Tiger-Cats sign free agent SB Fantuz to four-year deal

The Canadian Press
2/17/2012 10:47:25 PM
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Suddenly, George Cortez is facing a bit of a dilemma.

On Friday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats agreed to terms on a four-year contract with all-star slotback Andy Fantuz, one of the CFL's prized free agents.

Fantuz, the CFL's top Canadian in 2010, will anchor a promising receiving corps in Hamilton with veteran Canadian slotback Dave Stala and impressive wideouts Chris Williams, Aaron Kelly and Bakari Grant. And with the arrival of quarterback Henry Burris, the Ticats could boast one of the CFL's top passing attacks this season.

All of which gives Cortez, the Ticats first-year head coach who will also serve as offensive co-ordinator, a very pleasant problem to deal with.

"There is only one ball and we won't be able to throw it to two guys on one play," he said with a chuckle. "But I don't think that will be a problem, I think they'll understand everybody in the offence is going to get their opportunities and sometimes you just have to be patient."

Fantuz is currently on vacation in Africa, but took to Twitter to confirm his decision to return to southern Ontario.

"Strange to feel heartbroken and thrilled at the same time," Fantuz tweeted. "Love you forever Ridernation! Western Ontario I'm coming HOME!"

Financial details weren't available but a league source said Fantuz received a six-figure signing bonus from Hamilton and will earn a base salary of $180,000 per season. Fantuz was scheduled to earn a $150,000 base salary last year with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, a stipend that ended up being pro-rated as he missed the first half of the year while on an NFL tryout.

Fantuz was limited to just 13 catches for 175 yards in four games with Saskatchewan last season, hampered by an ankle injury after being released by the NFL's Chicago Bears and returning to the Riders. But he enjoyed his best CFL season in 2010, registering 87 catches for 1,380 yards.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound receiver had spent the last six seasons with Saskatchewan, who selected Fantuz in the first round of the 2006 CFL Canadian college draft.

But the 28-year-old native of Chatham, Ont., became a free agent Wednesday and opted to sign with Hamilton and play closer to his family and friends.

"After a very difficult deliberation process, the opportunity to play for my local team, in front of family and friends, was impossible to refuse," Fantuz said in a statement released by the Ticats. "While Rider Pride will always be a part of me, it's time to head to Tigertown. Hamilton has a great tradition of football excellence and I am thrilled to be a part of a team that will immediately challenge for a Grey Cup. I look forward to getting to know my new teammates and representing the Tiger-Cats in southwestern Ontario."

Fantuz also had a word for the organization he was leaving behind.

"I want to thank the Riders organization, my teammates and, especially, the people of Saskatchewan," said Fantuz. "My experience there was unforgettable and I am so proud to have been able to represent the Rider fans. I wish you nothing but the best and hope that you will do the same for me in return."

Fantuz played his college football at Western Ontario in London before starting his CFL career in Regina.

Cortez served as Saskatchewan's offensive co-ordinator in 2006 and coached Fantuz as a rookie. Although Fantuz played sparingly that season, Cortez said he could see Fantuz's potential in practice.

"In my year there, I don't ever remember him dropping a ball in practice," Cortez said. "He's a more physical player than people know and fits well into what we want to do.

"He's the kind of player you'd like to have on your team."

And Cortez expects Fantuz to be a big part of Hamilton's offence lining up at the inside slot.

"A lot of the offence runs through the position," Cortez said. "He'll get a lot of opportunities to catch the ball.

"He's been a force pretty in the league wherever he's had the opportunity to go get the ball. He's a threat down the field, he's a threat intermediately.

Friday wasn't a good day for Saskatchewan fans as longtime Riders offensive lineman Gene Makowsky announced his retirement after an illustrious 17-year career.

Fantuz and former Winnipeg offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte were regarded as the top two available players in CFL free agency. On Thursday, LaBatte, a native of Weyburn, Sask., also opted to play closer to home, signing with the Roughriders after spending his first four CFL seasons with Winnipeg.

Fantuz's departure will hurt the Riders' receiving corps but certainly won't cripple it. Canadian Chris Getzlaf led the team with 60 catches for 1,071 yards while American Weston Dressler is among the league's best. Canuck Rob Bagg had 59 catches for 807 yards and five TDs in '09 but did miss all of last year with a knee injury.

Fantuz had 289 catches for 4,311 yards and 23 TDs during his time with the Roughriders. He also helped Saskatchewan capture the '07 Grey Cup, being named the top Canadian in the club's win over Winnipeg with four catches for 70 yards and a TD. Overall, Fantuz made three Grey Cup appearances with the franchise.

"The opportunity to acquire a talent like Andy Fantuz in the prime of his career doesn't happen very often," said Ticats GM Bob O'Billovich. "It's great news for our players and our fans in Tigertown and I know (new head coach George) Cortez is excited to get Andy on the field with our talented group of offensive players."

During his time at Western, Fantuz set CIS and OUA records for career receiving yards (4,123), single-season receiving yards (1,300 in 2002), career receptions (189) and career TD catches.

He also claimed the Hec Crighton award as Canadian university football's top player in 2005.

The addition of Fantuz adds to what has already been an active off-season by the Ticats, who hired Cortez and acquired Burris from the Calgary Stampeders.

Hamilton finished third in the East Division standings last season with an 8-10 record, but dispatched defending champion Montreal in the conference semifinal before losing 19-3 to Winnipeg in the division final.

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