TORONTO — Sometimes it takes a bit of luck.
Athleticism and hard work fueled Jermaine Gabriel’s path to the CFL, where in three fast years he’s emerged as one of the league’s premier safeties. Yet his path to the pros was anything but clear-cut.
If not for a regional combine in Edmonton that year, one Gabriel made last-minute plans to attend, he might still be a construction worker in Calgary.
“I knew I wanted to go to the combine,” said Gabriel, who attended Bishop’s for football but sat out a year in order to support his family. “But I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that I was going to be able to go to that one.”
Gabriel moved to Calgary in 2013 for a better-paying job at Touchdown Construction, where he made $18 an hour while on the side suiting up for the Canadian Junior Football League’s Calgary Colts. He helped the Colts go 8-0, ultimately earning Prairie Football Conference MVP honours.
Without the regional combine that year, the first time the CFL had ever held regional showcases for prospects, word of mouth would have been the then-22-year-old’s only chance to be drafted.
“All I knew was that something came up, something was going on and they were hard times,” recalled Gabriel. “But at the same time I knew I needed to go to the combine to put myself back on the map.
“I knew that if that’s the road I wanted to take, I would have to show up at this combine no matter what.”
That time of year kicked off again on Monday, marking the fourth straight season the league has run regional combines a week in advance of the national combine. It started with two in Edmonton and Quebec City in 2013, then last year a third in Toronto was added.
The numbers scream success. From 2013 through 2015, 28 players have been invited from regional combines to participate in the National Combine. Of those, 23 have been drafted, a figure of 82 per cent, while 16 (57 per cent) are currently on a CFL roster.
“Regional combines are important because they give CFL scouts a chance to see a lot of Canadian players at one time and evaluate them up close,” said CFL.ca’s Justin Dunk. “They’ve provided an opportunity for off-the-radar prospects to perform in front of CFL scouts, which otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”
Five players have already been added to the National Combine roster following Monday’s regional in Edmonton. It’s the same process that helped launch the careers of the Alouettes’ Michael Klassen, the REDBLACKS’ Scott MacDonell and Gabriel’s Argo teammate, Thomas Miles.
Miles, 23, was drafted the year after Gabriel by the Argos. The Manitoba native also went through the Edmonton regional, doing enough to earn a national invite before impressing the Argos enough to take him in the fourth round.
“Relatively speaking, I thought compared to the other players in Edmonton my numbers were probably good enough,” recalled Miles in a past interview. “My testing wasn’t lights out by any means, but in the on-field drills I thought I dominated at the position and made a pretty strong case for moving forward to Toronto.”
Miles is one of the top regional combine success stories, last year making a career-high 50 tackles to go with a sack and a forced fumble while filling in as a starter on the Argos’ defence. He signed a contract extension in the off-season and will look to compete for playing time in 2016.
Also signing an extension this off-season was Gabriel, who Argos GM Jim Barker then described as the best safety in the league.
After training all winter ‘just in case’, it was only a few days before the Edmonton Regional Combine that Gabriel knew he’d make it there. But it was that late-winter day in 2013 that put the Calgary Colts defensive back on the map with CFL scouts.
“As soon as I finished the regional, everyone started talking about me,” Gabriel said. “I was doing a lot of interviews – my phone kept blowing up, everything was going on.”
In the national spotlight a week later, Gabriel only performed better. He ranked in the top four in four of the six testing events, including second with a 4.508 40 time. In one-on-ones, meanwhile, he showed he has the range required to play defensive back in the CFL, particularly the safety position.
Jermaine Gabriel: 2013 National Combine results
|Bench Press||10 reps||T-46th|
“The funny thing was I did more on the bench press at the national than the regional, and I said ‘we could have a combine next week and I’ll give you guys more again’,” said Gabriel.
Above all, the fourth-year Argos safety showed an athleticism that might not have been discovered otherwise. Regional combines make some of Canada’s top prospects a lot more visible – prospects that in the past were going unnoticed.
“If they didn’t have the regional – I was still draft eligible, but who knows what would’ve happened,” Gabriel thought out loud.
“No one would’ve seen me and they wouldn’t have been able to test me.”
For unprecedented coverage of the 2016 National CFL Combine presented by adidas, stay tuned to CFL.ca which will provide live results, broadcasts of the bench press and 40-yard dash and ongoing analysis.