Fort Hays State
Hometown: Mississauga, Ont.
Statistics: 35 games; 47-of-56 field goals (84 percent); 134 punts (42.4-yard average); 39 downed inside the 20; 35 kicks of 50-plus yards; 58.7-yard kickoff average
The journey to pro football can be a winding, circuitous path with many hiccups along the way. Chasing a dream can lead players all over the world and it’s possible that no prospect in the 2020 draft illustrates this better than Dante Brown.
Growing up, Brown was a promising soccer player and it seemed his professional prospects lay overseas.
“At 12, I was playing in Hungary and Italy,” said Brown. “I was living with a family and training at an academy. I went back again at 14 and at 16 — I actually had my birthday over there. It was two or three months each time I went.”
While training and living in Europe was a cool experience, family meant he couldn’t make it a full time commitment.
“They would have moved my mom out there and gotten her a job in Italy, but she was working for the RCMP at the time, so she wasn’t wiling to do that,” explained Brown.
When Brown turned 16, he faced an important crossroads that changed the course of his athletic career. Finally old enough to stay on his own, contracts were on the table for him to play with teams in Poland and Lithuania. That would have meant a dramatic change in his education and taking international courses to get his GED.
“My mom said, ‘You should stay and get your degree, because you don’t want to go over there, get injured and end up without a high school diploma,'” said Brown.
“My friends were trying to get me to play football at the time and I saw it as a way of staying in school and getting a scholarship. It ended up being a toss up between living in Lithuania or signing up for football and going the NCAA route.”
In the long run, it appears Brown made the correct decision as a high school sophomore. He’s now one of the top kicker prospects in the CFL draft and received an NFL-calibre grade from specialist guru Gary Zauner. That outlook wasn’t always so clear, however.
After a productive career at Canada Prep alongside other top prospects like Brendan O’Leary-Orange and Dallas Cowboys’ draft selection Neville Gallimore, Brown was a respected defensive back and had a coveted five-star grade from the Kohl’s kicking camp. Unfortunately for Brown, he found himself ineligible for an NCAA Divison I scholarship.
“I ended up just missing out on being D-I eligible because the NCAA decided they didn’t take sociology, anthropology and a few other classes I was taking. I only missed out by .02 percent,” said Brown.
Growing up in a difficult financial situation, Brown needed a scholarship to continue his career. That came from tiny St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, a Division II program. All seemed perfect until the school, facing severe financial hardship, folded entirely at the end of Brown’s freshman year. The kicker was once again without a college home.
Things were complicated in his personal life as well. Brown’s mother was hit by a bus while directing traffic in the line of duty and suffered from the after-effects. Heading home seemed like the best option and a former community coach set up a meeting between Brown and the Western Mustangs. It seemed for a moment that he would team-up with another top prospect, Marc Liegghio, to form one of the most formidable kicking tandems in U Sports history.
“[Liegghio] was supposed to handle the punting and I was going to take the kicking duties, but they also wanted me to play corner. Funny that I didn’t end up there and now we are the two top guys in this draft,” said Brown.
For a second time, academic bureaucracy prevented Brown from settling down.
“Transferring the grades from St. Joseph’s College, they weren’t prepared to take certain courses on par. I had a good average but they would have wanted me to change programs,” explained Brown.
That hurdle meant any financial aid couldn’t come up front and the kicker would have to initially pay his own way.
“I didn’t have $18,000 up front to give them. If I had that money, there were more than enough Division I schools that had offered me as a preferred walk-on,” said Brown.
It seemed that the door had temporarily closed on a football career for Brown until a surprising early morning phone call.
“About 13 days before training camp started at Fort Hays State, they offered me a scholarship. It was six or seven in the morning, I was just getting back from the airport where I was working at the time,” recalled Brown. “Their kicker had just quit, I think it was their second kicker to quit back-to-back.”
Brown was bound for Kansas and, as far as last-second recruiting goes, it was a home-run. In three seasons at Fort Hays, Brown was twice named the Don Hansen Specialist of the Year for Division II football, twice named a finalist for the Fred Mitchell Award given to the best kicker below the FBS level, and was named the Division II Second Team All-Decade kicker, just behind Los Angeles Rams’ kicker Greg Zuerlein. Other notable names to make the team include Austin Ekeler, Matt Judon, Deon Lacey, Malcolm Butler, Larry Dean, Adam Bighill, and Janoris Jenkins.
“I set high standards for myself,” explained Brown. “All those awards I received were goals I set early in the process. It was great to be in a place that gave me the opportunity to reach those goals. I know that a lot of guys don’t get the chance to try the long kick.”
Brown also had the opportunity to simultaneously kick and punt at the NCAA level. He began punting exclusively as a sophomore, did double duty as a junior, and kicked exclusively as a senior.
“We only had freshmen kickers and no one would have played a down before I left. I relinquished the punting position to help the next generation and to really showcase my field goal kicking,” said Brown.
“I believe I can do both in the CFL. That’s something I’ve relayed to all the teams I’ve talked to.”
In a position where games can often hang in the balance, Brown thinks he is particularly well-suited for the task.
“I actually enjoy being in the high-pressure situations and kicking in big games. Those are the moments I look forward to,” said Brown.
That isn’t the only thing that sets the Mississauga native apart from other kickers.
“We did rugby-style punts for our scheme and a lot of teams really respected my athleticism,” chuckled Brown.
“I played running back. I played defensive back. I’m not the stereotypical kicker who runs away from contact and you don’t have to account for on the fake. As a defence, you have to play my team very honest.”
That goes double when a returner starts to break free.
“My pride wouldn’t let me let a returner go by easy. I enjoy hitting people,” said Brown. “I’d love to be on TSN or ESPN in that top ten after the ‘da-da-dum, da-da-dum.'”
Brown’s college production wasn’t ignored — he was able to participate in the Kansas State University pro day before COVID-19 shut down the normal draft process. He had meetings with the Raiders, Ravens, and Colts prior to the NFL Draft, but each signed a more established Division I kicker after the draft.
“If the NFL opportunity comes I’ll be blessed to have it, but I’m not holding my breath,” he said frankly.
Instead, Brown’s focus is on Thursday’s CFL draft and continuing his winding journey back in Canada. His mother is equally excited. Still battling the long-term effects of her accident, his senior year was the first time that health kept her from traveling to Kansas for his games.
“She thinks she is going to move out to wherever I end up playing,” laughs Brown.
Anonymous quote from a CFL scout: “He needs to be reigned in a little bit, but that kid’s leg is super strong.”
Projected Round: 3-5