Game footage flickers across the screen in a darkened room.
A prize quarterback recruit watches keenly as his putative position coach takes him through the finer points of the offence – a standard part of the wooing process for U.S. NCAA football factories.
Showing off elements of a pro-level passing game is an exercise designed to sway recruits, but in this case, the coach is the one who comes away impressed, when the 17-year-old can’t-miss prospect – who is already 6 foot 5 and north of 215 pounds – blurts out the name of a play.
The scene unfolds in State College, Pa., and the recruit in question, Michael O’Connor of Ottawa, has never seen the Penn State Nittany Lions playbook.
“He was like, ‘How did you know that?’” O’Connor said.
He knew because he’s been running a pro-style offence at IMG Academy, a Florida-based prep school that churns out high-level athletes (Carolina Panthers pivot Cam Newton trained there, among many others), and before that at another highly-regarded high-school program in Tennessee.
It’s an unusual path for a kid whose introduction to organized football came as a linebacker in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans.
To understand why he’s followed it, you have to start with a question: Why is it a country that has produced MVPs at the top levels of hockey, basketball, baseball and North American soccer, the first-overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, a likely top-10 pick in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, a top-10 men’s tennis player, a top-30 golfer, and dozens of Olympic champions hasn’t produced a pro quarterback of note since Russ Jackson?
As the NFL begins its regular season, Canadians continue to search for the football equivalent of NBA star Steve Nash, a certifiable, bankable star in the sport’s glamour position.
Sure, there have been a handful of great skill position players from Canada – running back Rueben Mayes chief among them – and several good ones (Austin Collie, Jerome Pathon, Tommy Kane). There’s even been a Super Bowl MVP, Calgary-born Mark Rypien, who played all his football in the United States after his family moved there when he was an infant.
But Canada has never produced a bona fide, Pro Football Hall of Fame-level NFL player, let alone a quarterback.
It’s complicated, but the answer eventually boils down to: Coaching, competition and exposure.
In conversations with football people from all levels in both Canada and the U.S., the one thing that seems clear is it’s not a question of talent.
“There are elite athletes in Canada, there’s no question about that, but not enough of them get into football,” said Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp, known far and wide as a keen-eyed talent spotter.
It’s a matter of scale.
There are roughly 850 college football programs in the U.S. Of the 2,400 or so scholarship quarterbacks playing at the various college levels in any given year, 10 or 12 will get drafted, another dozen or so will sign tryout deals, a small handful will earn a roster spot.
O’Connor, who has committed to Penn State and will start taking classes in January (he’ll graduate high school early), might be an outlier as a Canadian recruit to a top-division NCAA school. But he’s not alone.
Chris Merchant, a quarterback prospect from Aurora, Ont., is committed to the University at Buffalo in 2014.
And this fall, several Canadians will line up at skill positions in the NCAA: Scarborough, Ont., running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; quarterback Brandon Bridge of Toronto is enrolled at South Alabama; receiver Jimmy Ralph of Raymond, Alta., will play at Weber State.
Wide receiver Lemar Durant, who plays at Simon Fraser University (the only Canadian school in the NCAA) and 6-foot-6 University of Florida pass catcher Stephen Alli, are established college performers who could garner NFL interest next spring.
There are also some more high-ceiling college recruits in the pipeline, such as British Columbia running back Maleek Irons and Montreal-born receiver Jaylan Grandison.
The list goes on.
So while Canada awaits its first big NFL star, there’s an argument to be made the situation has improved and that day is drawing closer.
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