In the belly of a small Ontario private school sits a weight room where 40 students muscle through their workouts each day. They stare at walls covered in large bulletin boards, featuring dozens of rousing colour pamphlets and posters they found nestled inside mail received from recruiters throughout U.S. college football.
"It doesn't get easier, you just get better," reads a scarlet-and-grey pamphlet from the Ohio State Buckeyes. "We've got 38 players on NFL rosters," boasts one from the Wisconsin Badgers. There's an oversized poster of fiery defensive lineman Aaron Donald from Pitt, the best defensive player in the NCAA last year, and another of Mississippi State star linebacker Benardrick McKinney leaping at the ball inside a packed stadium. Every college is campaigning for top recruits, and some live right here, in this Canadian startup.
Geoff McArthur, the head coach at this two-year-old private high school, was a premier receiver in NCAA football just more than a decade ago, smashing school records while hauling in touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, the 31-year-old Los Angeles native runs Canada Prep Academy, a football-centric boarding school in St. Catharines, Ont., 20 minutes from Buffalo. The academy touts itself as the only high school in Canada playing exclusively four-down football and a full schedule of games against American varsity squads.
The Canada Prep Academy Raiders, decked out in the same white, silver and black of the NFL's Oakland franchise, travel south of the border to play an all-road schedule. They go to Michigan, Ohio, New York State, Maryland and Texas to showcase their talents against some of the most highly ranked high-school teams in the United States. They usually lose; sometimes they get crushed. But there, under the Friday night lights, they earn great experience, create valuable game film and play right under the noses of U.S. college scouts. Their top priority is exposure.
Canada Prep joins a growing list of sports schools in North America, a model vastly different from the traditional high-school experience. Many critics have blasted such academies as travel teams masquerading as schools, calling them football factories or diploma mills, with dubious academics. Many have been fly-by-night operations, going out of business because of poor academic programs or failed finances.
"You have to have the right people in charge of your academics," McArthur said, and he's convinced Canada Prep does. Still, it is unquestionably a football-first institution. "Because we play so many Top 100 schools, our total schedule is tougher than most American high school teams would play in a season, and we want to play the big schools no one else wants to face," said McArthur, who was an All-American at Cal in 2003, finishing second in the NCAA behind Larry Fitzgerald in receiving yards. "From the weight room to practice to the classroom, to the dorms and film study, we're simulating what it's like to be in a college football program here. It's still early in the year, but already it looks like we'll have at least five, six guys going on Division 1 scholarships to the U.S. next year."
Attracting scouts and students
The players at Canada Prep have come from all parts of the country, plus four from England, each paying some $16,500 a year in tuition for their schooling, on-campus boarding and meals, training and travel to games. Most players came in the hopes of earning a scholarship to play at a U.S university. While that will be decided largely on a kid's talent, McArthur promises to compile every player's video highlights and shop them to American and Canadian recruiters.
Big-name coaches from such programs as Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Oregon have made the trek to St. Catharines, arrived at the vacated old high school building the school now rents, set back on a side-street next to some train tracks. Most come first to see Neville Gallimore, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman with more than 25 offers from NCAA Division I schools.
Rivals.com ranks the Ottawa native as the 18th best at his position in the class of 2015, and he is widely considered the top high school football player currently in Canada, exhibiting a rare combination of size, speed and co-ordination. The broad-shouldered 17-year-old looks like a full-grown man and oozes personality as he jokes with the cook in the school cafeteria, where 40 athletes rumble in like an army three times a day – to eat anything, and lots of it.
"We're like a family here," said Gallimore, who has narrowed his choices to Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Florida and Florida State. "I don't think as many recruiters would have found me in Ottawa. I wanted the chance to show how well I could stack up against American competition. For me, it's been a confidence booster and the expectations are high. The coaches who see our film are a lot more respectful of it when they see us playing other American kids. A lot of people questioned my decision, but I'm glad I came here."
Gallimore hasn't just drawn scouts, but more students too. Canada Prep had 27 students last year and saw a bump in applications after the star defensive lineman started pulling in big-time offers last spring.
"I knew Neville was here, and I wanted to see if I could make that kind of thing happen for myself," said linebacker Troy Hansen, who transferred to Canada Prep this fall from Kent Prep in Connecticut. "The coach there wasn't really getting my film out there. The academics are better here. Before I came here, I had one D1 school interested in me. Now I have an official visit planned for Cal, and I've talked to Oregon and Oklahoma. It's just better for me. You see that it's an attainable dream for a Canadian kid. I don't think I would have got that attention back home in Edmonton."
To a visitor entering its front doors, Canada Prep feels like an old high school closed for summer, with its quiet hallways and empty lockers. The 40 football players, their six coaches and five teachers have the run of the three-floor building, except a small portion inhabited by a 14-student private elementary school. Many staples of traditional high school life are nowhere to be found – no other students, sports, clubs, dances, home games or proms.
The Raiders live there together 24/7, in oversized rooms partitioned into dorms for eight, their clothes strewn over the makeshift walls. They train together in the gymnasium, pore over game film together, and watch NFL football while sprawled on second-hand couches in front of a big-screen TV just like college kids; they take team sightseeing trips to nearby Niagara Falls.
"We're here all the time, together all the time, but I came here for the chance to get a Division-1 scholarship and it's all worth it," said receiver Brendan Orange of Toronto. "I think I've matured since coming here."
Building a new model
Canada Prep has risen out of the ashes of a previous failed attempt at a football private school. In 2012, McArthur was originally contracted by a football coaching business in California to coach at the Niagara Football Academy (NFA), a start-up private high school in Niagara Falls which intended to play U.S. high schools. Trisha Levasseur, the owner of NFA and a mother of a high school quarterback who would play on the team, partnered with the Niagara Academy of Tennis to provide the education.
Yet four months in, Levasseur struggled to pay NFA's bills, largely because she had given scholarships and tuition breaks to many players. A legal battle ensued between the two academies, and lots of people went unpaid, including McArthur. Police investigated. The kids were left to choose between finishing their final few months of the school year at the tennis academy or going to a new academic provider with the financially uncertain NFA. The coach was caught in the middle, his only loyalty to the players he was coaching. Several other coaches quit.
"I didn't run home to California, because I never did anything wrong and I'm not a quitter, plus my name was all over this thing," McArthur said. "It was terrible, but I stuck it out. I wanted to be a man of my word to those kids, to be part of a Canadian first. Canada isn't where the U.S is at the football development level, and I thought I had something really valuable to share. I could use my college connections to help kids, and I really liked being a head coach. There was a lot of good going on too."
He had a coaching offer in hand from a D1-AA program in the U.S, but seven kids from NFA said they wanted to reinvent the program with him and hoped he would stay in Canada. So McArthur and another former Cal player, Tully Banta-Cain, who spent a couple of seasons with the New England Patriots, pitched in funds to get Canada Prep Academy started in St. Catharines for the 2013 season. They operated out of the building they inhabit today, which last year was run by a private school called Pinehurst, which provided Canada Prep its academics too.
"We didn't have much money, it was very bare bones, but everyone was paid, and we were accountable for everything we said we would do," McArthur said. "People were hesitant because of everything that had happened with the old academy, and I don't blame them. But despite everything, we had three kids on that 2012 team land scholarships in the NCAA, and of the 16 seniors on that team, 14 of them went to play college football somewhere in Canada or the U.S. Exposure-wise, people saw that it worked."
A year into Canada Prep's new academic arrangement, Pinehurst School ceased operations because of low enrolment. So rather than rely on yet another outside educator, Canada Prep stayed in the building and applied to the Ontario Ministry of Education to become its own school. One of the teachers remained and became principal, built a teaching staff along with the academic program.
Today, security cameras survey the halls and team spaces at Canada Prep and feed into monitors in the office of principal Patrick Fife, a slender 26-year-old man a few years out of teacher's college who also lives in a residence attached to his office, teaches four classes a day, leads evening study hall and acts as team manager and photographer on trips.
Classes, usually of less than 10 players, cater specifically to their admissions needs and learning styles. In English, they mix in books like Friday Night Lights and The Colony, a political allegory written by former NFL running back Reggie Rivers. Fife sometimes conducts classes outdoors or has the boys run around the gym in search of information he has placed around the room.
"We gear the lessons to boys and what student athletes would have interest in; they thrive when I get them up and moving," Fife said. "As you can see, I'm not exactly athletic myself, but I know how to reach them."
They study only math, science, English and social studies and prepare to take SAT and ACT tests necessary for admission to U.S universities. Other courses, like arts and music, aren't offered.
Nor are the on-field experiences always uplifting: The Raiders sometimes get clobbered, as in last week's 42-0 bruising at the hands of St. Edward High School, a powerhouse program in Lakewood, Ohio. It's work keeping morale up.
"The fact that they're playing so many big programs is getting them lots of attention from coaches, and when you see them on the field, they're a big football team that really looks the part of big college prospects, with lots of real playmakers," said Josh Helmholdt, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com who has watched the Raiders play this year. "From everything I've seen and heard, coach McArthur has done a really good job there and they have the talent to compete in the Midwest as they grow together."
McArthur and Fife imagine the ways they could grow the academy: adding more students next year and possibly a local junior varsity team that plays some games in Buffalo; perhaps a more substantial science and technology program. Down the road perhaps it could become a multi-sport academy.
"The competition here creates a character chase, these guys all want to beat each other, and the recruiting mail all over the walls kind of serves as inspiration," McArthur said. "They just eat, sleep and breathe football."