Ageless CFL Star Paul McCallum Didn't Let a Bad Kick Define His Career
Paul McCallum is one of the most accomplished kickers in CFL history. He almost lost it all in 2004 following a missed field goal in overtime of a playoff game.
Photo by John Woods-The Canadian Press
Paul McCallum had been pushed far enough. Everyone has a limit and he found his. He was upset with how he'd been treated, with blame he felt was undeserved. A football game is so much more than one play. One missed kick didn't warrant death threats. One missed kick didn't erase years of good ones.
So McCallum waited and watched. He waited from his car for the right moment, watching his target through the window. He'd figured out the identity of one of his tormentors and the business that person owned. He felt the baseball bat in his hand.
McCallum is 45 years old. He's long been the CFL's oldest player, having endured 22 seasons with a 23rd set to begin. But the sterling career of Canada's best kicker nearly ended prematurely over 10 years ago in a Regina parking lot as McCallum considered smashing up a property.
"I thought about, who cares, I'm going to go do this. And some people probably would have supported me for doing it. And some people, maybe I would have been the guy in jail," he says in retrospect.
He had reason to be angry. McCallum was the target of disgruntled Roughrider fans after he missed an 18-yard field goal in overtime of the 2004 West final that would have sent Saskatchewan to the Grey Cup. Instead, the Riders lost to the B.C. Lions. McCallum's house was vandalized and his safety was threatened.
He'd had enough. But then his phone rang. A friend called and begged McCallum to stay in his car. McCallum drove away.
"There's lots of things that go through your mind and your head like anything else," says McCallum. "But whatever, I didn't do it. Probably glad I didn't. Well, I am glad."
Consider what would have been lost if McCallum had left his car: two Grey Cup rings; a career that includes 3,015 points and 688 completed field goals, each second only behind the great Lui Passaglia; two CFL all-star selections; 30 consecutive field goals made in 2011; a league-record 62-yard field goal.
It's a career worth appreciating. It's a career that was never a sure thing from the start.
McCallum's parents, both Scottish immigrants, didn't allow him to play football as a kid. Soccer was his family's focus and McCallum progressed early. He played for the reserve team of the Vancouver 86ers—the precursor to the Vancouver Whitecaps—and after high school in Surrey, British Columbia, he travelled to Scotland to join his cousin, who played professionally.
His soccer career, however, ended before it began. McCallum didn't have a chance to play with a top-division team and wasn't interested in playing part-time. By chance, a new sport was waiting at home. The Surrey Rams, a junior football team, had lost their kicker and needed a replacement. McCallum filled the void and the job stuck.
He stayed with the Rams for three seasons, but didn't consider kicking as a career. He'd never watched football as a kid and the CFL wasn't on his radar. That changed after a team practice at B.C. Place Stadium. Bill Quinter, who died in 2014 at 74 after a long CFL career that included playing, coaching and managing, took notice of McCallum.
Quinter kept McCallum on the field after the rest of the team had left and the pair worked on kicking. McCallum doesn't remember the first time he kicked a football, but he remembers the first time someone said he should do it professionally.
"I remember (Quinter) saying if I want to I can do it," says McCallum. "So I thought, yeah, if he's telling me this and he should know. That just always stuck with me after that practice."
Going pro was easier said than done.
To get noticed, McCallum paid his own way to a junior evaluation camp in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1993. He caught the eye of then-Riders head coach Don Matthews, who wanted to sign him. Instead, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats put him on their negotiation list despite already having Paul Osbaldiston as their starting kicker-punter.
The Ticats soon released him and McCallum spent the next three years bouncing between teams as he waited for an opportunity to stick. While in B.C., he got a job driving para-transit, which he would do before going to practices with the Lions and Rams.
He remembers it as a time when he paid his dues. He also benefitted from having Passaglia as a mentor.
"(Passaglia) was the first one up and he was already running, he'd already run two miles by the time I got to practice," says McCallum. "He was always working, working hard at it. So for me that was one aspect. The other was he was always willing to help. He wasn't worried about me taking his job."
McCallum's soccer training also helped his development. A soccer ball is constantly being received, passed and shot at different angles and velocities. It's very rarely stationary, and when it is, even more accuracy is required. Kicking a motionless football, from his perspective, was always so much easier.
Now McCallum has a routine—four steps back and two steps left—when he is lining up a kick, but that wasn't always the case. In 1996, he was invited to a workout with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs where he was asked to kick off the ground and not a tee for the first time.
McCallum remembers the confusion of the placeholder when McCallum didn't take a position.
"I said I'm ready. He says, 'Where do you want the ball?' So I walked up and I put my toe where his shoe was on the ground and then I turned around and walked away from him. I didn't do any steps. And I went and stood. And he looked at me and he said, 'Are you for real? Are you kidding me?' And I said, 'Snap the ball!' So he snapped the ball and I hammered the ball through the posts."
McCallum repeated the kick several more times without missing. The Chiefs were interested but said he was too raw, so McCallum went to play a season in the World League of American Football—later known as NFL Europe—with the Scottish Claymores.
McCallum won the World Bowl with the Claymores and returned to Saskatchewan. A regular starting role finally opened for McCallum in the 1997 season after Dave Ridgway retired. The Riders went to the Grey Cup in '97, but got clobbered 47–23 by the Doug Flutie-led Toronto Argonauts. Still, McCallum had the job he'd longed for.
He almost left the CFL again for good in 2001. That was the year he went to play for Jim Criner, his old Claymores coach, with the Las Vegas Outlaws in the ill-fated XFL. Like many players, McCallum had hoped to use the XFL as a path to the NFL. He even happened to score the first points in XFL history. The Outlaws were going to give him an off-season job in sales and marketing that paid him more than his CFL wage.
"So I was actually just not going to play again in the CFL," says McCallum. "Then I got the fricken phone call from my buddy saying that the league folded, so I signed back with Saskatchewan."
In the years since the missed kick in 2004, it's easy to forget McCallum has already had his own moment of redemption. Maybe it's because the image of him collapsing to the turf in shock still somehow resonates. Maybe it's because someone dumped manure on his driveway afterward, which made his pain into a joke for the rest of Canada.
Still, McCallum's renaissance began with another slap in the face. After a middling season in 2005, the Riders offered to retain McCallum albeit with a 30 percent cut in pay. Instead, McCallum signed with the Lions for the 2006 campaign and somehow found himself back in the West final, again at B.C. Place Stadium, this time facing Saskatchewan.
There were no mistakes this time. McCallum hit five field goals, including one from 18 yards, as B.C. thrashed the Riders 45–18. That felt good, and maybe it would have been enough to give him some peace of mind.
But one week later, McCallum couldn't miss. He tied a Grey Cup record with six field goals and was named the game's Most Valuable Canadian after the Lions defeated the Montreal Alouettes, 25–14. Looking back, McCallum still thinks it was surreal.
"That game there to me was, from warmups to the end of the game, I was kind of just in a state of mind where I just didn't think anything," he says. "Just went and kicked the ball. It was bizarre."
In the years since, McCallum has remained with B.C. He had his best season in 2011, which ended with another Grey Cup ring, and has remained the Lions' best kicker several years after he'd been expected to make way for a successor.
That day is still coming, maybe even this season. When it does, McCallum will be at peace with it. He has two daughters he'd like to see more often. He'll be able to dedicate more time to his career as a real estate agent. For now, McCallum allows himself to just enjoy the game. It used to be he feared every missed kick. But then 2004, he says, "put everything into perspective."