
Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Pless certainly made the rounds through the CFL with stops in Toronto, British Columbia, Edmonton, and Saskatchewan. Along the way, he was named a CFL All-Star 11 times, Most Outstanding Defensive Player on five occasions (1992, '94, '95, '96, '97), and won the 1993 Grey Cup with the Eskimos. When his playing career was done, Pless recorded 1,241 tackles, 84 sacks 39 interceptions, and recovered 39 fumbles. 

 
21 of 25

Mike Pringle, Running Back (1992-2005)

Mike Pringle, Running Back (1992-2005)
YouTube

Pringle made the circuit of professional football leagues, but the CFL is where he became a legend. Regarded, perhaps, as the best running back in the league's history, Pringle remains the only player (as of September 2021) in CFL history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a season. That came with Montreal in 1998, when the 5-foot-9, 200-pound powerhouse amassed 2,065 yards on the ground. The seven-time CFL All-Star rushed for at least 1,100 yards nine times in Canada. He also won three Grey Cups, including 1995, when he helped the Baltimore franchise become the only American-based team to claim the league title.

 
22 of 25

George Reed, Running Back (1963-1975)

George Reed, Running Back (1963-1975)
YouTube

Before Pringle did his thing in Canada, there was George Reed. The Mississippi native spent his entire 13-year CFL career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and was selected an All-Star nine times and the league's Most Outstanding Player in 1965 and also 1976. In 1996, Reed helped the Roughriders to the Grey Cup title. When his playing days in Canada ended, Reed held league records with 16,116 rushing yards and 134 touchdowns on the ground. He also served two separate stints as president of the Canadian Football League Players' Association.

 
23 of 25

Milt Stegall, Wide Receiver (1995-2008)

Milt Stegall, Wide Receiver (1995-2008)
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

After spending some time in the NFL during the early 1990s, Stegall eventually found a home -- and success -- in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. League pundits and historians have long considered Stegall to be the CFL's all-time greatest receiver. And the numbers back it up. The 2002 CFL Most Outstanding Player, set career league records, most notably, with 147 touchdowns and 144 touchdown receptions. He finished his Hall-of-Fame CFL run with 854 receptions for 15,153 yards.

 
24 of 25

Chris Walby, Offensive Lineman (1981-1996)

Chris Walby, Offensive Lineman (1981-1996)
YouTube

Walby's CFL career began with a brief stint in Montreal, however, he became one of the elite offensive linemen in league history as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Which was pretty special, considering the 6-foot-7, 325-pound Walby was born in Winnipeg. He was a lynchpin on the Blue Bombers' three Grey Cup-winning teams from 1984, '88, and '90. Walby was a nine-time All-Star and twice awarded the CFL's Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman (1987, '93).

 
25 of 25

Henry "Gizmo" Williams, Wide Receiver/Returner (1986-2000)

Henry "Gizmo" Williams, Wide Receiver/Returner (1986-2000)
YouTube

One of the great nicknames -- reportedly given to him by the NFL legend Reggie White -- in all of professional sports. Williams stood 5-foot-6 but played like a giant. Notably as arguably the greatest return man in the history of the CFL, and mostly with the Edmonton Eskimos, with whom he won two Grey Cups. A five-time All-Star, Williams set CFL records for career punt return yards (11,257), kickoff return yards (7,354), and 31 combined return touchdowns -- usually capped with a flip in the end zone.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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