Such is the considered opinion of Mayes, the former New Orleans Saints running back who grew up in North Battleford, Sask.
“I was the first skilled Canadian athlete in the NFL. It was a different time. It was, ‘No, you’re not going to make it down there.’ For the next kids, hopefully, we encourage them to be the best. Steve Nash playing in the NBA doesn’t take away from who he is. How he was made was forged in Canada. He’s always going to be a Canadian,” said Mayes, a third-round draft pick in 1986, who went on to be named NFL offensive rookie of the year.
Mayes attended Washington State, and still lives in Pullman, Wash., where he is the chief development officer at the city’s largest hospital. His son, Logan, plays rush end at WSU, and Mayes has never regretted ignoring the advice of those who warned against the NCAA.
“They said I’d get lost in the shuffle in a Pac-10 school. I still went. If a coach sees a player has potential, he should help him wherever they want to go,” Mayes said, adding: “Football is global now. Players can come from anywhere and make it [in the NFL].”
It’s true players from the Canadian university ranks find their way to North America’s most-watched (and profitable) sports league – the University of Regina Rams had four current and former players in NFL camps this summer. But the bulk of them are linemen, such as Mike Schad, a Queen’s University standout who remains the highest-drafted CIS player (23rd overall to the L.A. Rams in 1986) or special teamers, such as Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan (Regina).
While Canadian university football is making major strides – led by programs such as Laval, Western Ontario, McMaster and Calgary – it hasn’t produced a homegrown pro quarterback, either in the CFL or NFL, in decades.
But it is producing other CFL talent in ever-growing numbers, which suits Canadian pro football teams just fine.
“I think it’s not so much about coaching as the exposure. When [NFL people] think of Canada, they don’t assume its top-level football, either in our league or the CIS … but if an Akiem Hicks [an American defensive end who played at Regina, now with the New Orleans Saints] goes down there, then the thinking is there may be other kids to look at,” Saskatchewan Roughriders GM Brendan Taman said. “What would a Canadian star at a skill position do for football up here? It would bring exposure … but I’m not sure it would do a lot more than that.
“Our feeling is, we’re getting good Canadian kids and I don’t care about the NFL.”
Though likelihood of Canadians going on to pro careers at home has improved, it seems the NFL dream can only be sustained by those willing to spend part of their youth in the United States.
Ottawa native Jesse Palmer, who played college ball at the University of Florida and appeared in eight NFL games for the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, said he felt compelled to look southward to attain his dream.
“Playing in Canada has certain restrictions,” the former quarterback said.
Palmer is better known these days as a football commentator for ESPN and TSN, he was among the first to tread the path now being followed by O’Connor and others.
“In my last two years in high school, we had an excellent coaching. My dad was a head coach [and had played in the CFL]. We had some former CFL players and we did a lot of offensive stuff that was cutting edge,” Palmer said, “In California and Texas, they have 7-on-7 leagues where players are constantly working on recognizing coverages, calling audibles. We don’t have that in Canada.”
Another factor to consider: Adapting to the narrower, shorter NFL field, and the commensurate difficulties receivers have in getting open.
O’Connor talks about how it took him most of a season to really become accustomed to playing in Tennessee.
Palmer went through the same process.
“At Florida, we did a 7-on-7 drill in the red zone and felt like I was playing a closet. The differences between the two games can be as little as taking a snap under centre. It’s almost always shotgun formation in the CFL,” he said. “When you get to the U.S. game … you’re hearing an American football language. You’re also being pushed by better competition.”