Brazil is a country best known for samba, sun and soccer.
But Saturday morning in Belo Horizonte, the focus was rain, football (the Canadian version) and the crack of pads.
The soccer field used for the day’s events was slick from an overnight downpour but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the 18 hopefuls on-hand. With friends and family looking on from the stands, the Brazilians took the field to perform drills under the watchful eyes of Greg Quick (Director of Global Scouting), Greg Dick (CFO and Head of Football Operations) and Ryan Janzen (Associate Vice-President, Football Operations), aiming to earn a CFL combine invite to Toronto.
For many of these players, this wasn’t just an attempt to pursue their dream of playing football but a once in a lifetime opportunity to go abroad and experience life outside of Brazil. Some have never been to Canada and, a few, never outside of Brazil.
The day began with measurements, the athletes were weighed, measured and photographed.
Then came the vertical jump. Unfortunately there wasn’t a specific room for it, so it had to happen out in the open. The day’s first event quickly demonstrated that there was a wide range of athleticism on hand. The highest jumps were near 35 inches — very respectable when compared to 2019 national combine results.
For the bench press, the CBFA (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol Americano) decided that it was to be a closed event. That meant media was not allowed to watch or photograph. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t want media to document one of the day’s most dramatic events, but that was their call to make. From outside the room, the yells of encouragement and loud counting meant that one could still follow along. Again, there was a wide range of results. One athlete failed to complete a single rep, while three managed at least 20.
When it was time for the 40-yard dash and broad jump, the rain had started again, creating a slick, wet field. Given that there was no option for an indoor run, the show went on despite the conditions. Two players appeared to tweak their hamstrings during the event, but otherwise it seemed to go off without a hitch.
The shuttle and three-cone drills were where the drizzle wrecked havoc. Multiple players slipped and slid and had to repeat the drill.
Thankfully, the sun was back out for one-on-one action. The tension was thick as the players were aware that it was their last chance to make a strong impression.
Once the man-to-man battles concluded, the event was over. At the post-combine press conference, the CFL crew announced that two players had earned invites to compete in Toronto at the National CFL Combine, linebacker Luis Polastri and receiver Klaus Pais. Both players were highlighted by fellow 3DownNation reporter JC Abbott earlier this week when he previewed the Brazilian Combine.
Although both were raw with their technique, they tested well and performed under pressure. Polastri is built like your prototypical linebacker (six-foot-three, 230 pounds) and Pais has something you can’t teach: speed.
Upon learning that they were heading to Toronto, the pair were overcome with emotion and extremely grateful. They thanked God and admitted they understood that this was simply the first step on their journey. They acknowledged that they would have to continue to train hard and that they would be going to the combine as underdogs.
When asked what they knew about the CFL itself, both confessed they had a lot to learn.
“I only started following the league a few years ago, but I know some of the teams. And I know it’s a strong league with a lot of history and tradition,” Polastri said.
“I know the rules are different than the NFL and that the field is bigger, but honestly not too much else. We watch a lot of YouTube clips about the CFL since it’s not on TV in Brazil,” Pais said.
Even for those who didn’t make the cut, all hope isn’t lost. Quick said that he still would review the film and let the rest of the athletes know by Wednesday if anyone else had made the cut.
But even if no other players are on that flight to Toronto, the dream of playing in the CFL for the other Brazilian athletes isn’t over. Even if a player isn’t invited to the Combine, they are still eligible to be drafted in the Global Draft. Every team in the CFL receives all the film from each international combine and are allowed to sign players as free agents.
The event itself will have a lasting impact for Brazil. Whether it was knowledge gleaned from being coached on technique in individual drills or simply creating more awareness about the CFL as a league itself, it’s hard to see the CFL’s first combine in Brazil as anything other than a smashing success.
The reality is that outside of North America, Brazil has one of the highest registered level of participation in football worldwide. There are currently 448 flag and tackle teams with over 19,000 football players registered with the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol Americano. Their top division boasts 32 teams playing at the highest level in the country.
When asked about how the Brazilian athletes compared to other global players he’s seen in Europe and Asia this year, Dick was complimentary.
“Honestly, it’s quite good. They’re right in the middle of the pack. The truth is they’re very raw, but with a bit of coaching they can be on a hockey stick curve to grow.”
Quick said what separates the Brazilian players from others he’s seen this year is their passion.
“It’s obvious these guys care and that they love the game,” he said. “That matters.”
As I mingled among the family, friends and onlookers from the local football teams who were on hand to watch the day’s events, I overheard some griping about the fact that only 18 athletes were participating in the combine and that some deserving players hadn’t been invited to participate. When asked about that, Dick admitted that it boiled down to a timing issue more than anything else.
“The reality is we didn’t have enough time, we only signed a deal with the Brazilian Federation a month ago. This is a great start but there’s absolutely a lot of room for growth,” Dick said.
“Next year, you could easily see 50-60 guys here at this combine. The Brazilian Federation is talking about running regional combines as a lead up to this global combine to ensure guys aren’t overlooked and that we have a bigger group next year.”
Officials from both the CBFA and the CFL really emphasized that their partnership will only grow in the future and that both are committed to the long-term, big picture.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in Brazil, in my experience, it will take time to get Brazilians invested and interested in the CFL. This combine was a great start. Even the way football is translated works against the CFL because in Portuguese Brazilians say “Futebol Americano,” which naturally implies the NFL.
But the buzz generated around this event was noticeable. People were talking about the CFL. They were chatting about how it’s a faster game. People hanging around the event were watching Grey Cup highlights on the sidelines. The players who didn’t earn invites were vowing to train harder for next year’s event.
Those might seem like small things but given how passionate and proud Brazilians are, all it would take is someone like Polastri or Pais to snag one of those global roster spots on a team for a whole lot of people down here to suddenly pay attention. And that’s without mentioning the huge Brazilian expat communities in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. You better believe a Brazilian on a roster would put more butts in seats in those cities.
As someone who was initially skeptical of the whole CFL 2.0 initiative, I have to admit that after being on the ground and witnessing it unfold first hand, I’m sold. Those 18 players, friends and families, everyone who will tune into the local news, read about the event and the fact that two Brazilians are heading to Canada, now know what the CFL is. It’s a viable path to continue their playing career and experience life abroad.
*All images courtesy of Gilson Junio Photography