The Case for the Defense (CFL): Willie Pless

The Case for the Defense (CFL): Willie Pless
Reading Time: 3 minutes.

The Case for the Defense: Willie Pless.

CFL Free agency has been busy again this year. Arguably the biggest signing has been the Winnipeg Blue Bombers retaining Outstanding defensive player of the year Willie Jefferson.

All of which got me to thinking. We have run a series on all time great CFL special teams players in the past.*

At the same time offensive players tend to be the focus for a lot of fans. Just look at the whole QB switches from last years’ Free Agency for example. The same has been happening this year & that is where people often focus – with good cause.

But I think in honour of Willie Jefferson being perhaps the biggest name this time around, we should focus on some defensive greats. The only CFL defensive great we have looked at on the site so far is Grover Covington, so it is time to redress the balance a little.

To that end we are starting with the reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player’s namesake: Willie Pless of the Edmonton Eskimos.

In a fourteen year career from 1986 to 1999, Willie Pless established himself as possibly one of the best linebackers to ever play in the CFL.

Once an Eskimo

Willie Pless played for 4 different CFL teams. During his 14-year career he played 250 regular season games with those teams.

During four years with the Argos, he was named All-Eastern twice, All-Canadian twice, and the Most Outstanding rookie in the Eastern Division.

In 1990, he was traded to the BC Lions and was named All-Western as well as All-Canadian.

At the end of his career he spent one season in Saskatchewan and was named the teams most Outstanding Defensive Player, and named All-Western once again.

Wherever he went there was success.

However he is mostly remembered for his time in Edmonton. It was there that he earned an unprecedented five CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player awards.

A raft of Esks defensive records still have Pless’ stamp on them too. They include, Most Defensive Tackles – Career (813), Most Defensive Tackles – Season (117) – 1998, Most Fumble Returns – Career (26), Most Fumble Returns – Season (8) – 1992, Most Fumble Returns – Game (3) – 2 times, & Most Tackles for Losses – Career (41).

Pless in Edmonton was the dominant defensive player in the CFL from 1991 to 1998. Over that period he was named All-Canadian for all eight years and won five outstanding defensive player awards including four in a row from 1994 to 1997.

The Stats for Willie Pless’ full career

At the time of his retirement, Pless finished as the CFL leader in tackles with 1241 and playoff tackles with 88. Records that still stand.

Seven times, Pless recorded 100 or more defensive tackles. He had 84 career sacks, 39 career interceptions and 39 career fumble recoveries. 

He also picked up a Grey Cup ring as champion being part of an Esks team that won the ’93 Grey Cup.

Year Team GP T ST Total TFL Yds KD Sacks Yds
1986 TOR 12 3
1987 TOR 16 93 0 93 7
1988 TOR 18 96 0 96 6
1989 TOR 5 30 0 30 0
1990 BC 18 107 0 107 4
1991 EDM 18 84 20 104 5 23 8
1992 EDM 18 110 11 121 5 24 8 38
1993 EDM 16 77 3 80 4 7 9 43
1994 EDM 18 113 1 114 7 18 5 35
1995 EDM 18 100 1 101 6 11 4 22
1996 EDM 18 96 0 96 5 8 8 49
1997 EDM 18 116 0 116 5 9 7 20
1998 EDM 18 117 0 117 4 12 8 53
1999 SASK 18 102 0 102 2 2 1 7 5

The Awards

Pless was named a CFL All-Star on 11 occasions (1986, 1988 & 1991-98) CFL Western Division All-Star 8 times (1990-1994 & 1996-98), and CFL East Division All-Star twice (1986 & 1988).

Being named Most Outstanding Defensive Player once is great, multiple times is an accolade. However, Willie Pless was named Defensive MOP an astonishing 5 times (1992, 1994-97) each time as a member of the Esks.

He has a place on the Eskimos Wall of Honour. As well as being a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

*This included the likes of Pinball Clemons, Henry ‘Gizmo’ WilliamsLui Passaglia, Bob Cameron, & Dave Cutler. Go take a look if you are interested!

Banner image: Willie Pless on a trading card from his playing days in Edmonton. Image from:

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