Canada putting players on the NFL map at unprecedented pace
Indianapolis – Last week in Indianapolis, five players born and raised in Canada were among the best professional football prospects on the planet invited to the annual showcase known as the NFL Combine.
If all five are drafted next month, it would represent a new high-water mark for Canadians selected in a single NFL draft, as well as the largest number (12) drafted over any three-year period.
Canada is putting players on the NFL map at a pace never seen before.
“It’s a blessing, but not surprising,” said Chase Brown, the Illinois running back from London, Ont., who led the NCAA in rushing for most of this past season.
“There’s been good players north of the border for years. Seeing five Canadians at the combine shows we’re getting recognized and we’re developing players. I hope it sets the standard for future generations.”
Not all that long ago, the very few Canadians in the NFL were mostly special teams’ players and offensive linemen. The current wave features players all over the field, on both sides of the ball, including the so-called skill positions.
The five Canadians expected to be drafted this year – Chase and Sydney Brown of the University of Illinois, Mississippi’s Tavius Robinson, Matthew Bergeron of Syracuse, and Eastern Michigan’s Sidy Sow, represent a running back, a safety, a defensive lineman and two offensive linemen.
A year ago, the Canadian NFL draftees were a defensive back, a receiver, and a defensive lineman. A year before that it was a running back, a receiver and two defensive backs.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a growing influx of Canadian talent into major U.S. college football and the NFL,” said ESPN/TSN football analyst Jesse Palmer, who is from Ottawa.
“I think it speaks to the raw athleticism and ability these kids have and highlights the quality of the coaching we’re now seeing at the youth and high school levels in Canada. These kids are physically and mentally developed and ready to compete as soon as they arrive.”
Palmer was a trailblazer when the quarterback landed a scholarship to play football at the University of Florida in 1997. He was drafted by the New York Giants in the fourth round of the 2001 draft and went on to start three games. His post-playing career as a college football analyst at ESPN has given him a bird’s-eye view of the evolution of Canadian talent.
“I also think they play with a chip on their shoulder,” Palmer said. “They’re hungry to prove they belong.”
That’s certainly the case for the NFL-bound Canadians who were in Indianapolis. They’ve all had to overcome doubts somewhere along the way.
Chase Brown said he and his brother play with an underdog mentality.
His twin brother Sydney – whose stock is soaring to where he could be as high as a second-round pick – was asked if he could have imagined being an invitee to the NFL combine when he left high school. He unapologetically stated that it was “all part of the vision” and that he and his brother were “just doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
The vision may have existed, but there is no map for how to make it to the NFL while growing up in Canada. Instead, players have to write their own stories and invent their own paths, which almost always involves making the adjustment to American football for college or, as has become more common, high school as well. (There have been players reach the NFL exclusively playing in Canada, but they are rare.)
Young Canadian players seek development in the U.S. for three reasons – competition, coaching and exposure. But those opportunities usually don’t come knocking at their doors. They have to go find them.
“I always told [Syracuse] coach [Dino] Babers, ‘You guys didn’t find me, I found you guys,’” said Bergeron, the Syracuse University offensive tackle who has a shot at being a first-round pick next month. “I went to a Syracuse camp, and I realized I was the best tackle there. Coach Babers was surprised because no one knew me, I came out of nowhere. I didn’t even have Twitter.”
Bergeron, like fellow Quebecer Sow of Eastern Michigan, had one scholarship offer when he committed to his school.
In the case of both Robinson and the Brown twins, their detours to the U.S. came about serendipitously and without warning.
Robinson was playing football at his hometown University of Guelph when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown U Sports football in Canada in 2020, leading him to transfer to the University of Mississippi.
“I made a highlight tape as soon as I found out [the season] was cancelled,” Robinson said this past week in Indianapolis. “Offers started coming in, and I kind of made my choice real quick.
“It was a little bit of a jump at first, but [the adjustment] didn’t take as long as I expected. It came quick and I feel like I adjusted pretty quickly.”
Three years of SEC football later, he was deemed worthy of an invitation to the NFL combine, where his testing scores did nothing to hurt his stock.
Robinson was asked this week if the NFL would have found him had he remained in Guelph.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so,” he said. “The football is so different. There’s still a lot of great players in Canada, but the exposure and competition are not the same. I feel I made the best decision by transitioning to the SEC.”
Chase and Sydney Brown’s story took a twist in the summer of 2016, when the identical twins were spotted by a southern Ontario-based scout who recognized both their talent and the difficult circumstances in which they were living with their single mom.
Within weeks, he’d was able to place them at a high school in Bradenton, Fla., where they lived with a host family that not only helped support their football dreams but also helped develop them into college-ready young men.
“It was really just becoming an adult at 16,” said Sydney Brown. “We had a great support team down there.
“[Our experience] showed me that I need to push for what I want. If I want to go get something, I’ve got to work for it. One thing that I love about this sport, and throughout this process, is just seeing results in myself on and off the field. I think that’s what pushes me to play football, honestly.”
The Browns never lost a game during two years of high school football before going on to star at the University of Illinois, helping the Illini complete its most successful season in memory. Now they’re taking their act to the NFL.
The evolution of high-end football talent from Canada mirrors what has taken place with basketball in this country over the past 30 years. For each Canadian who reaches the highest level of their sport, the belief about what is possible strengthens among those to come.
“To see the number go up and up every year is great and is a good example for younger Canadian kids back home,” said Robinson. “Hopefully it might be the example, be the way, and continue to grow that number every year.”
Canada’s greatest NFL wave is hitting the shore.