Josh Johnson always had his sights set on the NFL. The former Pasco High standout completed his four seasons as a defensive back at Purdue in 2012 and was invited to Chargers camp in 2013 as an undrafted free agent.
But he was released before the season started. Not quite ready to give up on football, Johnson needed a place to play. He was told the Canadian Football League's British Columbia Lions were interested.
He had only one thought.
Oh … Canada?
"I didn't really know anything about it," Johnson said. "I heard BC wanted me to play for them, so I did a little research on the league. It's a long way from home, but I'm used to that. It's still football."
Johnson is one of several former Tampa Bay area high school stars who have found their way north of the border.
There are at least 10 on CFL rosters — nine teams comprise the league — and a few more on practice squads. Notables include former Plant quarterback Robert Marve (Winnipeg), former Hillsborough High players Jarred Fayson (Toronto) and Lindsey Lamar (Hamilton), and former St. Petersburg Catholic running back Jock Sanders (Calgary).
Sanders starred as a running back and receiver at West Virginia from 2007-10, where he racked up 2,602 total yards. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bucs in 2011 but released near the end of the preseason.
He hooked up with B.C. later that year and has been in the CFL since. This is his first season with the Stampeders. He was recently named the league's special teams player of the week after he returned a missed field goal 112 yards to set up a touchdown. (CFL end zones are 20 yards deep.)
Sanders is a long way from St. Petersburg. He never imagined he would be playing football in a country that puts hockey above all else.
"Of course I didn't," he said. "Your ultimate dream is always the NFL. I'm not completely settled here because I want to get back to the NFL. I'm fairly young (26), so I feel I still have a shot. That window isn't shut. You never know what can happen."
The locals could end up like former Dunedin star Michael "Pinball'' Clemons. Clemons played 12 years in the CFL with Toronto and went on to coach it. He currently is its vice chairman and one of the most popular figures in team history.
But for every Clemons, or former CFL turned NFL players such as Warren Moon and Doug Flutie, there are hundreds who will never play a down in the NFL. Sanders and Johnson, 24, say they aren't thinking about careers in the CFL just yet.
"(The NFL) is my goal," Johnson said. "At the end of the day, this is still football. If I play well enough up here, then I would like another shot at the NFL. But if I'm still playing in the CFL, that's fine, too. I just want to play football."
Johnson and his fellow players are now being seen much more. The CFL recently signed a five-year agreement with ESPN for U.S. television rights. The deal guarantees 17 games will air live on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNews. ESPN will air the Grey Cup (CFL's version of the Super Bowl) live. An additional 69 games will be shown online on ESPN3.
For ESPN, it is a chance to feed the football beast during the summer.
"Since the early days of ESPN, CFL games have been a valued part of our programming lineup," Burke Magnus, senior vice president of programming acquisitions, said in a statement. "I'm proud to see our relationship continue as we strive to serve football fans 365 days a year."
For the CFL, it means increased exposure.
"I'm not one of those players who has to be on TV," Johnson said. "But it is nice to know that we'll be on more than ESPN3. More people can see us play, and that's good for the league."
It could also bring more understanding of the game.
"It's still football, and I don't think people really understand that in the States," Sanders said. "That's why I'm glad there will be more games televised on ESPN. They can get familiar with the game and realize it's still football at the end of the day."
But it's not the NFL.
The rookie minimum salary is $50,000, and the average overall salary is about $80,000. Even though some of the season takes place during in the summer, it stretches into November, when it can be very cold.
"(British Columbia) has a dome," Johnson said. "I didn't know that when I got here, but I'm glad it does.
"I can play in the cold, but I still have some Florida in me. I'd rather be warm."
The goal of most high school players is not the CFL. But for a group of former area standouts, it is a chance to keep the football dream alive.
"We're not getting paid much up here, so we all have that hunger," Sanders said. "We're trying to make the most of our opportunity so we can get back to the big bucks."
Contact Rodney Page at [email protected] Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.