Traveling a long distance to play football has been rewarding for Jonathon Jennings and Kenny Stafford.
Jennings, the starting quarterback for the British Columbia Lions, and Stafford, a wide receiver for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, are two of six players from central Ohio currently in the Canadian Football League.
Jennings, a 2010 Westerville South High School graduate, and Stafford, a 2008 DeSales graduate, must travel approximately 38 and 18 hours, respectively, by car to reach their teams' cities. But the itch to play professionally has made that distance and their time away from home worth it.
"The competition level is phenomenal," Jennings said. "A lot of people don't understand that. It's really fun and enjoyable."
The other players from central Ohio are Beechcroft graduate Chip Cox and Westerville South graduate B.J. Cunningham of the Montreal Alouettes, Westerville South graduate Nick Moore of the Lions and Whetstone graduate Akwasi Owusu-Ansah of the Toronto Argonauts. Cox is a linebacker, Cunningham and Moore are wide receivers and Owusu-Ansah is a defensive back.
The CFL is comprised of nine teams.
While the Alouettes, Argonauts and Lions each opened their seasons in late June, the Blue Bombers play their opener Saturday, July 1, against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Montreal and B.C. play against each other July 6.
A year ago, 18 regular-season games in the CFL and two playoff games, including the Grey Cup, were televised on ESPN2 or ESPNEWS, and numerous others were televised on ESPN3.
"It's a good, competitive league with competitive players," Stafford said. "I love it. The CFL wanted me and it's always good to feel wanted. The fan base is crazy ... and you get to be in another country."
Cox, who played for Ohio University, is in his 12th season in the CFL, all with the Alouettes.
He attended training camp with the Detroit Lions in 2005 and the Washington Redskins in 2007, but didn't stick with either team. He led the Alouettes in interceptions in 2006 and was second on the team in interceptions and third in tackles in 2007.
After spending his first three seasons as a defensive back, Cox moved to linebacker in 2009 and has been at the position ever since.
He led the CFL in forced fumbles in 2009 and tied for first in the league in forced fumbles in 2010 while helping Montreal win back-to-back Grey Cup titles.
Cox has made four CFL all-star teams and was named the league's Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2013.
Stafford had 59 career receptions for the University of Toledo from 2008-11 and signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, but never got into an NFL game.
In 2013, he played one game for the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League and four games with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.
Stafford had 20 catches in 10 games for Montreal in 2014 before breaking through with 47 receptions for 732 yards and nine touchdowns for Edmonton in 2015, helping the Eskimos win their 14th Grey Cup.
He had 16 catches for 214 yards and two scores in nine games for Montreal last season and signed with Winnipeg during the offseason.
"We didn't throw the football much when I was at DeSales, but they taught me that everything is about family and how to be a complete football player," Stafford said. "Winning the Grey Cup was the first championship I've ever won, so it was great to finally win one and contribute to it. I also had a great season statistically, so it meant a lot to me and showed that I could play this game. It was literally like winning the Super Bowl."
Moore is in his seventh season in the CFL. He's hoping for better health this year after suffering a season-ending knee injury last July.
A two-time all-Mid-American Conference honoree for Toledo who had 78 receptions in 2008, Moore signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. He also had short stints with the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams but never played an NFL game.
In 2011, Moore signed with B.C. and spent three seasons with the Lions, finishing with 73 catches for 1,105 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. He then spent the 2014 and '15 seasons with Winnipeg before returning to play for B.C. last year.
In 2015, Moore had 76 catches for 899 yards and four touchdowns.
Cunningham and Jennings both enjoyed breakout seasons a year ago.
Following a career at Michigan State in which he left as the program's all-time leader in receptions (218) and receiving yards (3,086), Cunningham was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Cunningham, who played two games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, signed with Montreal in 2015 and had 23 catches for 308 yards and four touchdowns that season. Last year, he had 65 receptions for 855 yards and four touchdowns.
Owusu-Ansah played in 18 games in 2015 and in four last year before being sidelined with a season-ending injury.
He's back this season and recorded two tackles in the Argonauts' 32-15 opening win June 25 over Hamilton.
Jennings came to the CFL after throwing for 96 touchdowns and more than 10,000 yards for Division II Saginaw Valley State. As a senior in 2013, he passed for 3,824 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 470 yards and 12 scores.
After not being selected in the 2014 NFL draft, Jennings tried out for several teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, and also tried out for Saskatchewan but did not play in 2014.
In 2015, Jennings gave the CFL another shot and stuck with B.C., completing 142 of 215 passes for 2,004 yards with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in six starts. Last season, he was 371-for-554 passing for 5,226 yards with 27 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while starting all 18 regular-season games for the Lions.
"You learn a lot of things from making mistakes and I've learned a lot," Jennings said. "I expected myself to play well and I've had to live up to my own expectations, but I've grinded. It's turned out pretty well, but there's always room for improvement."