Canadian football: it’s our game with our rules and talented youngsters in this country can aspire to play the game professionally at any position on the field – except one.
The plight of the homegrown quarterback with dreams of playing in the Canadian Football League is a sad one. The best university signal callers in the country graduate with a tough decision to make: retire or change positions, as the CFL quarterbacking domain is the exclusive domain of American pivots.
“It’s just one of those things you just kind accept after a while,” said Surrey resident and UBC grad Billy Greene.
“I’ve known this is the way it is all the way through. When I got to UBC, I knew. If I was to ever get a chance to play in the CFL, it probably wasn’t going to be at quarterback. Even knowing that, it didn’t change my thought process because to me, the most valuable spot for me to be playing to help my team was at quarterback. I didn’t care what would happen after university – if I got as chance, great and if not, I’ll switch positions then.”
The lack of respect for Canadian quarterbacks is definitely nothing new. Greene’s coach at UBC, Holy Cross grad Shawn Olson ran into it when he was playing at the school he now coaches. Olson enjoyed a stellar career at UBC highlighted by a Vanier Cup national championship in 1997, but in the eyes of CFL talent evaluators, when his college career was over, so was his quarterbacking career.
“I ran into it for sure when I played,” Olson said. “It was a goal of mine to play professionally and I pursued it. I wanted to be a guy who maybe changed the way Canadian quarterbacks were thought about. I ran into it and I understand the
way the team officials think. When you have a quarterback from Florida State and a quarterback from the University of Calgary, it’s hard to compare the two. It’s apples and oranges as far as the level of competition.
“It’s a tough evaluation for the people making the decisions and their jobs are on the line so you can’t be expecting a handout. At the same time, a lot of kids who come through the CIS schools are worthy of opportunities in camp. Once they are there, if it doesn’t work out, then at least the
players can say they had an opportunity.”
Greene played under Olson’s guidance on the Point Grey campus for three seasons and departed UBC with a resume almost as impressive as his mentor’s. He guided Holy Cross to that school’s lone provincial AAA championship as a high school senior in 2007 and by 2011, he was the most outstanding player in all of CIS university football, winning the prestigious Hec Creighton Award.
He attended the CFL evaluation
combine in 2012, but went undrafted. After graduating with an English degree, he was invited to attend a one-day pre-training camp tryout with the Montreal Alouettes in 2013, but was unable to attend as he was rehabbing from surgeries to his knee and foot. For all intents and purposes, it looked like his quarterbacking days were over.
“Winning awards doesn’t always translate into being a great pro athlete just as top high school kids don’t always become top college players,” Olson cautioned. “Looking at the CFL game, however, Billy can run, he has a strong arm, he’s accurate and he’s intelligent – and those are all things you need to play the CFL game. He checks off on all of those needs and after that, it comes down to if he can adjust to the speed and the complexity of the game at the next level.
“Those things would get exposed pretty quickly of he was given an opportunity. I personally think Billy has the traits needed to be a pro quarterback and now it comes down to what he would do in a practise setting or any other given situation. Billy needs to be judged on the skills and traits that he has as opposed to where he played and stuff.”
As Greene rehabbed from his injuries and got back into better shape, he realized he still wanted to play football. He considered switching positions with the realization the move would mean getting beat up for a couple of years on a practice squad or maybe even play special teams. The idea wasn’t appealing for him so he consulted with Olson about his future. When he left Olson’s office that day he did so with a third choice in mind: play quarterback professionally in Europe.
Olson was definitely the right guy to consult about European professional football. Olson spent four years under centre with the Chrysler/Dodge Vienna Vikings
in Austria, leading the team to three Austrian football titles and three consecutive Euro Bowls. He then coached with the Vikings for two more seasons before returning to North America in 2007.
By December of 2013 Greene had signed a contract to play with the TyresÃ¶ Royal Crowns in Sweden. Best of all, Greene’s Canadian passport won’t be seen as a detriment to his chances. The head coach of the Royal Crowns is Terry Kleinsmith, a onetime quarterbacking star at Simon Fraser University.
“Playing in Europe can be an amazing experience or a disappointing one,” Olson said. “The level of play in Europe is very uneven. Some teams are very good and well organized with really talented national players and other places where the teams are very disorganized and play a game that only vaguely resembles football.
“I think Billy is in a very good situation going over to Sweden. It’s a very cool country in which to have a European experience and I know the coach he will be playing for so it’s a good situation.”
Last month Greene received his first taste of the European game when he attended a nine-day training session with the Royal Crowns near Stockholm. He returned
enthused about the experience and is now preparing to return at the end of April for the full training camp.
“Coach Olson has been incredibly helpful through all this,” Greene said. “He basically made me into the quarterback I am now. As a resource for European football he’s been huge for me. He’s been there and knows what’s good, what’s bad and what to look out for. Things like getting my cellphone paid for, getting at least two meals a day paid for, getting internet paid for – little things I don’t have to pay for, but can add up to a lot of money.”
Greene intends to play the season with the Royal Crowns before returning to Vancouver in the fall where he will help coach at UBC.
With a new challenge awaiting him overseas, Greene admits he is grateful for Kleinsmith and the Royal Crowns for giving him something the Canadian game wouldn’t – a chance to play professional football.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a way to see the world,” he said. “The game has been very good to me. I went to university and now I get to see the world. I get to live just outside Stockholm for five months and there’s no way I would be able to do that without football. I’m very happy to be able to do that.”