From the Record ...

Canadians getting their big NFL break

May 04, 2010
By Christine Rivet, Record staff

WATERLOO — A troupe of Canadian-trained players hopes to bypass the boulevard of broken dreams and take the express lane to the big time.

At last count, six Canadian university players – including Wilfrid Laurier’s Chima Ihekwoaba and the University of Waterloo’s Joel Reinders – have either signed free-agent contracts with NFL clubs this spring or have attended rookie camps with those American teams.

Canadians have peppered NFL rosters for decades, although for the most part they were usually north-of-the-border kids who apprenticed on the gridiron at U.S. colleges.

Until recently, players at Canadian universities could only dare to dream about auditioning for a CFL club, and the notion of playing in the NFL was nothing short of absurd.

But when former Western Mustangs defensive lineman Vaughn Martin became the first underclassman from a Canadian university to be drafted by an NFL team in 2009, going in the fourth round to the San Diego Chargers, the tide may have finally turned.

New York Jets pro scout Brock Sunderland spent nearly four seasons evaluating Canadian Interuniversity Sport players as the former director of scouting for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.

He said the once-cavernous gap between Canadian-trained players and their American counterparts was closing even before Martin’s big splash.

Players like Indianapolis Colts’ Dan Federkeil (Calgary) and fellow lineman Israel Idonije (University of Manitoba) of the Chicago Bears had already put CIS players on the NFL’s map.

But more than that, Martin’s draft-day triumph meant players who remain at home are starting to believe it themselves.

“I think the Vaughn Martin thing really opened up the eyes to the CIS athlete – that maybe this might be a real opportunity more than just a (fantasy).”

“It opens up the belief it can happen.”

Ihekwoaba, of Burlington, Ont., no longer needs convincing.

Laurier’s defensive end signed a rare free-agent deal with the Detroit Lions after attending the team’s rookie camp this past weekend.

“I dominated in the one-on-ones, and these were some of the best players from (American) D-I schools,” said Ihekwoaba, whose test results at the recent CFL combine were off the charts.

“No matter what side of the border I’m on, my numbers are the same,” said Ihekwoaba. He clocked 4.78 seconds over the 40-yard dash and a monstrous 41-inch vertical jump at the CFL camp, comparable to numbers posted by first-round NFL draft picks.

Sunderland said he’s not surprised Cleveland signed Reinders, an enormous offensive lineman at UW, despite a football career consisting of just two seasons and eight games.

Even the Toronto Argos stood up and took notice of Reinders’ extraordinary promise, selecting the six-foot-eight, 320-pound former basketball player 26th overall at last weekend’s CFL draft.

Reinders represents a significant investment in the Browns’ future, though the bloggers have taken great delight in reporting his signing was a direct result of Reinders’ impressive YouTube clip.

“If a (Canadian) player like Reinders has the size, the athleticism, or some quality or distinct trait that NFL teams feel can improve them, those players will have an opportunity in our league,” said Sunderland.

“It seems the NFL is becoming more global.”

Those Canadians who signed NFL contracts still have to crack their respective teams’ lineups before they can hope to cash in on the league’s minimum $325,000 salary.

But now more than ever, the door is wide open for Canadian-trained players.

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