Football: Ultimate U Sports all-star team — one player per school for 27 positions

Akiem Hicks with the Regina Rams in 2011 and with the CFL's Chicago Bears in 2016, when he had seven sacks.
There are 27 football-playing universities across our country. There are also, give or take a special teams selection, 27 spots to fill when an all-star team is chosen.

A fun writing exercise — read: it's summer and there's not a lot going on — was hatched from that numerical coincidence. Pick an all-star team drawing from the past 40-some years of the university game while using only one player from each team. No loading the lines with Lavals (any number of CFL all-star linemen), or stacking the team with 'Stangs (do you pick two-time Hec Crighton Trophy winner Tim Tindale who went on to NFL glory with the Buffalo Bills or record-setting receiver Andy Fantuz, who won a receiving title in the CFL?)

Talk about a Sophie's Choice, although this does not purport to be some all-time all-star team. Leaving out defunct programs (or the departed, hey there Simon Fraser) means being unable to select a legit legend such as Tony Proudfoot, since he played at the University of New Brunswick.

Another controlled variable was confining choices to a loosely defined modern era. A hard-line historian type would say the modern era begins in 1965 with the establishment of the Vanier Cup. Or 1967, the centennial year, when the format went from an invitational to a four-team playoff, 47 years before the U.S. finally got one. As a habitual goalpost-mover, I'll slide the start of the modern era to some point around 1971, when the Old Four (Queen's, Western, McGill and University of Toronto) was phased out and the current four-conference alignment began taking shape in earnest.

Without further ado, here's a squad that reflects the best of each and every program from Acadia on the east coast to to UBC on the west coast and all points in between.

Special thanks for this post to Jim Mullin, who was great with putting forward some 1970s players.

Defence

Defensive end — Leroy Blugh, Bishop's (Edmonton, CFL). Blugh was a prototype for the Canadian pass rusher as an all-Canadian at Bishop's when the Ian Breck's Gaiters punched above their weight on the regular in the 1980s. Born in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, raised in Napanee, Ont., Blugh twice had double-digit sack totals during his Gaiters years. From there, he played 15 seasons in the CFL, 14 with Edmonton, during a Canadian Football Hall of Fame career.

Blugh has dealt with cancer and diabetes in recent years, but still works in football as the defensive line coach for the Ottawa Redblacks.

Defensive tackle — Israel Idonije, Manitoba (Chicago Bears, NFL). A true Canadian success story, having gone from playing one high school season on a re-constituted team to making the NFL as an undrafted free agent who had a long-term career at both end and D-tackle. Idonije, fittingly for someone who played in Chicago, was also a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award finalist for his humanitarian work with children in Africa, Manitoba and Chicago.

Idonije, if memory serves, was a defensive end during his U of M days, but he can slide inside for purposes of making an imaginary lineup of football players.

Defensive tackle — Akiem Hicks, Regina (New Orleans Saints, NFL). Well, it wouldn't be a complete list without a Californian who found succor in Canada West. Wait, this isn't a basketball article. The great thing about university sport is that the tent is big enough to accommodate Americans who, to put it elegantly, fall off the conveyor belt of the shamateur sports-industrial complex down south and need a Plan B.

Hicks, after his plans to play at LSU were thwarted, found a home playing at the U of R in 2010 and '11, becoming the first Ram to be taken in the NFL draft.

Long-time Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan likely also gets the honourable mention from the Rams' alumni roll.

Defensive end — Ricky Foley, York (Argonauts, CFL). The first really tough choice on a school representative, as the pick from the Lions boiled down to either Foley or running back Andre Durie. In the end, the difference in stature between the two long-time Toronto Argonauts mainstays wasn't as big as it was between two other OUA running backs extraordinaire from early aughts (oh, guess which ones) and other possibilities from their respective teams.

Three of the four defensive line picks have small-town roots. Foley came out of Courtice, Ont., to develop at York, before going on to an 11-year CFL career that included contributing to three Grey Cup-winning teams. It's a shame his playing days might have ended so inelegantly — getting cut from the Argos by text message — but what endures is about Foley with the Argonauts is that he "publicly stuck up for and believed wholeheartedly in his hometown organization when others wouldn’t."

Linebacker — Michael O'Shea, Guelph (Ticats and Argonauts, CFL). Breaking this team down to distinct defensive and offensive line positions is way too granular, even for this blog. It is safe to say O'Shea is the Mike linebacker.

You already know the boilery stuff with O'Shea — second player in CFL history to record 1,000 career tackles across 16 seasons on each side of the Argos-Ticats rivalry. One seared memory is of his first go-round in Hamilton in the mid-1990s. The Tiger-Cats were a gong show for pretty much the whole decade, but you couldn't laugh at them as long as the Canadian linebacker from North Bay was out there competing so intensely.

O'Shea's string of championships include leading Guelph to a Yates Cup in 1992.

Linebacker — Jason Van Geel, Waterloo. Running back Mike Bradley is the ultimate Warrior, of course, and could fill the role of "national player who's third on the depth chart at running back and plays on all special teams," since that's what Bradley did for six seasons in the CFL with Edmonton. Bradley's position, though, has competition.

That shifted the Warriors' shortlist over to the dark side, defence, and it came down to same-name stars from Waterloo's first Yates Cup winner in 1997, Van Geel at linebacker and Jason Tibbits at cornerback. Twenty years ago this fall, Van Geel was the national defensive player of the year after helping Waterloo reach a summit many UW folk probably thought was unattainable in the days when the school set a dubious mark for consecutive football losses.

The first point of reference with those Waterloo teams that won the Yates in '97 and '99 — against Western at J.W. Little Stadium both times, the latter time in the final game there — is probably the offence. Tuffy Knight had the Warriors running the wishbone, with Ryan Wilkinson as the triple-option triggerman. The second point of reference, of course, is that a Waterloo guy got tackled illegally by Ottawa's mascot during the '97 national semifinal.

However, the Warriors also had success they had never seen before (or since) because they played some great defence. Van Geel was at the forefront of that, and Tibbits (a five-times OUA all-star, four times at corner and once as a returner) covered things well on the back end.

Linebacker — Frank Balkovec, University of Toronto (Edmonton, CFL). Here's your hook for this linebacker selection: Balkovec  was the top pick back in 1984 after playing just a single season of football for the Varsity Blues.

Balkovec, at least from a three-decades-removed vantage point, embodies a bygone era before everyone and everything became over-scheduled and multi-sport student-athletes were still easy to find. Everything is more intense now and in some ways we're poorer for it. Balkovec was a three-sport guy at U of T who contributed to a Yates-winning team in 1983 and was also a three-time Canadian champion in indoor shot put. After university, he was an eight-year CFLer.

Defensive back — Marc-Olivier Brouillette, Montreal (Alouettes, CFL). Wait, is this based on university feats or pro accomplishments? To quote Abe Simpson, it's a little from Column A, a little from Column B. Brouillette converted from quarterback with the Carabins to a hard-hitting defensive player with the CFL's Als, playing both safety and linebacker.

Brouillette recently retired as a player to pursue a legal career. He was a CFL East all-star in 2016, so he ended on a personal high note.
Defensive back — Mark Montreuil, Concordia (San Diego Chargers, NFL). Before Laval, Montréal and Sherbrooke came along to create a truly Quebec conference, Montreuil came up through the North Shore Broncos juniors and the Stingers to make the NFL. The cornerback, who remains the last Stinger chosen in the NFL draft, played three seasons with the San Diego Chargers and also played in NFL Europe with the late and lamented London Monarchs.

An alternate from the Stingers is linebacker Cory Greenwood, an undrafted free agent who was a special teams player for Kansas City earlier this decade. Greenwood is the second-most accomplished Kingston, Ont., athlete to wear No. 93.

Defensive back — Laurent Deslauriers, UBC. A Jim Mullin nomination, Deslauriers was an all-Canadian and Vanier Cup champion for the Thunderbirds and a CFL West all-star and Grey Cup champion as a pro with Edmonton. Deslauriers was primarily a defensive halfback — by the way, isn't that position due for a renaming? — but was dominant in all three phases. He set still-extant school records as a return man and played slotback when the Thunderbirds won the Vanier in 1982.

Defensive back — Paul Bennett, Laurier. Something about Canadian football that's often lost on its detractors is how it still makes room for a certain amount of community spirit and volunteerism. (Some of that is borne from necessity; or as one former player once put it to me, "everyone knows there's no money in Canadian football.")

What was cool, at least to an incorrigible sports nerd, about reading up on Bennett, was a testimonial from Scott Taylor about how "his greatest work might have come after he left the game." Bennett, a volunteer high school coach in Winnipeg, also came up with the idea of creating community recognition awards for people "who have devoted their lives to acting without thought of reward for themselves." That speaks to the personalities that football developed in the 1960s and '70s, people were about social justice.

Until last year, Bennett was the only Ontario conference player with five punt return touchdowns in one season.

Defensive back — Richard Karikari, St. Francis Xavier. It was a six-of-one decision with St. FX, since linebacker Henoc Muamba and now-retired defensive back Karikari have each been CFL all-star selections. Muamba was also a league-wide pick whereas Karikari was a East selection.

However, Karikari might have been a more impactful university player. In the early aughts, he gave the X-Men that "offensive defensive back," as a pass defender who was also a touchdown threat as a return man. It's relatively rare for a defensive player to be a finalist for the Hec Crighton, but Karikari achieved that in 2002.

It goes without saying that the greatest X-Men footballer remains Paul Brule, who scored 45 touchdowns in two seasons — including eight in one game — in the 1960s.

Whether it's Karikari or Muamba from St. FX, five of the 12 defensive players were born outside Canada. Big tent, people!

Offence

Offensive line — Miles Gorrell, Ottawa (Stampeders, Concordes, Rough Riders, Ticats and Blue Bombers, CFL). The roster would be incomplete if the Gee-Gees rep was someone who was not part of the all-time dominant 1975 team. Gorrell might be the first person to gently point out he was in his first season on the varsity in '75. However, one can only extrapolate how good he must have been in his final season with the Gees, 1977, in order to rate being named team MVP whilst at a position that generally gets the least attention.

That period where Gorrell "grew up in Ottawa" sowed the seeds for an association with the CFL that's gone on almost 40 years. As a scout, Gorrell had a vital role in helping the CFL's Redblacks win the Grey Cup as a third-year team in 2016.

I wasn't alive in 1975, but those Gee-Gees still have a hold on the city's sports imagination, especially among sportswriters of a particular vintage. They are the only football team ever inducted into the city's sports hall of fame.

Offensive line — Mike Schad, Queen's (Philadelphia Eagles, NFL). A personal reason for getting emotionally invested in university football as an adolescent around 1989 was the discovery that Schad, who blocked for my first favourite football player, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, had grown up 30 minutes down the 401 in Belleville, Ont, and had played at Queen's, not one of those U.S. football factories featured on ABC and CBS on Friday afternoons. Wow, he made it from here to the NFL.

Granted, there were other reasons for becoming a hardcore football fan around that point in my miseducation (one, my mother went back to school and that created a bond to Queen's and two, I kept getting cut from rep teams in hockey and fast-pitch softball and was too short for basketball, so football became the refuge for my sports fantasies). But enough about me.

Schad remains the lone Canadian university player ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft, going No. 23 overall to the L.A. Rams in 1986. His NFL years were spent mostly in Philly, where he played guard on some teams that were playoff regulars. Going in the first round is a singular achievement unlikely to ever be matched. Every year around NFL draft time when my Twitter timeline fills with updates on Canadian players who might get picked up in the seventh round or get a mini-camp invite I can't help but have a haughty internal response (poor character, I know): Yeah, but my alma mater produced a NFL first-round pick.

Offensive line — Pierre Lavertu, Laval (Stampeders, CFL). Proof positive that the upper crust of university football has pro-ready graduates. Lavertu has yet to dress out for Calgary this season due to injuries, but as interior lineman who can play centre or guard, he has been part of a Stampeders offensive line that has arguably has the most sustained success of any position group in the CFL since 2014.

Lavertu was an RSEQ all-star in all four of his seasons with the Rouge et Or from 2010-13 and since he was at Laval, you know all four of those seasons involved making it to the last game of the season. It seems fitting that the power program of the past two decades is represented by an offensive lineman.

Offensive line — Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, McGill (Kansas City Chiefs, NFL). Starting guard on a playoff team, while also working toward becoming a doctor. Duvernay-Tardif and his ghostwriter at The Players' Tribune can explain that better than I can.

The McGill alternate is also a doctor who played in the NFL with Kansas City, Jean-Philippe Darche. A linebacker at the university level, Darche was a long snapper in the NFL and played in Super Bowl 40 with the Seahawks.

Offensive line — Scott Flory, Saskatchewan (Alouettes, CFL). It could be either Flory or Gene Makowsky repping Huskie Pride.
  • Flory: 15 seasons with the same CFL team, nine-time all-star, two-time Outstanding Offensive Lineman recipient, president of the CFL Players' Association, now helping coach the Huskies
  • Makowsky, 17 seasons with the same CFL team, five-time all-star, now a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Saskatchewan, deadpan Corner Gas guest spot.
Their teams went head-to-head in the 2009 and '10 Grey Cup games. Flory's team won both. So, totally arbitrarily, Flory > Makowsky, although the latter played more offensive tackle.

If positional integrity is a must, there are Laval and Saskatchewan alumni who currently start at right tackle in the CFL — Jason Lauzon-Séguin with Ottawa and Patrick Neufeld with Winnipeg.

On to the GLORY BOYS:

Receiver — Andy Fantuz, Western (Roughriders, CFL). Granted, offensive stats accumulated in the '00s-era OUA have to be taken with the same grain of salt as scoring stats from the 1980s NHL, but it's wild to revisit just how far ahead of everyone Fantuz is on the career lists for yards and receiving touchdowns. His tally of 4,123 in the former is almost 1,000 ahead of  the next most prolific pass receiver and his 41 TD catches (remember, regular season only) is eight more than the next guy.

To put the second one in perspective: Danny Vandervoort, who is getting his feet wet at slotback with the B.C. Lions, averaged almost one touchdown per game across four seasons with McMaster. He finished 12 TDs shy of Fantuz' mark.

Fantuz delivered on his potential over 11 seasons in the CFL, with the high point coming in 2010 when his league-most 1,380 yards made him the first Canadian to win a receiving title since another 'Stang, Dave Sapunjis, back in 1995.

Receiver — Brian Fryer, Alberta (Washington, NFL; Edmonton, CFL). A "first" guy — the first Canadian university receiver to gain 1,000 yards in a season and the first player, full stop, to be drafted by a NFL team and go directly into the league, as he played for the Washington NFL team during the American bicentennial year of 1976. Out of context, that's impressive enough, but in context it stands out even more since that was during the George Allen era in D.C. and Allen was known to over-emphasize playing veterans.

After calling it a career on the field — with a Vanier Cup title with the Golden Bears and a role in the five-in-a-row Edmonton CFL dynasty — he made a successful move into a second career as executive director of Football Alberta.

Receiver — Don Blair, Calgary (Lions, CFL). The first non-lineman to represent Canada in the East-West Shrine Game showcase! The Dinos have had their share of superlative offences and individual talents over the last four decades. It will take something ludicrous to bump out the seared image of the 1995 Vanier Cup, when Blair scored four touchdowns (three receiving, one by recovering a blocked punt) when Calgary dropped 54 points on Western. Fun fact, unless you're from London: the Dinos did most of the damage with their backup quarterback after the starter was knocked out of the game.

Blair was a No. 1 overall choice who had a stellar CFL career. Like Fantuz and Fryer, he set a national receiving record and won the Hec Crighton.

Receiver — Samuel Giguère, Sherbrooke (Ticats and Alouettes, CFL). The second-newest program manages to sneak a player in at a deep position. While Sherbrooke has generally been the Partick Thistle to Laval and Montréal's Celtics and Rangers in the Quebec conference, the small school has helped a few individual talents blossom over their 14 seasons.

Giguère was one of the first bona fide prospects to emerged at Sherbrooke, possessing enough specs to earn a couple NFL trials before returning north to fulfill the role of national wide-side receiver. Now 33 years old, he's playing for the Alouettes.

Another Vert et Or receiver who's in the CFL, Simon Charbonneau, could have also been the pick. Charbonneau was borderline unstoppable in the 2010 Dunsmore Cup when Sherbrooke nearly upset Laval. (That day, we were just a couple plays away from an Ottawa-Sherbrooke Uteck Bowl instead of a been-there-done-that Western-Laval matchup.)

Running back — Daryl Stephenson, Windsor (Blue Bombers, CFL). In 2006, there was some discord when Stephenson won the Hec Crighton, but it wasn't about him. It was more about having seven winners in a row from the OUA. To some extent, and I didn't articulate this well enough at that time, it was also about the virtues and drawbacks of the "career award bias," so-called.

Likewise, for reasons having nothing to do with Stephenson, the only rusher to ever top 5,000 career yards, this was the hardest piece of the puzzle. First it involved whether to have a fifth pass receiver to reflect the Canadian game of 2017 instead of a second running back. There was also a thought that the choice should reflect that this fictional team would actually play against fictional juggernaut, like the Monstars with Laval's and UBC's combined budget. That would mean giving some weight to receiving skills.

Ultimately, though, better to have a second running back. That brought it down to, as hinted in the preamble, the three star rushers from the early-aughts: Stephenson of Windsor, Durie of York and, you guessed it, Jesse Lumsden of McMaster.

Ultimately, the (ir-)rationale was that Stephenson exemplifies the best of Windsor so much more than anyone else. He was a dogged competitor and gave everything to make Windsor, for a time, a playoff team. As a pro, he also made a great adjustment to being a depth player with the Blue Bombers, which surely must be tough for university players who are used to being the focal point as a feature back.

So that's how it turned out: Stephenson in, Lumsden over to the bobsleigh track.

Running back  — Éric Lapointe, Mount Allison (Alouettes, CFL). Lapointe is in the Hall of Fame as an amateur player, but it could just as easily be as builder. I'll just do a mini-oral history from some people who were around him every day at Mount A:

Mathieu Gauthier, defensive end: "Éric was one of the first French football players to make it into the mainstream pop culture in Quebec ... One quick example of his influence is in a recent recruiting event at a Montreal CEGEP. While the MTA recruiters had qualified only 5-6 guys who seamed like a right fit for MTA (only these kids got an invitation to the event), 34 kids showed up for the presentation when they learned that Éric Lapointe was going to be there.

"He certainly had an influence on a generation of kids, who chose football instead of hockey and other sports."

Jorge Barrera, a Mounties rookie in 1995 who is now an investigative reporter with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network: "Éric Lapointe had the aura of a star the moment he walked into the Mount Allison football locker room in his rookie year. While other rookies were subjected to the humiliating rituals of initiation, Lapointe moved above it all, his hair long and safe from the clippers.

"On the field he made things simple for his coaches. The offensive co-ordinator once remarked that running the Mt. A. offence with Lapointe was like playing Nintendo football: Sweep right, sweep left and Lapointe outran them all."

Julian Dickinson, receiver: "If you never saw him play at Mount Allison, you have no idea how good he really was. There was one play that probably best illustrates what he could do on the football field and what he could do for a team. It was 1996, Eric's second year. We were playing St. FX in the AUAA finals in Antigonish and we got absolutely pummelled in the first half. We must have been down at least three touchdowns and I'm sure most people in the locker room thought that game was over.

"But Eric came out in the second half and ripped off a 99-yard run that snaked all over the field, left about 10 defenders rolling on their bellies in the mud and ended with Eric in the end zone. It was the best individual play I've ever seen in a football game. He went on to rush for about 300 yards that game and brought us within a few points of winning that game. And this wasn't a cupcake defence. There were All-Canadians on the X defence, which would eventually play in the Vanier Cup.

"It was an amazing feat. At the end of the game he was bloody, bruised, covered in mud and his jersey was torn like he'd been through a war. I remember he did a TV interview after the game with his helmet on because he was so busted up about losing, he couldn't show his face." 

Twenty-three spots down. By process of elimination, you should know who is QB1.

Quarterback — Chris Flynn, Saint Mary's (Montreal Machine, World League; Rough Riders, CFL). No. Words. Necessary.



The Flynn legend only grows with time, perhaps in part since it was an unfinished symphony-type thing since there was no second act in the CFL.

Specialists

Kicker  — Al Charuk, Acadia (Lions, Argonauts). Total Calvinball cop-out with choosing the botteur, since it's more about picking a definitive Acadia player whose feats included using his foot.

In a four-season span in the 1970s, Acadia had three Hec Crighton winners — Charuk in '74, followed by The Bobs back-to-back with receiver Bob Stracina and quarterback Bob Cameron in '76 and '77.  In 2014, Sportsnet ranked Cameron the 28th-best player of the Vanier Cup era with Charuk 35th and Stracina 37th. The former, of course, punted in the CFL for nigh on a quarter-century. Charuk and Stracina, between scoring touchdowns and placekicker, each scored more than 100 points in a season for Acadia.

The default selection was Cameron, due in perhaps to a stronger association since he had the longest pro career. On second thought, Charuk was a two-way player who won the Hec as a defensive back — where he once had a 10-interception season — and fashioned a CFL career as a receiver.

Rush cover — Jason Arakgi, McMaster (Lions). As the man himself put it, "you're only as good as the bottom guy" and well, Arakgi is the CFL's career leader in special teams tackles and played on all special teams even in his final season, 2016. One could also hold up his career arc — spend nine seasons all with one team, perform a significant function very well and then leave the game on one's own terms to step into a second career — as a good example for young athletes to emulate. Only a very, very few get to play forever, but there are other entry points to parlaying athletic aptitude into a good life.
Returner — Tunde Adeleke, Carleton (Stampeders). Special teams touchdowns are supposed to be a rare treat, but Adeleke made them a staple in Carleton's offensive diet over his four seasons. In 2016, he became the first player since Paul Bennett with five punt return touchdowns in one season.


It was just wild how people around the Ravens just came to expect the brilliant breakaway runs. Like no one before him (at least in my time), Adeleke combined with psychic peripheral vision with high-class wheels, since he also had the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2017 CFL combine.

Feel free to disagree with the selections, or the process. But please remember that any substitutions either have to be at the same position or require a two-position switch. 
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2 comments:

  1. Writing excellent pieces on Canadian college football is no way to put food in your belly, son.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You've seen my belly. This might be the best diet ever.

    ReplyDelete