- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Washington Redskins‘ place in the contentious NFC East guarantees them a daunting slate of road games each year.

Whether they’re being bombarded by ceaseless taunts from Philadelphia’s acerbic fan base, overwhelmed by the vastness of Cowboys Stadium or swallowed up by deafening crowd noise in the Meadowlands, the Redskins are accustomed to dealing with unfavorable environments.

Sunday’s road test, however, presents a destination hardly known for its rabid football fans: Toronto.

Yet the Redskins would be unwise to think they’ll be entering a neutral site dotted with handfuls of disinterested hockey nuts. Sunday will mark the fourth year in a row in which tickets have been sold out for an NFL game at Rogers Centre, where the Buffalo Bills are hosting an eight-game series (including preseason) extending from 2008 through 2012. Excitement always abounds when the nearby franchise pays a visit, but this year’s game has generated the most anticipation to date. The plucky Bills boast a surprising 4-2 record, a far cry from the 0-7 mark they carried into last year’s game against the Chicago Bears in Toronto.

Still, this weekend’s game won’t replicate the partisan Bills support found on a typical Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. If the past three years at the Rogers Centre are any indication, fans will stream through the turnstiles donning jerseys that represent an array of teams. While many Toronto natives will arrive to support the Bills, others will come simply to witness the spectacle of an NFL game in their backyard.

Such a lack of consensus brings up the prospect of Toronto securing an NFL franchise, an issue that intensifies over local airwaves every time the Bills come to town. Although the city already has a team in the Canadian Football League, city councilman Doug Ford has long advocated moving an NFL team to Toronto, whose market is considerably larger than several cities with NFL franchises. Other experts, such as sportscaster Chris Shultz of the Canadian sports television channel TSN, point to the need to build a bigger stadium and to find the right ownership as hurdles that will prevent Toronto from fielding a team anytime soon.

“It’s one of the great conversation pieces among print, TV and radio every single year that the Bills come up here whether it be an exhibition or the regular season,” said Shultz, who played for the Dallas Cowboys for three seasons before embarking on a nine-year career with the Toronto Argonauts. “There’s so many different reasons as to why it seems like it is working and why it isn’t working. It’s really in a gray area right now.”

That gray area might as well symbolize the football support of the entire country, which is scattered with patches of die-hard fans and complete novices. The CFL fields only eight teams, a small amount to span the world’s second-largest country by total area. While football in Quebec enjoys about the same level of popularity as the country’s beloved sport of hockey, Shultz says, large swaths of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan pay the American game little to no mind.

In the eyes of many Canadians affiliated with football, inconsistent devotion to their sport stems from a lack of support for youth football programs. Quebec attracts young athletes with its CEGEP program, which churns out football players good enough to attain scholarships to colleges in the U.S., but much of the rest of the country treats football as a novel activity merely to be studied for a couple of weeks in gym class. While the average high school game in west Texas might lure thousands of enthusiastic fans, even the biggest prep football contests in Canada barely manage to put more than family and friends in the bleachers.

“That’s one thing that when I lived in the States I really enjoyed that. They really support the kids,” Shultz said. “They support the guys that are playing at the amateur level, the high school level and the collegiate level. We don’t get very good crowds for our university games, and we get very sparse crowds for high school games. Because that foundation isn’t set, so to speak, there isn’t that constant natural evolution of appreciation up to the professional level.”

Perception of the sport’s popularity in Canada often depends on one’s proximity to the U.S. border. For people such as Harry Lumley, who served as Redskins safety Oshiomongo Atogwe’s high school football coach in Windsor, Ontario - just a half-mile across the river from Detroit — interest in the game continues to swell in tune with the NFL’s increasing popularity, not to mention the Lions’ sudden rise.

“It’s improved tremendously,” Lumley said. “Every high school with any kind of size has a team. The game has improved a lot, the numbers have improved tremendously. It’s growing constantly.”

Although Lumley has produced plenty of scholarship players during his 45 years of coaching, Atogwe remains the only one who has found a place in the NFL. Atogwe’s journey from high school to his years at Stanford represented the difficult transition made by all Canadian football players who must adapt to a different playing style in the States. In addition to using three downs instead of four and 12 men on the field instead of 11, Canadian rules mandate fields stretching 110 yards long and 65 yards wide with 20-yard end zones.

“I redshirted my freshman year at Stanford, and it really took me that whole year to actually understand the rules of the American game,” Atogwe said. “There were so many little rules that I was like, OK, why can’t you do that? I really didn’t understand it. The game within itself, like when you get on the field and you’re covering, OK, that’s football. It’s the same. But the rules and the structure and how it’s laid out was totally different.”

Even though most Canadian football fans tend to pay more attention to the CFL than the NFL, particularly with the CFL playoffs approaching in November, Atogwe and the rest of the Redskins‘ presence in Toronto on Sunday likely will draw curious glances from football loyalists across the icy country. The final score could pose meaningful implications for both teams down the line, but the game’s real impact might be found outside the lines.