When CFL players hang up their cleats for the last time, as the Toronto Argonauts' Adriano Belli and the Stampeders' Rob Lazeo did earlier this year, it often isn't a true retirement. The CFL's lower salaries often don't provide enough for players to just take it easy for life, and many have to work other jobs either during the offseasons or after their careers are done. However, as The Toronto Star's Chris Zelkovich explored Friday, that doesn't mean huge numbers of ex-CFLers are struggling financially. In fact, many of them have taken their gridiron experience and put it to good use in the business world, and Belli and Lazeo are attempting to follow that path.
As Zelkovich details, there are plenty of notable success stories out there, from the oil business run by former Stampeders Dave Sapunjis and Bob Viccars to former Hamilton Tiger-Cats' defensive lineman David Sauve's collection of 10 Tim Hortons' franchises and an investment company. Former Acadia Axemen and B.C. Lions quarterback Larry Jusdanis has found plenty of success with Sport Specific Training, and current Argonauts' linebacker Kevin Eiben just bought one of his franchises. Former Argonauts Jim Stillwagon, Blaine Schmidt and Bobby Taylor are involved in marketing, auto reconstruction and running a pub respectively, while former Lions Gerald Roper and Ian Sinclair run a Vancouver travel agency with 26 employees.
That's just scratching the surface, as there are tons of alumni and current players involved in almost every conceivable occupation, and it doesn't always depend on age. Some older players like the Saskatchewan Roughriders' Jason Clermont have long had their foot in the business market (as a realtor in Clermont's case), but they've been joined by some younger teammates; last year's top draft pick, Shomari Williams, started dipping his toes into the business market way back in 2007 with the Student Blitz recruiting services website, and launched recruiting database Top Prospects this year.
Belli (seen above receiving a painting from Argos' head coach Jim Barker at his shipboard retirement press conference last week) told Zelkovich that the CFL's lower paycheques provide more motivation for players to think about life after football, and that can help them get off to a better post-football life than many in the NFL.
"When I was in the NFL, there were a lot of guys who came in with no thought as to what they'd do when they were finished," says the former Toronto Argonaut, who announced his retirement earlier this week. "The next thing you know, they're gone and they've got to reinvent themselves.
"In the CFL, you know the day you arrive that you have to get ready for the next step."
That next step has worked out very well for many CFL alumni. One of the largest-scale success stories is the Forzani Group, founded by former Stampeders players John, Joe and Tom Forzani and Bas Bark in 1974. They started with a single sports apparel store in Calgary and grew it into a massive nationwide chain of stores like Sports Experts, SportChek and Nevada Bob's Golf. John Forzani has remained connected to the Stampeders and became a part owner of the team in 2005, helping to turn around their fortunes both on and off the field in the process. Canadian Tire just bought the Forzani Group for $771 million, a substantially larger chunk of change than most CFL teams will ever see.
Belli and Lazeo are hoping to be the latest CFL alumni to find that kind of success off the gridiron. For Belli, the next step is going to be spending more time running the family business, Freshouse Foods, which has over 60 employees. Lazeo's going to be working at Gridiron Blasting with a pair of former Stampeders, Jeff Pilon and Jamie Crysdale. Both are leaving the field, but their competitive instincts haven't diminished, and that's what Belli said sets so many CFLers up for a solid business career after football.
"Business is competitive and we're competitive by nature," says Belli, whose Freshouse Foods company distributes deli meats and cheeses. "We know in football that if you don't compete, you don't have a job. It's the same when you're running your own business."