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Waiting game pays off for Canadian NFL draft pick

Philip Blake didn't start playing football until his final year of high school in Toronto, but once he got a taste, a career in the NFL was his focus. Getting the call on draft weekend was the reward after a slow and winding odyssey.

At 26, the 6-foot-2, 311-pound offensive lineman was one of the oldest players in this draft when the Denver Broncos took him in the fourth round, 108th overall. From his high school in Etobicoke, Ont., he had to first cross through junior colleges in Quebec and Texas before making it to Baylor University, where he protected Robert Griffin III during the quarterback's Heisman Trophy-winning season last year.

Now with the Broncos, he takes aim at a spot on the line protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.

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"Right after I got drafted, Peyton Manning texted me and said 'Congratulations and welcome to the Broncos,'" Blake said. "I thought 'Wow, look how far I've come, I'm about to play with one of the greatest quarterbacks that's ever played.'"

Blake's journey to the pros was anything but a straight shot. The Canadian needed true focus to stay the zigzagging course.

Blake showed real talent in his single year of high school ball, but no U.S. colleges called. So Blake opted to get attention from American schools by putting in two seasons at Champlain College Lennoxville in Sherbrooke, one of the Quebec junior colleges that could develop football talent without using any U.S. college eligibility.

"I really wanted to go to college and my family couldn't afford it, so I thought football could get me there," Blake said. "I knew if I went to Champlain, it would lead to big things."

Blake's head coach at Champlain, Jean-Francois Joncas, recalls a 300-pound Blake so athletic he could dunk basketballs. He learned new techniques on the football field with ease.

Then Blake caught the eye of then-University of Houston coach Art Briles, who was watching film of Blake's friend and teammate, defensive end Shomari Williams, today a Saskatchewan Roughrider. The scholarship offer came, but Blake didn't qualify academically for the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

"It would have been easy then to say 'Fine, I'll stay home and play football in Canada,' because he could have played at any CIS school," Joncas said. "But he was determined to go to a Division I college. He's not the kind of kid to whine and complain. He just looked at it as one more obstacle to overcome."

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Blake headed to Texas anyway, and played at Tyler Junior College. Briles kept tabs on him, and when the coach landed a job at Baylor, he brought Blake along.

"He had sustained that focus for a long period of time and that really showed me something about his focus and maturity," Briles said. "Then, physically, he was just extremely gifted. He's big and has quick twitch. He's very explosive, has great instincts and great drive, so it never concerned me that he hadn't picked up football until his last year of high school."

In 2009, Blake started all 12 games at right tackle, and the next season moved to centre. He blossomed there over the next two seasons, becoming All-Big 12. He had played with offensive linemen like centre J.D. Walton, a 2010 Broncos draft pick, and Canadian guard Danny Watkins, taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011.

The Montreal Alouettes drafted Blake to the CFL last year, 23rd overall, taking a third-round leap on a guy they felt was an actual first-round talent, but had a strong NFL shot.

"When a guy is snapping the ball to a Heisman-Trophy winner, a lot of people are seeing his film, noticing how good he is, seeing that versatility that we seen and liked," Popp said. "Each week that went by this season, we knew our chances of getting him were less and less, but we were still pulling for him and wanted the best for him."

Briles guesses Blake won't be snapping the ball to Manning, but will instead play beside Walton at guard. Blake agrees.

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"I played guard at the Senior Bowl and felt really comfortable there and think I did a good job there," Blake said. "I could definitely see that."

Three other players with Canadian ties were also drafted. Tyrone Crawford of Windsor, Ont., was the third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, 81st overall. University of Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, an American-born player, was taken by the New Orleans Saints (third round, 89th). Christo Bilukidi, a defensive lineman at Georgia State, went the Oakland Raiders (sixth round, 189th).

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Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

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