Native enjoys fame as Canadian football player
They call him the Butter Tart Kid.
Cary Koch’s nickname, earned while playing for the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, has nothing to do with the sweetness of his moves on the field or the smoothness of his catches.
It’s all about a small Canadian treat, called a butter tart, that he shared with tailgating fans before his first Roughriders’ game.
“From then on out, they were saying I played so well because of the butter tart,” Koch, 26, said by phone from Edmonton, Alberta, where he now plays for the Edmonton Eskimos. “Through Twitter, it kind of blew up that I was the ‘Butter Tart Kid.’ From then on out, every game, there would be a butter tart — if we were away, or at home.”
Koch, a Baton Rouge native and Dunham High School alumnus, played wide receiver at Tulane University and the University of Virginia. After just missing out on the NFL, Koch didn’t hang up his cleats.
Instead he went to Canada and became a league favorite. His long blond hair, love of tie-dye T-shirts and his rapport with the media and fans endear him to northern football lovers.
“It’s a way for him to make good money and live his dream,” said John Koch, Cary Koch’s father, and a Baton Rouge attorney. “Not many people get to do that.”
Growing up the youngest of three children, Koch excelled at sports and kept his parents busy. He was a four-sport athlete at Dunham with musical talent — showing off both singing and whistling skills. With few boys singing in the high school choir, he joined and then started encouraging others to sing.
“By the next year, he had recruited nearly half the football team to join the choir,” said his mother, Sally Koch.
He earned The Advocate’s 2005 Athlete of the Year award and then took a football scholarship at Tulane University. Hurricane Katrina sent the football team into turmoil, but also gave Koch a chance to play as a freshman, helping him make the Conference USA All-Freshman team.
Knowing it would take a while for Tulane’s program to bounce back, Koch left for a walk-on opportunity at the University of Virginia and played for three seasons.
At Virginia, Koch ignored “the football player route,” his father said, and earned a degree in economics in 2009, and then scheduled tryouts with NFL teams. In between tryouts, he rambled a little, staying briefly with his sister in New York and exploring modeling, a quirky fact reporters in Canada occasionally like to dig up. He took the law school admissions exam and thought about quitting football, his mother said.
As an assistant at Don Griffin’s 18:21 football camp in Baton Rouge, Koch met Joe Womack, who was then the director of U.S. scouting for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Womack set up a tryout, and five days after that, Koch was offered a contract.
“It was all so amazing the way it all came about,” said John D. Koch, who credits God’s providence for providing the tryout. “We got into the flow.”
Canadian football differs from the American game in a few important ways: Each team has an extra player on the field — usually an extra receiver on offense — and the field is 40 percent larger. The differences create a game with more dynamic passes.
“For a receiver, big plays are made all over the place,” Koch said. “It’s just super fun. You’re catching the ball in space most of the time.”
While often playing in frigid weather — Edmonton has an outdoor field, and the temperatures get down to 15 below zero or so — CFL players also make less money than those in the NFL. The average base salary, according to CFLDB, the online Canadian Football League Database, is $61,200.
In 2010 Koch began playing wide receiver for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, one of the league’s most popular teams.
“It was kind of a farm town, but the football team there is kind of like the Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys of the NFL in that there are fans everywhere across their country,” Koch said. “There was never an away game. They travel well.”
Before he earned a roster spot in Saskatchewan, Koch got to know fans by hanging out with tailgaters, which led to making friends with the crew that made “Butter Tart Kid” T-shirts and signs as the Roughriders played their way to the Grey Cup, the championship of the CFL.
With the Riders, Koch started using Twitter to correspond with fans, and he started a video question-and-answer segment on his website.
“It comes along with the territory now. When you’re in professional sports, it can be a tool to brand your name,” he said. “It can also be used against you, too.”
In Saskatchewan, Koch also earned accolades for his play.
“Cary is the type of player that comes into a locker room with the drive to learn the system and schemes the way they are meant to be run,” said Chris Getzlaf, a receiver with the Riders who was a groomsman in Koch’s wedding. “He does the little things to help ensure that he limits mental mistakes during a game.”
Koch’s second year in the league was marked by highs and lows. A severely broken thumb fixed with six screws and a plate sidelined him for 10 weeks. The next month he became engaged to Tyler Gordy, of St. Francisville, whom he met at a Campus Crusade for Christ event in Dallas while in college.
Once the season ended, Koch’s contract with the Roughriders expired, and the Edmonton Eskimos signed him quickly.
Koch and Tyler Gordy married in April, in time to get situated in Edmonton, Alberta, before his training camp started. Two of his teammates in Saskatchewan served as groomsmen, and their wedding favors were butter tarts.
In Edmonton his personality and fun demeanor were quickly tapped by the media and his team.
The Eskimos and Tim Hortons — the largest Canadian fast food company — use Koch for in-game commercials that play on the stadium’s video board. One features Koch quizzing teammates about aspects of smiling for chances to win Tim Hortons’ smiley-faced cookies.
Last month a film crew from Shaw TV put Koch on stage with Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, an improv group. After a short practice session, he appeared with them on stage one night and fit right in.
“He’s actually pretty great,” Amy Shostak, the theater’s artistic director, said by phone. “We didn’t know what to expect, having to do improv with some football player. ... He’s really charming and really funny, a jack of all trades.”
Tyler Koch has learned to love the game her husband is so passionate about. Attending the all-girls St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, she did not know much about football.
“With Cary on the field, my eyes don’t leave the field,” she said. “He’s been teasing me a lot, giving me quizzes on the different positions.”
Koch missed two weeks after injuring his ribs against the British Columbia Lions. That was the first time Tyler Koch saw him get hurt.
“It was one of those moments where you see him not getting up all the way,” she said. “The girl next to me — I met her the week before — I’m squeezing her hand off. It’s scary. This job, this game, it comes with a price.”
On Oct. 13, Koch’s first game back after his injury, he recorded six catches and a touchdown against his former team. The Eskimos are fighting for a spot in the playoffs, which begin Nov. 11.
He has another year left on his contract with the Eskimos after this season, and is unsure what will happen after that. Instead of pining for the NFL, Koch is enjoying his time in Canada.
Thousands of football players would give anything to be in his cleats, he said.
“The chances are so small to get to play after high school and even smaller to get to play after college,” he said. “Professional athletes are just blessed to keep playing a game for a living.”