Each year CFL fans attend training camps to quench their football thirst by meeting up with friends at a practice and getting a glimpse of their favourite player. For many this is the big-name starting quarterback, brash middle linebacker or engaging receiver.
Will Mike Reilly autograph my Eskimos jersey? Can I get a picture with Simoni Lawrence? While these types of players draw diehards to fan fests and practices with their name brand notoriety on display for everyone to see, something much more reserved happens at each CFL training camp.
Canadian university quarterbacks gaining valuable experience and knowledge by being embedded with CFL teams for the majority of training camp.
The Canadian quarterback internship program started in 2010, but was made mandatory by the CFL in 2012. This year features another exceptional crop of talent headlined by Western’s Chris Merchant (Ticats) and UBC’s Micheal O’Connor, who is in Argos training camp with undrafted free agent QB Noah Picton of Regina.
The program allows Canada’s best young pivots to simultaneously exist quietly in plain sight at each practice and in the shadows of film rooms, overlooked by the masses wishing for a brief moment with the face on their season tickets.
The relative anonymity of my experience in Calgary (2013) while playing quarterback at McMaster University brought a humbling sense of my place in the big picture of Canadian football.
No longer was I a recognizable face on campus, surrounded by people exclusively pulling for my team and personal success. With a flight west and a cab ride to McMahon Stadium, I arrived at a pro football training facility just another name on the roster in a practice jersey and helmet trying to get better at the game we all love.
It was all very surreal and put a smile on my face similar to that of Will Smith at the end of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme when he steps out of the cab and looks at his kingdom realizing “he was finally there”.
If for only a couple weeks, I was a CFL player. Unimaginable for someone who started playing the game late in high school just five years earlier.
Before ever stepping on the practice field in a CFL uniform, the internship program already validated all the off-season work and and in-season preparation I had done by inviting me to participate. It gave a sense of direction and purpose to my final two seasons at McMaster and left me with memories – on and off the field – that I’ll never forget.
I could write for days about all the unique interactions and eye-opening teaching moments attained in those two weeks with the Stampeders but that’s not the purpose of this article. Instead I intend to bring some light to the – often – mysterious program that comes and goes annually without much fan fare.
QBs are typically selected three ways. Two players are selected by the CFL for long-term development in hopes of turning the university level’s best arms into CFL-calibre players. Examples of this include UBC’s Micheal O’Connor, Manitoba’s Jordan Yantz, and Western’s Will Finch. Four players are selected from the East-West Bowl. This was my back door entry. And three players come from rotating schools to ensure all universities are represented in this program as nominated by their coach.
The internship program is a joint effort to both help get a Canadian QB in the CFL, while also to improving the calibre of the U SPORTS play.
I reached out to every university (CIS/U Sports) and junior (CJFL) quarterback who has taken part in the program since it’s CFL-wide 2012 inception and asked a variety of questions stemming from my own personal experience in the program, hoping to discover the pros and cons of the Canadian quarterback CFL training camp internship experience. In all, 10 participants agreed to complete quality assessment, some who had participated in the program multiple times for various teams.
The players surveyed were given the option of anonymity up front as a means to attain honest analysis without fear of fracturing relationships between team and player should future playing or employment opportunities arise.
Did you feel welcomed into the CFL environment by coaches, players, staff?
Anonymous: “Everyone in Ottawa was incredibly welcoming. From the coaches to players and equipment staff. they made it feel real”.
On a scale of 1-5, how involved were you during an average practice?
1 – No throws: 10%
2 – Limited throws: 50%
3 – A couple throws: 40%
4 – A good amount of throws: 20%
5 – My shoulder hurt by the end of day two: 0%
Anonymous: “I didn’t get many chances to throw in competitive periods going in, but I understood that since the team I joined had a QB battle going at the time and needed those reps for evaluation”.
4) Were you trusted to manage an inside run or other team period which did not involve throwing?
Anonymous: “Yes, I ran inside runs, got some reps in skelly and 12-on-12 early on where I really learned the speed of the game”.
5) Were you asked to play a role other than QB during camp in drills, pre-season prep etc.?
Windsor Lancers Austin Kennedy: “Yes, I was used to throw to defensive backs in certain warmups. Most alternate roles were about using a guy who can throw better than coaches. Nothing glamorous but I had no problem with it considering the setting. I also served as a scout team punt gunner.”
6) Did you feel like you got better as a result of this experience?
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: “Yes, increased confidence and understanding of a pro style offence”.
Anonymous: “Yes, I was able to take something different out of each camp, either schematically from seeing the playbook and being in install meetings, or physically from working with their coaches and receiving feedback”.
Laurier Golden Hawks James Fracas: “Yes, coaches took personal time to teach technique and film work were beneficial for improvement”.
7) Did you feel like the team wanted you there, or they just had you in camp due to a CFL mandate?
Yes, they seemed to enjoy having me in camp: 100%
No, they seemed as though I was in the way, an afterthought: 0%
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: “I felt like they wanted me there, they seemed to enjoy having me in camp. I spent a lot of time with players outside of training camp and the whole team/fans were very welcoming.”
Anonymous: “I feel like they wanted me and saw me as someone who can help service the vets so I definitely had a role to play at camp.”
8) Would you suggest the CIS-CFL QB internship program for a talented young U SPORTS QB 5 years from now?
A) Yes: 100%
B) No: 0%
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: Yes, I think the time spent in the film room with the offensive coaching staff was the most beneficial experience for me as a young quarterback. It will help other young players get an understanding of complex coverages and blitz packages which they can transfer to their fellow offensive players in the CIS.
Anonymous: “Yes, great opportunity to prepare mentally for the next level, and learn under current QBs in the CFL. By the time first camp comes around you will already be prepared mentally in terms of knowing what to expect.”
Manitoba Bisons Theo Deezar: “Yes, you learn how small your college offence is in comparison right away. It’s a wonderful learning experience and a way to expose yourself to the highest level of football in Canada.”
Anonymous: “Yes, It’s a great experience, but a QB can get as much or as little as you want out of it. Depending on the effort put in. The team doesn’t expect much out of the intern, and they’re not really held accountable for learning the offence if they don’t want to. If you work hard mentally to learn the offence and the concepts, I think it can really pay off when you bring it back to your school and apply it to your own situation.”
9) Did the experience change your perception of the CFL? If so, what affected your perception and why?
Anonymous: “I certainly got an sneak peek at what pro sports was all about. It was cool to see it from the inside.”
Manitoba Bisons Theo Deezar: “Yes it changed my view of the CFL. The amount of preparation and variability in the playbook is professional. Learning the playbook and eating, breathing and sleeping football with arguably the best athletes in Canada gave me a glimpse of their lifestyle.”
Anonymous: “Changed my perception in terms of seeing how a team is built and how the ratio comes into play.”
Queen’s Gaels Billy McPhee: “The intern experience definitely changed my perception. It really hit home how much of a “job” playing professional football is. Players come from all around the United States and Canada, only to survive a couple days of camp. I also learned to appreciate just how athletic everyone is. They are not “NFL rejects”. Many ended up north of the border for reasons outside of “not being good enough.”
Anonymous: “Yes, somewhat. Gives you an inside look at how the players and coaches interact with each other. Also, you get to see the realities of the business side of things. Guys fighting for jobs everyday, with guys moving in and out of camp.”
Windsor Lancers Austin Kennedy: “Yes and no. It definitely made the idea of playing more appealing to me and also seem more attainable. However I saw the areas where I lacked as a QB compared to two similarly aged young rookie QBs (Jacory Harris and John Crompton) and so I quickly saw first hand the level of have to be at to compete as a QB, which was probably truly unattainable.”
Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks James Fracas: “I learned how to practice and prepare like a professional, which transferred to how I practiced and played at the university level.”
10) What were the best and worst parts of the CIS-CFL internship?
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: “The best part for me was being able to benchmark my skills against the rest of the QBs in training camp. When I was talking to some of the receivers during the week most of them were genuinely surprised when I told them I was still a college quarterback. After seeing their reaction it gave me a great amount of confidence that I didn’t stick out as not belonging there. As I gained confidence during the week a few of the receivers were asking coaches to give me more reps during important periods which meant a lot. There really wasn’t a worst part for me because I came in knowing it was a learning experience and I had nothing to lose. The players and coaching staff were great to me and I learned a lot.”
Anonymous: “Best was getting to hang around and play football for a month in a pro style environment. Worst was sometimes you had to sit through really long meetings that weren’t relevant at all to you.”
Manitoba Bisons Theo Deezar: “Best part of camp was seeing how much better the players are than in the CIS. The worst part of camp were the training camp blues where you mentally have to tough it out more and more as the camp progressed.”
Queen’s Gaels Billy McPhee: Best part, sharing a birthday celebration with Henry Burris. What an amazing day. Worst part, it ending. My memories of the whole experience are very positive.
Anonymous: “Best part was definitely learning the new offences, and being exposed to such great coaching. Really allows you to think big picture for your own program/situation, and make changes for the better. Also really good to meet so many professional QBs, and see how they go about their business. Have met some great role models through the program. Worst part about it is just the logistics of physically going through a training camp grind. Getting up early, working hard physically and mentally. It’s difficult to stay motivated sometimes because you have to participate in everything everyone else does, but you get no real reps in practice.”
Ottawa Gee-Gees Derek Wendel: “The best part was the players were warm and welcoming and treated me like I was another player trying out for a team. The worst part was not being able to get reps in order to show your capabilities, which also limits your ability to learn the playbook.”
11) Did the experience make playing in the CFL more or less realistic as a QB?
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: “I never really looked at playing in the CFL as a realistic goal, unfortunately as a Canadian QB the odds always seemed against us. After watching great QBs like Michael Faulds, Brad Sinopoli and others before me not get a chance to start in the CFL it really showed how many great players are in the league.”
Manitoba Bisons Theo Deezar: “The experience made it less realistic to play in the CFL. The QBs they brought were the best I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Queen’s Gaels Billy McPhee: “The experience made playing in the CFL less realistic. I was encouraged by the idea that I was not that far behind some division I quarterbacks, but as we see even now, there is little to no trust in taking a QB from the CIS. Attending the combine all but ensured that idea. I felt I was there mainly as a marketing tool.”
Anonymous: “Probably slightly more realistic, because teams now know more about me, and have seen me around their own facilities but also, it makes me very aware of the level of talent that the CFL has at QB, and I know where I need to get to if I want to make a roster.”
Windsor Lancers Austin Kennedy: “More realistic in that I could see exactly what I had to do/had to be in order to play at that level, but at the same time less realistic because I could see first-hand the skills I lacked in comparison to who I’d be competing against. This was no surprise to me by any means, I have always been realistic about my skill-set but again seeing it firsthand affirmed those thoughts/feelings. I’ve always said that a big problem with Canadian QBs is that they are not exposed to a high level of competitive play until high school or in some cases even in university, so the time you’ve lost in comparison to American counterparts is already over and done with once your into your 3rd year of university play.”
12) What did you take away from the experience?
Saint Mary’s Huskies Ben Rossong: “The biggest thing I went away with was a greater understanding of the game and how it’s played at the highest level in Canada. Also, now that I’m done playing football it definitely makes for a great memory and story.”
Anonymous: “Just helped the college game slow down once I returned to school.”
Anoymous: “A few interesting plays and concepts.”
Anonymous: “Understanding the CFL game. Even from my first camp to second camp everything made a lot more sense in terms of the playbooks and reading coverages so just having a head start on being mentally prepared for playing in the CFL.”
Manitoba Bisons Theo Deezar: “I took away that football at the highest level has so many good athletes at all positions that if you’re not perfect you will be beaten. The leadership qualities and team building were great to observe as I can bring those back to my university team.”
Queen’s Gaels Billy McPhee: “During my experience, I took away a number of tools related to; leadership, commitment to excellence, improved decision making and risk management such as understanding when it is okay to take a shot downfield.”
McMaster Marauders Asher Hastings: “Good life and football experience. Lots of detailed football knowledge but also good life experience to be in a new environment like that.”
Windsor Lancers Austin Kennedy: “Playing in the CFL isn’t impossible — but still requires a great deal of both talent and hard work. In conversations with Jacory Harris and Jonathan Crompton I really felt that by the time a Canadian and American have their freshman year of playing under their belt, the Canadian is probably too far behind already to ever really catch up. As a guy who got by on my cerebral skills more so than any physical specialties, the required skill gap was just too large to overcome.”
Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks James Fracas: “The main thing I took away was how to prepare like a professional. That’s what I found to be the main difference between the collegiate and professional levels.”