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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. (ANDREW COHOON/AP)
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. (ANDREW COHOON/AP)

Football

Prominent Canadian NFLers simply not in the stars Add to ...

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.

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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.

Why?

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.

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.”

If Palmer once dreamed of taking the NFL by storm, now he’s among those waiting for that paradigm-shifting player to come along.

“If a Canadian were to make it in the NFL, I think it would be huge. It would be someone to relate to and cheer for whether you’re a Seattle fan or a Dallas fan. Having that one identifiable player transcends everything,” Palmer said. “A lot of people in the south see a Canadian they almost write us off. It was something I used as motivation.”

When O’Connor decided to move to the U.S. in 2012, he considered several possibilities – including California and Pennsylvania – before settling on the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Like Ashbury College, the posh private school he attended in Ottawa, it was a boarding school, and more importantly, it needed a quarterback.

But that’s where the parallels with home ended.

O’Connor’s coach at Ashbury was Jon Landon, a former CFLer and Grey Cup champion who doubled as a science teacher, but the coach at his new school, Phillip Massey, was a full-time football man who kept NFL hours (he was usually in his office before 5:30 a.m.) and ran pro-flavoured schemes.

After leading Baylor to the state championship playoffs in 2012, O’Connor transferred to IMG, which is based in Bradenton, Fla., and whose fledgling football program is run by former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Chris Weinke.

“I really don’t want to make it sound like I’m ripping Canadian coaches, because I’m not, but it’s a different level in the U.S. Coaching is what puts food on the table, so it’s more competitive,” O’Connor said.

He also noticed a stronger emphasis on details such as footwork – which he used to practice on his own, but not anything like the way he has in the last year or so.

And the fact he took up residence in the heart of the Southeast Conference, amid the small army of football scouts who live there, was a factor in drawing recruiting interest from a dozen major programs and being listed in the influential ESPN and Rivals250 list of high-school prospects.

That he decided on Penn State, which was stripped of 40 scholarships and given a lengthy bowl game ban after the child sex abuse scandal that tainted the reign of late coach Joe Paterno, comes down to choosing a school with strong academics and a football program that suits his pocket passing game.

Head coach Bill O’Brien came to the school from the New England Patriots, and the cachet of having worked with NFL star quarterback Tom Brady is an unmistakable draw.

Penn State brought in an even more highly-regarded recruit than O’Connor this fall (Christian Hackenberg, rated the top quarterback prospect in the U.S. by ESPN), but that’s no disincentive as far as he’s concerned.

“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m not really scared of anyone, I’ll compete anywhere I go,” he said.

When O’Connor arrives at Penn State, he’ll have a few weeks to get acclimated to campus before spring practices, although unlike many other teens, he’s already used to living away from home. (His parents continue to live in Ottawa, where his older brother plays for the junior football Ottawa Sooners.)

“Leaving home was a really tough decision, really tough. But at the end of the day, I think it was the right thing to do for me,” said O’Connor, adding he was encouraged by his family and his high-school coaches to pursue his dream in the U.S. – which also supposes considerable financial sacrifices.

The immediate focus is on making an impression at the NCAA level, but O’Connor is mindful of the example he could set should his considerable promise translate into a shot at the football big time.

“I guess my hope is that I can have a good career at Penn State and then make the NFL,” he said, “because then other kids in Canada will see where I came from and say, ‘He did it, there’s no reason I can’t.’ That would be great.”

 

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