Rushing Yards: The CFL’s Milestone Seasons
We are well into the 2023 CFL season now. As with every year, new marks are being set. They might be a player going fifth on the all-time rushing list, passing Charles Roberts. Or a more unwanted record, like the Edmonton Elks current record run of not having won at home since October the 12th 2019 when they defeated the BC Lions 19-6. An active all-time record of misery for their fans.
But whatever is happening now around this great league, whatever records are being created, it is also good to celebrate its history. Which got me to thinking. First off we looked at the milestone passing seasons in the CFL. Now it is time to take a look at the men who broek through the barriers on the ground.
Where in time to start
To be clear, I don’t mean every time the rushing yardage record was broken. Rather, each time a milestone was breached. Like the first recorded yardage leader. Or the first time someone ran for 900, 1,000, 1,110 yards season and so on in the CFL.
We need to remember that the CFL was only founded officially in 1958. Because of this, even though the Grey Cup has been contested since 1909, we have to start this list in the 1950’s. When dealing with players who played in the CFL we only get statistics dating back to 1950 for the WIFU (West) and 1954 for the IRFU (East). Which means we will start with a WIFU passer from 1950 and go from there. Which means we start in Winnipeg.
1950: Tom Casey – 637 yards
111 carries for 637 yards, 6 touchdowns, 5.7 yards per carry.
According to Wikipedia this is where the records start. There may be better historians of the game who could make a case for starting earlier. But based on the information to hand we are starting with Tom Casey.
Tom Casey was a great two-way players from the 1950s. Prior to being in the CFL he spent a year with the New York Yankees of the AAFC in 1948. Then in 1948 he was a Hamilton Wildcat. But his reall success came with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
He was a Western All-Star for six consecutive seasons from 1950 to 1955. Those awards came between 1950 and 1952 as a running back and from 1953-55 as a defensive back. It was as a running back in 1950 that he set the first mark – 637 yards at 5.7 yards, making him the leading rusher in the WIFU.
Casey made it to the Grey Cup in 1950 and 1953 but never won a ring. He is enshrined in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
1951: Normie Kwong – 933 yards
178 carries for 933 yards, 8 touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry.
One year later Casey would see his record broken by Normie Kwong. This one skipped over the 700 & 800 yard barriers and added 296 yards to the milestone limit.
Kwong had started his career in 1948 with Calgary and played three seasons with them before moving to Edmonton for the 1951 season. There were no individual statistics kept his first two years in the league, but when he arrived in Edmonton he had an immediate impact. Because he increased from the 254 yards he had with Calgary the year before to this new milestone rushing mark.
1954: Howard Waugh – 1,043 yards
166 carries for 1,043 yards, 7 touchdowns, 6.3 yards per carry.
Waugh joined the Calgary Stampeders in 1954 and in his first season became the first back to breach the 1,000 yards rushing barrier in CFL history. He then promptly left for two years military service. Serving in the U.S. Air Force where he rose to the rank of lieutenant.
He would return in 1957 and added 499 yards to end his Canadian football career. Waugh wasn’t with the Stampeders very long appearing in a total of 24 games. He played 14 games in 1954 and 10 in 1957. Worth noting then that he broke over 1,000 yards whilst not playng in two games that season too.
1955: 1,250 yards Normie Kwong
241 carries for 1,250 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry.
You can tell these were newly kept records in the 1950’s because the record, and milestone marks keep getting pushed forward year on year. In fact from 1955 to 1958, two legends of the game would really accelarate the single season rushing record, and push the mark past the 1,200, 1,400, 1,600, and 1,700 yards in a single season milestone rushing marks.
First to do that was Normie Kwong in 1955. This was in the midst of the Edmonton Eskimos dynasty that won three consecutive Grey Cups between 1954 and 1956.
1956: 1,437 yards Normie Kwong
232 carries for 1,437 yards, 5 touchdowns, 6.2 yards per carry.
Kwong was back again, extending his own record, and breaking the 1,400 yards milestone. The Esks would win their final Grey Cup of the three year run at the end of the season, with Kwong, Jackie Parker, Rollie Miles and Johnny Bright in the backfield combining for 451 yards rushing.
1957: 1,679 yards Johnny Bright
259 carries for 1,679 yards, 16 touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry.
You can’t mention Johnny Bright without mentioning the abomination that was the ‘Johnny Bright Incident’. Especially because we don’t want to pretned things haven’t happened. You can read more about it here.
By 1957 however, Bright was a three time Grey Cup champion, who was about to go on a five year run as a workhorse for Edmonton. In 1957 he set a new record for yards, and his 16 touchdowns in a single season were a career high.
1958: 1,722 yards, Johnny Bright
296 carries for 1,722 yards, 8 touchdowns, 5.8 yards per carry.
This was possibly Bright’s best year as a running back. He had nine 100 yard rushing games, as well as setting a single season yardage record that would stand for some time.
Funnily enough though, he would be named league MOP in 1959, when he rushed for almost 400 yards less over the season.
Bright rushed for 10,909 yards in 13 seasons, had five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and led the CFL in rushing four times. He retired as, at the time, the CFL all-time leading rusher. That may have been surpassed but you can see the impact his time in Emdonton had beacuase he still owns many of their records. Including most rushing yards in a career: 9,966, most rushing yards in a season: 1,722, most 100-yard games in a career: 36, and Most 100-yard games in a season: 9.
1975: 1,896 yards Willie Burden
332 carries for 1,896 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.7 yards per carry.
Johnny Bright’s record from 1958 had been surpassed in 1961 when Earl ‘Earthquake’ Lunsford rushed for 1,794 yards. This made him officially the first back to carry the ball for a mile in a single season. But, he did not break the 1,800 yards milestone barrier. That came 17 years after Johnny Bright’s last milestone rushing season when Burden almost hit 1,900 yards.
Burden was with the Calgary Stampeders from 1974 to 1981, but this, his second season in read and white, was far and away his best. He set the CFL record with 2,127 yards from scrimmage and led the league with 2,387 all-purpose yards and 15 total touchdowns. For his efforts he was voted CFL MOP.
He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2001.
1994: 1,972 yards Mike Pringle
306 carries for 1,972 yards, 13 touchdowns, 6.4 yards per carry
Mike Pringle was twice named CFL MOP, but this was not one of those occasions. (He scooped the award in 1995 and 1998). Despite that, this is a year when Mike Pringle set the CFL record for yards from scrimmage in a single season. His 1,972 yards rushing were supplemented by 442 yard receiving totalling 2,414 yards from scrimmage.
After being released by the Falcons in 1991 he joined the Sacramento Surge of the WLAF. Whilst with the Surge in 1992 he would win a World Bowl title. A training camp with the LA Raiders didn’t result in anything. But Pringle did make his first step into the CFL. Having signed for Edmonton however he was used sparingly.
The arrival of the short lived US expansion era in the CFL provided Mike Pringle with another opportunity. One he would go on to take with both hands.
Pringle signed as a free agent with the expansion Sacramento Gold Miners for the 1993 season. With the Gold Miners, Pringle appeared in all 18 games and was used more as a receiver out of the backfield than a runner. He carried the ball only 60 times for 368 yards, but caught the ball 56 times for 523 yards.
As part of a trade the next stop for Mike Pringle was with the Baltimore Stallions. In 1994, his third season in the CFL, and first in Baltimore, Pringle saw his career take off in a big way. He followed that up in 1995 by rushing for 1,791 yards. In his two seasons in Stallions colours he had 617 carries for 3,763 yards, (6 yards per carry), and 26 touchdowns.
1998: 2,065 yards Mike Pringle
347 carries for 2,064 yards, 9 Touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry
This remains the only 2,000 yards rushing season in CFL history. Pringle added 26 catches for 349 yards. This gave him 2,414 yards from scrimmage on the season. Mathcing his own CFL single season record from 1994.
At his retirement, Mike Pringle was the all-time leading rusher in CFL history. He still holds the record, 16,425 yards rushing, as well as the record for most yards from scrimmage (20,255).
Pringle won the Grey Cup on 3 occasions (1995, 2002 & 2003). They were all with the same franchise and the latter two were won under the Alouettes banner. However the ’95 win was with the Stallions – the only time a US based team has won the CFL title.
Mike Pringle was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame following a career that saw him run through 13 seasons in the CFL averaging 1,263 yards per year.
Banner Image: Mike Pringle with the Montreal Alouettes. he carried the load for several different teams during a legendary CFL career.