Deshawn Stevens has his eyes set on the NFL.
The six-foot-two, 255-pound linebacker has followed this NFL Draft cycle — in which a record-tying four Canadians were chosen — very closely and he dreams of a similar opportunity for himself.
It’s why he’s chosen to leave the University of Maine for his final seasons of NCAA eligibility in search of a bigger program willing to showcase him for scouts, but Stevens will also be the first to tell you that dreams of the NFL are only a recent goal of his.
“For me, I always thought that I’d be playing in the CFL someday, hopefully for the Toronto Argonauts,” he said with a smile during a videoconference.
That’s a dream that could come to fruition on Tuesday night, when Stevens is expected to be a top selection in the 2021 CFL Draft. While whichever team drafts him will probably have to wait a year or more as he chases the NFL and all that comes with it, coming home to Canada is more than a fallback plan.
In an era where the so-called ‘lost generation’ of CFL fans is a hot topic of conversation, Stevens recalls fondly how evenings spent at the Rogers Centre watching the Argos when he was playing minor football gave him a goal to work towards.
Pro football suddenly seemed real when he got to play a kiddie game at half-time with the GTA Grizzlies. High school football seemed bigger when Don Bosco Catholic Secondary played the Metro Bowl on that field. Volunteering at the 100th Grey Cup showed him exactly how incredible the payoff could be as a professional, enough for the young linebacker to pocket a souvenir.
“I have my white one back at the crib, too!” Stevens shouted through the Zoom call as a reporter waved a Toronto Argos Grey Cup towel across the screen, barely able to contain his excitement.
“Having all those experiences I had in those times back as the kid, you don’t forget those moments. Like this is what I can really obtain and pursue in my mind, whether it’s here in Canada or elsewhere. Man, I want to go for it. This is all I’ve been blessed with and I’m lucky enough to really get to see for myself. That’s what I don’t want to take for granted.”
There is very little Stevens takes for granted. Though he left Toronto to play his senior year at the Kent School in Connecticut and has plied his trade for the Maine Black Bears for the past five years, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prouder Canadian. What more could you expect from a kid who twice captained the Canadian National Team in international competition, a rarity for NCAA prospects to even consider.
“Never in my life did I think I’d get to go to China and play football over there. All the years I got to play against Team USA representing the country or the province, it’s something you don’t forget,” Stevens said.
“To be a 14 or 15-year-old kid who gets to go, travel away from school for a week and be with other top Canadian players for a whole week and just get to focus on football, it gives you a real picture of what you’d want your life to be like in the future, if that’s what you want to pursue.”
It has been working with and playing against other top Canadians that’s shaped Stevens into the All-Conference linebacker he is today. With the Metro Toronto Wildcats, he suited up with guys like Fraser Sopik and Trivel Pinto. He first met fellow top prospect and future Maine teammate Liam Dobson with Team Canada and, when he arrived in Orono, it was Redblacks linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga who taught him the Division One ropes.
Most importantly, when Stevens was struggling after tearing his Achilles and losing his 2019 season, it was a trio of former teammates now in the CFL — Malcolm Carter, Fabion Foote and Gordon Whyte — who challenged him to get back to top form while training at LPS Athletics in Toronto.
“They’d been over there and seeing them now compared to when I first met them, it’s remarkable seeing the hard work they put in to be the best athletes in the best shape they can be,” Stevens said of the off-season training regime.
“I got right in there and I followed their work ethic, evolving mine and I came back feeling like a person again.”
The result was 36 tackles in a four-game spring season, enough to be named first team All-Conference at middle linebacker.
Having found his sense of closure after five years at Maine, he hopes it’s enough for a major FBS program to come knocking for his two remaining years of eligibility. If they don’t, Stevens won’t return to the FCS, choosing instead to jump to the CFL right away.
As an over-sized middle linebacker, most see him moving to defensive end in Canada, but Stevens is quick to remind people just what game he grew up playing.
“I grew up playing in Canada, Canadian football rules, having to run sideline to sideline on a bigger field,” he insisted.
“Making that transition my first game at Kent in the States, that was easier for me because I’m used to running up and down the field, used to running on a wide field, used to running in coverage and making zone drops.”
He’ll happily return to that role if the NFL doesn’t lie on the horizon, but he’s out to prove — like each of the players selected over the last few days — that while Americans have an easier path to the pro ranks, Canadians can accomplish greatness despite obstacles.
Football’s ‘Captain Canada’ is going to represent his country, his city, and all those who play there at the highest level he can.
“I’ll never forget where I come from. I’m a dirty bird for life, Bosco for life. That will never, never, ever leave me,” Stevens emphasized.
“I’ll never forget playing over there. I’ll never forget the experience, I’ll never forget my brothers over there and I represent those guys to the fullest.”