HAMILTON — Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach George Cortez now knows how many numbers he has to dial to reach Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, over the phone. Sixteen digits. And he knows how bad a conversation can sound over thousands of kilometres and an eight-hour time difference.
“It was like talking to someone in outer space,” Cortez said at a Friday news conference at the Ticats’ offices. “You would say something and then there would be a delay before he talked back.”
A connection was made nonetheless. Non-import receiver Andy Fantuz, the most coveted player in CFL free agency this year, spurned the chance to return to Saskatchewan and agreed to a reported four-year deal with Hamilton. Fantuz reportedly received a six-figure signing bonus, and will be paid $190,000 a year.
“[Fantuz] catches the ball as good as I’ve ever seen anybody catch it up here,” Cortez said when he met with reporters. “He is a more physical player than anybody realizes, and he will fit in with our plans are pretty well.”
Fantuz, who is in Zanzibar but expected to be introduced to the media in Hamilton on Tuesday, posted his reaction early in the morning on Twitter, where his profile picture is him wearing a mocked-up black and gold No. 83 jersey.
“Strange to feel heart broken and thrilled at the same time,” the tweet from the 28-year-old Chatham, Ont., native read. “Love you forever #Ridernation! Western Ontario I’m coming HOME!”
The Leader-Post in Regina reported Saskatchewan general manager Brendan Taman did not know Fantuz’s final decision until late morning, during Gene Makowsky’s retirement press conference.
“We wanted him back,” Taman said, “but we’ve got to move on. It’s one of those things that happens in this business.”
Despite a slow first day of free agency Wednesday, it appeared Hamilton was the front-runner after owner Bob Young posted a curious tweet about Fantuz’s African trip, and Young’s desire to go on safari to “bag a big Cat.”
But apparently Saskatchewan was aggressively trying to re-sign the 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver, who played in three Grey Cups with the Roughriders, winning the title in 2007 as the game’s valuable Canadian. One of his agents told the Leader-Post Thursday a decision would come Monday. But then Young, who refers to himself as Hamilton’s “caretaker,” entered the narrative again, tweeting Friday morning the Ticats told him Diddy’s song Coming Home, should be his new favourite.
Fantuz, who has 4,311 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns over his four-year career, had his best season in 2010, when he made 87 catches for 1,380 receiving yards. He was named the 2010 Most Outstanding Canadian in the league. Last season was unfortunate; Fantuz was released from the Chicago Bears and played only four games with Saskatchewan because of an ankle injury.
Cortez, who was on the Roughriders coaching staff when Fantuz was a rookie in 2006, is unconcerned.
“The year I was around him, I don’t think I saw him drop a ball,” Cortez said.
And the coach is even less concerned with how quarterback Henry Burris will spread the ball to Fantuz and Hamilton’s other receivers. On paper, the Ticats have one of the best receiving corps, with rookie of the year Chris Williams, Bakari Grant, recently signed Terence Jeffers-Harris and non-import veteran Dave Stala. Cortez will begin shaping the offence during mini-camps in April.
“If we had more than one ball, they would all be more excited. There is only one them and we can only throw to one guy at a time,” Cortez said. “We had Allen Pitts and Dave Sapunjis on the field at the same time; Allen Pitts and Travis Moore and Vince Danielson [when Cortez was in Calgary in the early ’90s] on the field at one time.
“They all understand they will get their chances. The offence is receiver friendly.”
Cortez also said their are “more announcements to come.” On the surface it appears Fantuz and Burris’s six-figure contracts will take a big bite out of Hamilton’s $4.35-million cap. But general manager Bob O’Billovich said last week Hamilton is still looking to bolster its defensive and offensive lines and sign a kicker.
But money is not an unimportant issue for Cortez, and neither are any of the other reasons why Fantuz decided to move east.
“We talked about football,” Cortez said about his conversation with Fantuz. “Ultimately, besides money, that is what matters.”