Comparing the Canadian Football League to the National Football League, from a man who has worn uniforms in both places, gives Alvin Walton a chance to define player skills, adjust to rule changes and measure the difference, if any, in team travel, meals, practice facilities and general working conditions.
But tonight, Walton, with six years of professional background as a Washington Redskin and now a Baltimore CFL rookie, will be doing something he has heard about but is yet to experience -- playing two games with only three days of rest in between.
That can be routine in the Canadian Football League, at least on occasion or when variables in the schedule might dictate. "This is a new one for me," said Walton. He wasn't complaining; only observing. On Saturday in Las Vegas, the 115-degree temperature at kickoff increased appreciably since they were on a red-hot waffle iron known as artificial turf.
There's a certain spartan mind-set to the CFL, which goes with the territory. Thirty-seven players comprise the regular roster, 10 less than the NFL. This means, for the most part, a CFL performer has to be capable of giving more of himself physically TC to a team concept or he's not going to be included, except if he's a quarterback or a place-kicker.
Walton, for instance, is a linebacker but plays on special teams, kickoffs, kick receiving, extra points, et al. He's not speaking for public relations purposes but from personal knowledge when he offers the opinion "a lot of guys in the CFL could play in the NFL." That's where Walton served as a strong safety as a starter for the Redskins until going in the final 1992 squad cut.
It's obvious in overall competition the level in the NFL is vastly superior to the CFL. No debate there. However, the skill of individuals can't be minimized. There are outstanding plays, catches, passes, runs, interceptions, in the CFL that in numerous instances compare to the NFL.
What does Walton like about the rules? "The speed and fast pace," he answers. "I kind of feel playing the first half of a CFL game is equivalent to a whole 60 minutes in the NFL. Often, after only two plays, you are right back on the field. That's not much of a break."
He prefers how the CFL teams line up a yard off the ball, plus the 5-yard restraining regulation observed by converging tacklers on punts. The mere 20 seconds to put the ball in play, as opposed to 35 seconds in the NFL, makes for a rapid tempo. "Actually, it doesn't take long to adjust to the CFL," he says. "The game isn't hard to understand."
Walton is impressed with the reaction of Baltimore CFL spectators and says it's similar to the kind of vocal support the Redskins receive in Washington, although the crowd counts aren't the same.
"I think because of the CFL acceptance in Baltimore other teams are going to pop up in the U.S."
Dealing with travel plans, equipment and training camp, he says there's "no difference, really, with the NFL. It's up to par. Our locker room is carpeted. The team owner, Jim Speros, has done all he can. No complaints."
Asked hypothetically if coach Don Matthews could work in the NFL, he replies, "No question in my mind. He has the ability. All his coaches are qualified and organized."
There's a distinct variance in how players are handled on road trips. They receive a per diem, generally around $70, but don't assemble for a pre-game meal. Last week in Las Vegas, four players contracted food poisoning after eating a sandwich at the hotel. Would a team dinner have prevented this? Walton doubts it but realizes the CFL Players Association wanted such an arrangement, similar to what happens in professional baseball, basketball and hockey.
However, for home games, Speros puts the team in a Baltimore hotel and they eat together the night before. Otherwise, while on the road, players collect the per diem and order as much (or as little) as they want. Salaries are a different matter.
After being drafted on the third round out of Kansas in 1986 by the Redskins, he signed for a salary of $110,000 and accelerated from there but he won't say by how much. It's not quite that way in the CFL, where a tight salary cap restricts income.
This means Walton is earning around $36,000 but isn't complaining because the financial facts of life in the CFL, including club income from tickets and broadcast revenues, are modest by NFL standards.
Walton, married and with seven children, says when it comes time for a regular occupation -- he still needs six hours for a liberal arts degree -- he hopes to open a barber shop, or a chain, in Northern Virginia. He has only three months of training left before he can apply for a license but, meanwhile, practices on teammates . . . if they care to submit.
For right now, in a football way, he's enjoying himself. Cutting hair can wait.