Mike Filer wasn’t invited to the CFL Combine – at least not at first.
Despite a solid university career on the offensive line for largely terrible Mount Alison teams – they went 6-26 in his four seasons – the Brantford native’s pro prospects didn’t look promising.
Despite training for the CFL Combine for much of the spring, the then 21-year-old didn’t get an invitation to attend the league’s 2012 showcase for draft-eligible Canadian players.
Instead, he got a call from TSN analyst and former CFL player Duane Forde who was putting on his own workout the day before the official version. Forde, convinced there were quality national players being overlooked by teams across the league, wanted to give guys like Filer an opportunity.
Filer happily took it.
“It was the only chance I had of getting some sort of recognition, ” said Filer, now entering his sixth season with the Ticats. “If it wasn’t for that combine, I don’t know how I would have gotten to where I am. That was my shot.”
Filer was among 150 players at Forde’s workout, called the National Invitational Combine, which was attended by scouts and coaches from a number of CFL teams, including the Ticats. He impressed in the one-on-one drills, which pitted him against defensive linemen in pass protection and run blocking situations.
“It was hell because there were teams that kept requesting to see me at different positions, ” Filer said. “No word of a lie, I must have done close to 30 reps that day and by the end of it my legs were like rubber.”
Filer was eating dinner in Toronto with his dad after the workout when the call came from the CFL: he had been invited to attend the weekend’s festivities, his second combine in as many days. He had an hour to get to the hotel, but was without a change of clothes or suitable attire for the team interviews.
“I lied and told him I was already halfway back to Brantford – to buy myself some time – and went to the Bay and bought the cheapest suit I could fit into, ” Filer said.
The rest of the weekend went well. Drew Allemang, Ticat director of Canadian scouting, then in his first year on the job, says Filer’s determination put him on the radar of several CFL teams.
“He wasn’t the most athletically-gifted, but he was strong, tough and physical. And he wanted a professional career more than anything, ” Allemang recalls. “He was committed and you knew he was going to put in the work, so you figured he could do it.”
Post combine, Allemang says the Ticats called Filer every time they needed an offensive lineman for an on-field session involving a defensive player and that his willingness to help out in any way he could further demonstrated his commitment.
“He must have worked out for us four different times. He knew we were using him and he never complained, he just showed up, got stretched and let some defensive lineman bull rush for an hour,” Allemang said. “The thing is, he always did really well. It said a lot about who he was and when we had the opportunity to grab him, we did.”
Filer was ultimately drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in the fifth round of the 2012 CFL Draft, before joining the Ticats later that summer. He has since started 32 games, while being named the team’s top lineman in 2015. He signed a three-year contract extension last October.
In other words, he made it. But more than that, Filer’s rise – and Forde’s workouts – demonstrated that the CFL needed to do more when it came to giving Canadian players an opportunity to showcase their talents.
The league introduced regional combines in cities across the country in 2013, with the top performers moving on to a national combine in Toronto.
The 2016 version takes place this weekend.
“A lot of kids were slipping through the cracks, ” Allemang said. “Now, the league is inviting less players to the main combine, and using the regional combines to earn their way. It allows the best kids to get there.”
Filer says he thanks Forde every time he sees him and says his experience is a good example of how a player from a small school, who isn’t garnering a lot of buzz, can still find a way to make it.