February 2, 2024

The hands of time: Reflective Fantuz excited about Roughrider Foundation Winter Classic

Andy Fantuz is thinking outside the box.

“I got skates for Christmas two years ago,” he told Riderville.com on Thursday. “I just took them out of the box this week.”

Just in time for the 2024 Roughrider Foundation Winter Classic, which is to be held on Saturday in Saskatoon. The puck drops at 12:30 p.m., at Merlis Belsher Place on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

Fantuz, who starred at slotback for the Roughriders from 2006 to 2011 before spending the next six CFL seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is back in Saskatchewan as one of the featured players at the second annual charity hockey game.

“Brett Lauther reached out to me,” Fantuz said of the Roughriders’ placekicker, who played a key role in founding the Winter Classic.

“We became pretty good friends when he was in Hamilton during the early part of his career. He came over to my house a lot and he made a good impression on my wife. He was always very respectful and interested in how everybody else was doing.

“Brett reached out to us last year, actually. Both of us were really excited about the idea, but we had already booked a trip to go on a Disney cruise with other family members at the time of the Classic, so we weren’t able to make it last year.

“I just told him, ‘Make sure you let me know for next year, because I’m in.’ He got back to me for this year and I jumped all over it.”

The teams are to be captained by Lauther and Chris Getzlaf, the latter of whom was part of the Roughriders’ vaunted Canadian Air Force — a unit that also included Fantuz, Rob Bagg, Jason Clermont and an adopted Saskatchewanian, North Dakota-born fan favourite Weston Dressler.

Bagg and Lauther were the captains when the inaugural Winter Classic was held on March 14, 2023.

“The funny thing is that we were at the airport last year in Toronto and who did we run into? Rob Bagg,” Fantuz said with a laugh.

“He had his hockey equipment and he was off to Saskatchewan and we were off to Florida.”

It was a sign — not that Fantuz needed one.

“I love coming back to Saskatchewan — any part of Saskatchewan,” said Fantuz, who lives in Oakville, Ont., with his wife (Amanda) and two daughters (Abigail, 5, and Scarlett, 2).

“You know and I know that I still bleed green. I really enjoyed coming out there in 2021 for the Plaza of Honour and again for the Grey Cup the following year, so I’m just pumped to get out there.”

The mindset was comparable in the spring of 2006, when the former Western Mustangs sensation reported to the Roughriders for his first CFL training camp after being drafted third overall.

“When I got drafted to Saskatchewan, I was thrilled,” he recalled. “The Rider fans welcomed me right away with open arms.

“I can remember specific points in that first training camp of interacting with fans and hearing stories. It just felt like home right away for me.

“I really took to it, personally, and I think as Rider fans got to know me more, they found out that I am a very genuine person.

“I try to live a life where I give my all to anyone who deserves it, for lack of a better word. People welcomed me and they showed me that love.

“I wanted to reciprocate as best as I could. The little things would be staying late for autograph sessions and making sure I said hi to everybody after practice or after a game.

“If someone wanted to talk to me at the supermarket, I would give them the time.”

Some of the approaching grocery carts included boxes of Fantuz Flakes — a cereal that was released in 2010 in collaboration with Federation Co-operatives Limited. Proceeds from the sales ($10,000) were donated to the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan.

“I still have some boxes of the cereal and they still come up in conversation quite frequently,” he said. “I would say that at least 10 times a year, somebody talks about how they saw (Fantuz Flakes).
“Now that you reminded me, maybe I’ll bring a few flats out there, just in case.”

Fantuz was flat-out productive from the outset of his tenure in Saskatchewan.

Over 17 regular-season games as a second-year CFLer, he caught 56 passes for 978 yards and seven touchdowns.

Three of those majors were scored on Oct. 14, 2007, when he caught seven passes for 240 yards in a 40-23 victory over Hamilton at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown intersected quite nicely with location, location, location.

Fantuz hails from Chatham, Ont., which is within convenient driving distance of Hamilton, so the Roughriders’ games in southern Ontario were typically attended by several dozen family members and friends.

After that breakout game in 2007, Fantuz received a congratulatory message from Clermont, who was then with the B.C. Lions and at the peak of his playing career.

“That was cool,” Fantuz said. “He was my idol in my first year (in the CFL). I was watching him and studying him and thinking, ‘OK, how do I be like this guy?’

“For him to reach out to me privately in only my second year and congratulate me and say that he admires the way I play and approach the game and that he hears great things about me, that really meant a lot.

“That also meant a lot as far as my growth, to realize and respect that the players on the other teams are all still connected in a way. Even though we’re enemies on the field, we’re still colleagues and we’re on this path together.

“Of course, we ended up being teammates and really bonded well.”

Who knows? They may very well be teammates once more — in the Winter Classic. The lineups are to be announced on Friday night.

During Grey Cup week in 2007, Clermont became a second-time winner of the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award.

Three days later, Fantuz won a top-Canadian award of his own. He was decorated as the best national player in the 95th Grey Cup game after catching four passes for 70 yards and a touchdown as the Roughriders defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-19 in Toronto.

Fantuz caught a second Grey Cup touchdown pass in 2009, when the Roughriders suffered their first of two consecutive heartbreaking championship-game losses to the Montreal Alouettes.

In 2010, Fantuz emulated Clermont by earning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award. The Roughriders’ No. 83 was recognized after catching 87 passes for a league-high 1,380 yards.

On Sept. 17 of that year, Fantuz caught 10 passes for 255 yards in a 43-37 overtime victory over the visiting Calgary Stampeders.

Since that day, Fantuz has boasted two of the top four single-game receiving-yardage totals in franchise history.

Chris DeFrance established the enduring standard of 260 on Aug. 5, 1983 in Edmonton. Fantuz is next in line at 255.

Jeff Fairholm, with a 244-yarder against the host Toronto Argonauts on Sept. 26, 1992, is third. Fantuz’s 240-yarder from 2007 puts him in fourth spot all-time.

Fantuz parlayed his standout 2010 season into an NFL contract with the Chicago Bears. He returned to Saskatchewan in early September of 2011, only to have an ankle injury limit his participation to four games.

The following February, he signed with the Tiger-Cats — essentially his hometown team — as a free agent and spent six seasons in Hamilton.

He scored a career-high eight touchdowns as a first-year Tiger-Cat and followed up in 2013 by catching 65 passes for 896 yards in only 12 regular-season games.

In the 2013 East Division final, Fantuz caught 11 passes for 114 yards from a fellow ex-Roughrider, Henry Burris, and scored two touchdowns as Hamilton downed Toronto 36-24.

Next up for the Tiger-Cats of 2013 was a Grey Cup appearance at historic Mosaic Stadium — a venue that will always be near and dear to Fantuz’s heart.

He caught a game-high seven passes for 76 yards but, despite his best efforts, the Roughriders won 45-23 before 44,710 predominantly green-clad spectators.

“I honestly don’t know if I have been able to process it yet,” he reflected.

“I was cheering for Saskatchewan to make the Cup and I was obviously doing everything I could for Hamilton to make the Cup. We had an amazing game in the East final in Toronto and, personally, I had a big game as well.

“To come out there to Saskatchewan for the Grey Cup, it was very conflicting, I guess you could say.”

At the time, he was torn between allegiances past and present.

“Of course, I’m trying to win and doing everything I can to win, but I genuinely felt happy for the Rider fans and for my ex-teammates in that organization to be able to win, and especially to be able to win a Grey Cup at home for the first time,” Fantuz continued.

“It was a special moment. There’s really nothing else to say. The 2013 Roughriders were the class of the league and they deserved a championship.

“I felt really happy for guys like Darian Durant, who was on the team in 2007 but it really wasn’t his team.

“I felt happy for guys like Chris Getzlaf and Rob Bagg. Getz was on the team in 2007 but he wasn’t playing at the time. Rob made the team in 2007, but he went back to school and then he started in ’08.

“For guys like that, and guys like Weston Dressler who were part of the Canadian Air Force in the glory years, that era of football in Saskatchewan was very, very special. I’m so proud to be a small part of it.

“So, yeah, I was happy for all those guys. I was happy for the team and I was happy for the organization. I was sad for us. We came up short.

“The following year, we had a disappointing finish in the Grey Cup, so it was a similar path to what happened in ’09 and ’10 in Saskatchewan.”

When rival defensive backs attempted to impede Fantuz’s path, he routinely evaded them.

In 2016, at age 32, he amassed a career-best 101 receptions for 1,059 yards en route to being honored as the East’s Most Outstanding Canadian.

However, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament in the Tiger-Cats’ penultimate game of the 2016 season. He played in only three more games, all in 2017, before announcing his retirement from football on July 19, 2018.

Fantuz’s post-playing life has included a focus on his family, along with time spent training athletes, tutoring and mentoring students, and providing commentary on Tiger-Cats audio broadcasts.

And the accolades continue.

In 2021, he returned to Saskatchewan to be enshrined in the SaskTel Plaza of Honour, alongside Getzlaf, Paul J. Hill and Gabe Patterson.

This past December, Fantuz was among the inaugural inductees into the Football Ontario Hall of Fame.

Although he is instantly identifiable with the gridiron game, there is also a hockey connection.

He played the sport competitively until football became the emphasis in Grade 9.

“I was 13, playing on a travelling (hockey) team, and then I stopped playing,” Fantuz said. “I might have played one or two years of house league hockey in high school, just for fun.

“Since high school, I haven’t been on ice in an arena. Saturday will be the first time since high school.”

That is quite the extended hiatus from hockey.

“I did go on a pond, maybe in university, once or twice, but I hadn’t put on skates in 20 years,” said Fantuz, 40. “I got out on to an outdoor rink (in Oakville) this week to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself or get hurt.

“I wanted to get my daughters out there, too, so the first time I went skating, I was bent over, holding my two-year-old. That didn’t really help too much. I got out by myself one time so I could try to turn around a few times and stop and this and that.”

Well … how did it go?

“It was rough at the very beginning, but I got it back fairly quickly,” Fantuz concluded. “It’s kind of like riding a bike.

“I’m not going to say I’m very smooth, but I think I’m OK to go out there and have some fun.”