REGINA — Andy Fantuz's progress as a slotback may only be surpassed by the growth of his hair.
The veteran Saskatchewan Roughriders receiver leads the team on the field and with the fluffiest hairstyle. It's hidden under a Riders helmet during games and practices, but a full head of dark hair becomes conspicuous when Fantuz is off the field.
"In 2007, I had it this long and I shaved it off (as a fundraiser) for breast cancer,'' Fantuz said Thursday after the Riders completed their on-field preparations for Saturday's CFL game against the host Calgary Stampeders. "(Former Riders offensive lineman) Glenn January and I did it and it was the same length. People often forget that, but maybe I wasn't getting as much publicity back then. I'm sure it will get much longer than that, because I'm just going with the flow.''
Bob Dyce, who is in his first season as the Riders' receivers coach and passing-game co-ordinator, has watched Fantuz's hair grow out since training camp.
"He had it puffed up pretty nice for the first day of pictures,'' Dyce said of the fifth-year slotback. "I hadn't seen that before, because it was shaved in all of the pictures I had seen. We're all reinventing ourselves and that's a new reinvention for Andy.''
Fantuz doesn't need his mop top to attract attention. He was well-publicized even before being selected in the first round (third overall) of the 2006 CFL draft by the Riders after four stellar seasons with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs (with whom he won the 2005 Hec Crighton Trophy as the top player in the CIS). Since then he has evolved into one the league's premier receivers despite battling injuries.
This season, Fantuz has 14 receptions for 193 yards and three touchdowns. He picked up his third major in Saturday's 24-20 come-from-behind victory over the Edmonton Eskimos. His 37-yard touchdown reception pulled the Riders to within 20-19 early in the fourth quarter.
"These guys are all leaders in their own way but Andy has stepped up in that regard,'' Dyce said. "I wasn't here before to know about the evolution of him as a player, but he certainly fills his role as a leader well.''
Wide receiver Rob Bagg said that Fantuz stepped forward during the 2009 season, one in which the native of Chatham, Ont., missed five games with a torn hamstring. Fantuz, who is 26, and slotback Chris Getzlaf (27) are the oldest starters among the Riders' receivers. That maturity and experience makes it easy for teammates to follow Fantuz.
"We all look up to him,'' Bagg said. "We have some good receivers but he's obviously one of our better ones. Everything he does and says is followed and listened to by the other guys.''
Fantuz is so well respected that he was elected one of the Riders' two CFL Players' Association representatives. Fantuz took over as player representative from Eddie Davis, who retired during the off-season after nine years with the Riders.
"The players come to you with a lot of questions and most of the time they are important ones regarding their personal situation or any of the other rules,'' said centre Jeremy O'Day, who has served as a player rep for 10 of his 12 seasons with the Riders. "It definitely is a show of maturity. He came to the meetings this year and participated in them. That's something that usually doesn't happen with an alternate.''
Fantuz agreed to serve as alternate because Davis was nearing the end of his career. Fantuz said that younger players have to step forward to fill the looming voids.
"It was also a CBA year so I was able to be involved more than a normal alternate,'' Fantuz said. "Because of that I had a better appreciation for the whole gig. I was always a leader on the team and people would come to me more for this and that in the dressing room, anyway. Jeremy does most of the stuff. I just try to help him out with anything he needs.''
Each CFL team has two player representatives. Stu Laird, president of the CFLPA, said that Fantuz is one of the youngest players in that role.
"Usually it's a long-serving member, but not always,'' Laird said Thursday from his Calgary office. "I actually recruited Eddie Davis personally because I knew how much respect he would have. You want someone who has the respect of the guys in the locker room. He has to have good people skills and understand the league and our professional environment. He also has to be able to communicate effectively with players, fans and media.''
Laird said that having an older player like O'Day paired with a young veteran such as Fantuz is a partnership that works best.
"It helps us in the transition if you have one guy who has been in the position for a season or two,'' Laird said. "I don't have any doubt that Andy will do a great job in representing his teammates.''
Fantuz is doing that on and off the field. He was the named the most outstanding Canadian in the Riders' 23-19 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 2007 Grey Cup game. On Thursday, Fantuz Flakes are to hit the grocery shelves at Co-op stores throughout Saskatchewan. The breakfast cereal and the proliferation of Fantuz jerseys among the Rider Nation are signs of Fantuz's blossoming popularity. That has kept pace with Fantuz's maturity.
"I like to think that I'm getting more mature as a player as I get older,'' Fantuz said. "We have our captains and those are our leaders. In our group, people aren't afraid to come to me because of my age. I like the responsibility and I don't mind doing it.''
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- Andy Fantuz