Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Darian Durant was walking through the CFL team's dressing room Friday following the announcement that future Hall of Fame offensive lineman Gene Makowsky was retiring.
"A sad day," said Durant, as he punched letters into his cell phone.
It was a double-whammy for Durant and his teammates, who also got word that non-import slotback Andy Fantuz, the top prize among this year's free agents, was leaving Saskatchewan to join the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Makowsky, a Saskatchewan native, played 17 years for the Roughriders and was twice (2004-05) named the league's outstanding offensive lineman. Makowsky had become a fan favourite because of his devotion to the team and the province.
Fantuz, an Ontario native, played six seasons in Saskatchewan and was the CFL's top Canadian in 2010. Fantuz's on-field ability – his huge, reliable hands and his ability to find soft spots in opposing defences – made him so popular that his jersey became a top seller, he appeared on local TV ads for renewing license plates and he had a breakfast cereal named after him: Fantuz Flakes.
The Roughriders, Grey Cup finalists in 2009 and 2010, slipped to 5-13 and didn't make the playoffs in 2011. Makowsky and Fantuz won a Grey Cup together in 2007.
"That's pro football, the changes that keep coming," Makowsky said. "It's a battle of attrition, I've been able to hold it off for 17 years." Makowsky was elected in November to the provincial legislature as a member of Premier Brad Wall's governing Saskatchewan Party. The free-agent signings earlier this week of offensive linemen Brandon LaBatte and Dominic Picard convinced Makowsky to step aside.
Fantuz's departure had been somewhat expected after he declined Saskatchewan's recent contract offers and speculation grew that he would be moving closer to his home in Chatham, Ont.
"As much as it was frustrating for us it was also frustrating for him," Roughriders general manager Brendan Taman said. "You get some good days and you get some bad ones, but we've got to move on. We're going to be okay with guys like [receivers Weston]Dressler and that group." The Roughriders were apparently offering Fantuz a salary approaching $175,000 and even discussed an opportunity for his own line of clothing. It's believed the Ticats offered the dynamic pass-catcher approximately $200,000 a year.
New Ticats head coach George Cortez had been the Riders' offensive co-ordinator in 2006 during Fantuz's rookie season. The slotback's remarkable knack for hanging on to the football stuck with Cortez. He recalls a player that never dropped balls – even in practice. Fantuz used to pander to Cortez to be the holder on fake field goals as well, because he wanted a chance to showcase his throwing skills in a game some time. His confidence impressed the coach.
"He catches the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen up here," said Cortez Friday in Hamilton. "He's more physical than people realize, and he fits in with our plans very well."
Cortez and Fantuz spoke by phone on Wednesday this week as the player vacationed in Tanzania. Despite the fact that the two were dealing with a tricky time delay on the call, the coach wanted to sell Fantuz on coming to play in his "receiver-friendly offence."
"I was telling him what spot I envision him playing," said Cortez. "It's a very productive spot, and that guy gets an opportunity to catch a lot of balls."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver is returning from Africa in the next few days, and the team expects to officially introduce him as a Ticat in Hamilton on Tuesday.
"I'm coming home. After a very difficult deliberation process, the opportunity to play for my local team, in front of family and friends, was impossible to refuse," said 28-year-old Fantuz in a statement.
"While Rider Pride will always be a part of me, it's time to head to Tigertown. Hamilton has a great tradition of football excellence and I am thrilled be a part of a team that will immediately challenge for a Grey Cup. I look forward to getting to know my new teammates and representing the Tiger-Cats in Southwestern Ontario. Oskee-wee-wee!"