With one play, Simoni Lawrence changed the path of Cody Fajardo’s CFL career.
Fajardo entered the 2019 season as Saskatchewan’s backup and short-yardage quarterback behind Zach Collaros. But the 28-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after just three plays in the Roughriders’ season-opening 23-17 road loss in Hamilton when Lawrence’s hit to Collaros’s head landed the quarterback on the injured list and Lawrence a two-game suspension.
Fajardo, who’d previously been with Toronto (2015-17) and B.C. (2018), stepped in and took control of the offence, helping Saskatchewan (13-5) finish atop the West Division standings. With the six-foot-two, 215-pound Fajardo excelling, the Riders dealt Collaros to Toronto on July 31.
But the story doesn’t end there. Toronto eventually sent Collaros to Winnipeg, where he helped lead the Blue Bombers past Hamilton – and Lawrence — 33-12 in the Grey Cup game for the franchise’s first CFL title since 1990.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I just sat as a backup all year and didn’t have a chance to play,” Fajardo said during a Grey Cup Unite players videoconference Thursday with none other than Lawrence and Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. “How many guys are going to take a chance on a 28-year-old short-yardage quarterback?
“I really don’t know, I might be out of the league to tell you the truth. Just getting my first opportunity in six years was actually a blessing for me to go out there and play football again.”
Fajardo said the situation was unique in that all three principles excelled as a result.
“I think all three players in such an interesting situation all won,” he said. “I was able to sign a lucrative contract to be a franchise quarterback, Zach Collaros goes off and wins the Grey Cup and my man Simoni has a great year playing football.
“That’s just one of those things, that rare occasion where something that could’ve been so bad actually turned out to be a positive.”
The gregarious Lawrence, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind on the field, led the league with a career-high 98 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions in 15 regular-season games. He was named the East Division’s top defensive player, but was runner-up to Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson for the league honour.
“I’m just glad everybody is OK from it and got what they wanted,” Lawrence said. “To speak for myself, if the play didn’t happen I probably would’ve got defensive player of the year.”
Fajardo remains under contract with Saskatchewan through the ‘21 season. But head coach Craig Dickenson made it clear Wednesday he’d like to see Fajardo, the West Division’s outstanding player in 2019 and CFL all-star, signed to a long-term deal.
“He’s certainly our franchise quarterback and the leader on our offence,” Dickenson told reporters during a videoconference. “We’re going to make sure that we have him signed up for the long-term.”
That’s certainly music to Fajardo’s ears.
”It’s just good to hear the echoing from management and the head coach saying they like me as a franchise quarterback,” said Fajardo. “Once there’s a commitment to play and we finally know that there will be a 2021 CFL season, I can see the talks creating some heat and interacting a little more.”
In August, the CFL cancelled its plans for an abbreviated ‘20 season in Winnipeg due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s Grey Cup game was slated for Regina but the city will now host the 2022 contest.
While very disappointed to not play this season. Fajardo said the extended time off hasn’t been all bad.
“I guess the biggest silver lining to the whole thing is having my body recover for a full year,” he said. “I haven’t had that happen since I started playing football when I was six years old.”
Earlier this week, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie expressed optimism that the league will be able to resume play in 2021. And if that happens, Fajardo expects action to heat up quickly.
“It’s going to be crazy to see the first couple of games in the CFL next year,” he said. “Guys are going to be so excited to compete, you’re going to see everyone giving all effort every single play like it’s a playoff game and we’re going to be in Week 1.
“I think it will be very exciting for fans, media, everyone around the league to watch this great product.”
“If you thought Simoni talked a lot before, just wait for that first game he gets out there (in 2021),” he said with a chuckle.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press