As quarterback James Roberts took his place among the other quarterbacks during warmups, the pressbox DJ at Alumni Stadium teed up the soundtrack for the Argos’ first practice of the pre-season.
Bass from a hip-hop track reverberated through the stadium as rappers A$AP Ferg and Future repeated their song’s title and central message.
“I’m on a New Level.”
Within minutes Roberts, a second-year quarterback at the University of Guelph, would know the feeling. He’ll spend training camp with the Argos under the CFL’s quarterback internship program, which sees each of the league’s teams work with a CIS quarterback for the pre-season. The interns will attend practices and video sessions, but won’t play games.
A program like this would never fly in the NCAA, where working out with a pro team could cost a college player his eligibility.
But internships, which expanded to include the entire league in 2012, dictate that players return to school. When Roberts rejoins the Gryphons this fall he’ll have completed a dream summer job and measured himself against professionals.
“This is their camp and their team and I get the pleasure to learn firsthand,” says Roberts, a Cambridge native. “(Film study) is more detailed, more strict and there’s more to it. I’ll take away from that what I can bring to my (university) team.”
Since 1991, only six Canadian pivots have thrown a regular-season pass in the CFL, and when Mississauga’s Brandon Bridge lined up for Montreal’s 2015 season finale he became the first Canadian to start at quarterback in 19 years. But the league says it embarked on the internship program in 2012 hoping to boost the quality of CIS football.
“(We’re) getting kids to go back to their CIS programs with a heightened sense of confidence and coaching,” says Kevin McDonald, the CFL’s VP of football operations. “You’re getting a kid who’s leaps and bounds ahead of where he’d left.”
The project hasn’t yet produced a full-time CFL player, but Carleton University head coach Steve Sumarah says it shrinks the skill gap between Canadian and American prospects. It also reduces the chance CFL coaches will overlook Canadian quarterbacking talent.
“I would love to be able to say we’ve got five or six Canadian quarterbacks playing, but that’s a bit of a pipe dream,” Sumarah says. “There has to be an end game. To have CFL teams confident and comfortable to bring in a CIS-developed quarterback would go a long way.”
Roberts completed 206 of 346 passes for 19 touchdowns last season but spent Wednesday as a spectator, watching Ricky Ray and the team’s other quarterbacks from a few yards behind the line of scrimmage. When Ray would take a drop, so would Roberts. And when Ray made a pass, Roberts would pantomime his own throw. The team doesn’t plan to use him in full-blown practice situations, but says Roberts will learn just by shadowing Ray.
“It can be a very intimidating process,” says Argos head coach Scott Milanovich. “You’re a college kid and you’re standing next to a guy who’s got three Grey Cup rings, and so far he’s handled it well. It can only help him, and help his leadership when he goes back to school.”
In the NCAA, even that much involvement with a pro team could sideline a player for months. In 2013, Toronto’s Myck Kabongo, then on a basketball scholarship at the University of Texas, served a 23-game suspension and paid a $475 fine when the NCAA learned he had travelled to Cleveland to work out with Cavaliers player Tristan Thompson.
Rigid rules governing amateurism help both the NCAA, which markets its stars, and pro leagues, which want to draft polished players. While those regulations protect multibillion-dollar businesses they also prohibit programs like the CFL internships, which could help smooth the transition from college to pro ball.
But a CFL-CIS partnership can exist precisely because of lower financial stakes, Sumarah says. Football doesn’t make CIS schools rich, and CFL teams can’t lure stars with eight-figure contracts.
“No CIS player in his second or third year is going to have some CFL team say, ‘Hey, drop out of school. We want you,’ ” Sumarah says.