Lions DE takes aim at rare jump from Canada to NFL
John Niyo / The Detroit News

Allen Park -- The odds are stacked against most of the 30-plus players who competed in the Lions' rookie minicamp last weekend.

Chima Ihekwoaba understands that as well as anyone. But Ihekwoaba, a defensive end from Burlington, Ontario, is hoping to join a select group of Canadian-born players in the NFL. And he took his first step Sunday, signing a free-agent contract with the Lions after attending camp on a tryout basis. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder was a standout at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, a two-hour drive from Detroit.

There were no players from Canadian universities among the 255 selected in last month's NFL draft. But a half-dozen have signed free-agent deals with NFL teams or accepted tryout offers in the last week. And while Ihekwoaba has other options -- he was selected 14th overall by the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League on Sunday -- he's focused on this land of opportunity for now.

"Not only is it easier now for Canadian players to make it in the NFL, but it makes you more motivated," Ihekwoaba said. "Some guys opened up the door for us. I just want to come in and kick it down. There were some other guys that went to the CFL combine a month ago and they did pretty well, so some of them signed free agent contracts and some of them got tryouts. We're just trying to show that up in Canada we can play football, too."

There's a financial incentive for making it in the NFL, of course. The minimum salary in the NFL this season is $325,000, about three times what a first-round CFL draft pick will make as a rookie.

Ihekwoaba is no stranger to Michigan. He spent last summer working out in Saline with Dr. D.S. Ping, a certified NFL agent and trainer. And for inspiration, he didn't have to look far. Among Ping's other clients are NFL players Israel Idonije (Chicago Bears) -- a defensive end who also came out of the Canadian college ranks -- and Patrick Bailey (Pittsburgh Steelers).

Ihekwoaba missed most of his senior season at Wilfrid Laurier after suffering a serious shoulder injury that required surgery to repair a torn labrum.

"But they fixed it up and it's stronger than ever now," he said.

At last month's CFL combine, Ihekwoaba posted some impressive numbers, including a 41-inch vertical leap -- that would've been the best at his position at the NFL combine -- and a 4.78-second 40-yard dash.

Ihekwoaba drew interest from other NFL teams including Pittsburgh and Miami -- some as a 3-4 outside linebacker -- but opted for a tryout offer from the Lions, at least in part because it's closer to his family's home just outside of Toronto. His father is retired aerospace engineer. His mother is a kindergarten teacher.

Asked if he'd played any hockey growing up, Ihekwoaba laughed.

"Basketball, soccer, track, football," he said, shaking his head. "But no hockey."

And right now, it's just football. He'll join the rest of the rookies in returning to Allen Park May 17 for offseason workouts.

"It's a great opportunity," Ihekwoaba said. "I'm just trying to make the most of it."

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