Inside the CFL: Cody Fajardo bounces back from demons, criticism in Saskatchewan

QB has made the best of a second chance in Montreal, leading the Alouettes to Saturday afternoon’s division final at Toronto.

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When Cody Fajardo decided at a young age football was his sport, he quickly focused on being a quarterback as his future calling, simply because he wanted the ball in his hands every play.

But last season, when he was ridden out of Regina because his supposed inconsistent play led to Saskatchewan’s 6-12 record, Fajardo might have questioned why he hadn’t contemplated a different position.

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No place in the CFL is a player more conspicuous than Saskatchewan. And that attention is directed squarely on the quarterback.

“Being the starting quarterback in Saskatchewan probably is one of the hardest positions in all of Canadian sports,” Fajardo, who signed with the Alouettes as a free agent last February, told the Montreal Gazette this week. “There’s a lot of eyes on you. It didn’t matter how I played. There was always going to be somebody that had a negative, or positive, opinion. Especially when we weren’t winning. There was a lot of negative energy.”

The Roughriders finished last season with seven consecutive defeats and missed the playoffs.

In 2022, Fajardo completed 282 of 401 passes for 3,360 yards and 16 touchdowns while being intercepted 13 times. He played most of the season with a brace on his left knee, the result of ligament damage that reduced his mobility. But that mattered little to his critics, of which there were many. And, it could be argued, the sensitive Fajardo didn’t handle the criticism all that well, either.

When he was benched for the Roughriders’ final two games, the writing was on the wall — his three-year tenure with Saskatchewan was clearly ending, even though that was the only time he was completely healthy.

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“Cody’s an emotional person and he’s passionate about what he does,” said Alouettes head coach Jason Maas, who was the Riders’ offensive co-ordinator in 2022 until being fired at season’s end. “Any time you’re told you don’t have an opportunity to play, we’re going with somebody else, it’s devastating, particularly with what he worked through. When he worked so hard and finally was healthy and somebody says: ‘Nope, you’re not good enough, we don’t believe in you enough to win these next two games to go to the playoffs.’ I think that was hard on him. It was hard on me as his coach because I believed in him.

“Ultimately, it’s what drives everyone. When someone doesn’t believe in you, you should always look in the mirror. There’s a reason. If you look at that, understand it and work to get better, that’s the best course of action. I think that’s what Cody did. He needed a second chance. We were thankfully there to give it to him and he made the most of it.”

Every quarterback who plays for Montreal will forever be compared to the legendary Anthony Calvillo, who won three Grey Cups and passed for nearly 80,000 yards over his 20-year CFL career before retiring in 2013. No quarterback will ever measure up to that lofty status, Fajardo included.

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But in the long string of Montreal quarterbacks that have followed Calvillo, Fajardo was far from the worst. He passed for 3,847 yards in 15 full games and his 71.6 completion percentage was tops in the league. While his ratio of 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions was pedestrian, so, too, it can said the playmakers surrounding him — receiver Austin Mack and tailback William Stanback the possible exceptions — hardly strike fear into opponents. Fajardo also was often running for his life behind an offensive line that struggled at times.

But Fajardo played without fear, gaining 341 yards on 57 carries — second in rushing behind Stanback — while scoring three touchdowns. Never was Fajardo’s drive and competitive nature more apparent than during last Saturday’s East Division semifinal victory over Hamilton when he gained 62 yards on only four carries.

Fajardo has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, doing everything required of a starting quarterback — including 6 a.m. arrivals at Olympic Stadium to begin meetings and film review. All the while being mostly being separated from his wife, Laura, and 13-month-old son Luca, who remain at the family’s southern California home. He is enjoying the more anonymous life he can live in Montreal at the Point-St-Charles condo he rents.

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At age 31, the 6-foot-2, 226-pounder has come to realize he no longer has to attempt to win alone. Managing games and not turning the ball over, or trying to carry a team on his shoulders, will suffice.

“I don’t put too much pressure on myself anymore,” he said. “I spent so much energy trying to make everybody like me and be positive with me; giving everybody an opportunity to state, and change, their opinion. It was exhausting to me.

“I can be a franchise quarterback, somebody you can put out there and be proud of. I proved I can win games in this league.”

There’s one more immediate hurdle for Fajardo to climb — Saturday afternoon’s division final at Toronto. He never has made it to the Grey Cup as a starter. Nobody remembers quarterbacks who play to finish 9-9, or even 11-7 teams. Their legacies are defined by championships.

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