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Pringle found fame in Canadian game

September 15, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Life, as the late John Lennon famously put it, is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Witness Mike Pringle.

While focused on impressing the NFL, the former Granada Hills Kennedy High and Cal State Fullerton running back just happened to run for more yards than any other player in Canadian Football League history.

He set records.

He won championships.

He twice was named the CFL's most outstanding player.

He had his number retired.

Pringle never did make it back to the NFL -- as a rookie, he'd played in three games with the Atlanta Falcons in 1990 -- but Saturday in Hamilton, Canada, the greatest runner in CFL history will be inducted along with four others, among them Doug Flutie, into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

"It's a tremendous honor," Pringle, 40, says from his home outside Atlanta. "I wrote down a lot of my goals when I was younger and I achieved a lot of them, but I was never bold enough to write down 'Hall of Fame.' "

Neither did he write, "Play in CFL," but the Sylmar native says the NFL's tepid interest only fueled his drive through 13 CFL seasons.

"I always had a chip on my shoulder," says Pringle, a married father of two. "I was always trying to get back down to the NFL."

Instead, he wound up running for a CFL-record 16,425 yards and scoring a record-matching 137 touchdowns while playing for the Sacramento Gold Miners, Baltimore Stallions, Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos. In 1998, he rushed for a league-record 2,065 yards. He was a six-time CFL rushing champion, a seven-time all-star and won Grey Cup titles with the Stallions, Alouettes and Eskimos.

He retired in 2004 and in 2006 he finished fourth -- one spot ahead of Warren Moon -- in a survey to determine the top 50 players in CFL history.

It was a glorious run.

"A lot of people don't know about the CFL," says Pringle, a businessman whose holdings include an AAMCO transmission-repair franchise in Snellville, Ga. "But the players, the competitive aspect of the game, it's quality football. A lot of the former NFL players that go up there, they find that out very quickly."

Of course, Pringle had no clue before he arrived.

Though it would be inaccurate to say he had never even heard of the CFL before playing in it, it wouldn't be far from the truth.

As he noted, "When you grow up in the States, you never say, 'I'm going to be a great player someday for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.' "

Pringle, his sights set on the NFL after transferring from Washington State, rushed for 2,223 yards in two seasons at Fullerton and led the nation in all-purpose yardage as a senior in 1989.

In 1990, the Falcons made him a sixth-round draft pick.

Two years later, after being cut by the Falcons and helping the Sacramento Surge win a World League title in the spring of 1992, Pringle was a free agent trying out for the then-Los Angeles Raiders at their headquarters in El Segundo.

"I did everything I thought I was supposed to do," he says. "I went home and my agent called as soon as I walked in the door and said, 'You must have done a really good job because they were really impressed with you.' "

Several days passed, however, and the Raiders didn't call. Frustrated and impatient, Pringle bolted for Canada, signing with the Eskimos.

Two weeks later, the Raiders finally called -- too late.

Pringle, the CFL's most outstanding player in 1995, got a more extended look from the Denver Broncos in 1996, but that was the year Terrell Davis emerged as a yardage-gobbling force. Pringle, cut in camp, headed north again.

In the CFL, "he just pulverized guys," Alouettes General Manager Jim Popp says of the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Pringle. "He was Jerome Bettis in Barry Sanders' body, short and stocky with muscles flaring out of his back.

"I don't know if I've seen another player in this league that other players feared. Defensive backs didn't want to get in his way. They'd kind of be like bullfighters flashing the red cape at the bull, then they'd pull away when it was time to hit him. He was like a John Riggins or a Larry Csonka. He just rumbled."

Perhaps if he'd been bigger, Popp says, the NFL would have given Pringle a longer look and more readily recognized him as a power runner. Perhaps if he'd found the right system, he would have thrived.

"Could he have played in the NFL? Absolutely," Popp says. "But he would have had to find a person or team to accept what he was to allow him to be successful, almost like a Doug Flutie. . . .

"You had to allow Mike Pringle to be Mike Pringle."

In the NFL, no one did, but Pringle says that's OK.

"The fact that I was able to play football for a living for 15 years, I wouldn't change anything," he says. "If they said, 'You can have six years in the NFL instead of your entire career in the CFL,' I wouldn't take it. I love what I was able to accomplish, the people I met, the experiences. . . .

"I enjoyed myself. I really had a good time."


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