Every four years — or in this case, five — the Summer Olympics brings the absolute pinnacle of human athletic achievement to billions of television viewers across the world.
It has drama and pageantry unlike any other event on the planet, but there is one thing holding it back: a distinct lack of gridiron football.
But what if that wasn’t the case? Here at 3DownNation, we dare to dream.
It’s true that tackle football at the Olympic Games likely isn’t imminent, but the game is already played across the world at an international level. In fact, the semi-finals in the European Men’s Championships will take pace just as the action in Tokyo is wrapping up with the next IFAF World Championship slated to take place in Australia in 2023.
While Canada has long been a powerhouse on the international circuit at the junior level and is a three-time runner-up on the women’s side, 2011 marks the only year that a Canadian Men’s National Team was assembled. That group — made up of CFL retirees like Adriano Belli and U Sports up-and-comers like Shamawd Chambers and Jake Thomas — settled for a silver medal after losing to the Americans 50-7 in front of 20,000 fans in Vienna, Austria.
So if the Tokyo Olympics had football, what would this year’s Team Canada look like? For the purposes of this project, we will assume that the NFL, CFL and NCAA will allow all eligible players to participate. The tournament itself is sure to play by IFAF’s American rule book with the standard 45-man rosters. That means versatility is crucial at every position in a short tournament with short rest between games.
There are also certain Olympic standards to consider. There is no tolerance for doping in Tokyo and so those with recent WADA violations wouldn’t be allowed. That means no Andrew Harris at running back and no Nathan Shepherd or David Onyemata at defensive tackle.
For our own purposes, we will also exclude all players who have recently retired and those who have not yet received Canadian citizenship, such as Denver Broncos’ quarterback Brett Rypien. The talent pool is simply too deep to play with hypotheticals.
The process of choosing the team was an agonizing testament to the quality of Canadian content. In fact, six players currently on NFL rosters didn’t make the cut and neither did several CFL all-stars.
Assembling the final roster wouldn’t have been possible without the passionate input of many colleagues. Thanks to all who shared opinions, but especially Duane Forde (and his son, Quincy) for their detailed thoughts, and Football Canada president Jim Mullin, who attacked this project with gusto and deserves credit as a co-general manager.
Without further ado, here are those who made the cut on the offensive side of the ball. The defence will be unveiled tomorrow.
Starters denoted by *
Michael O’Connor, Calgary Stampeders (Orleans, Ont.)* — The starter on this team will come down to scheme, but the University of British Columbia product has a leg up on the job as a prototypical pocket passer with a Vanier Cup ring to his name.
Nathan Rourke, B.C. Lions (Oakville, Ont.) — Every player on this team needs to contribute and Rourke is the perfect backup to do damage on short yardage, in the run game, and even at receiver if his tryout with the New York Giants taught him anything.
Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers (Sherwood Park, Alta.)* — It might have been a debate otherwise but with Harris ineligible, the Canadian Cowboy is the undisputed top back and a home run-hitter for this team.
Sean Thomas-Erlington, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Montreal, Que.) — The former eighth-round CFL Draft pick has just scratched the surface of his potential and can contribute in the rotation as both a dangerous runner and pass catcher.
Anthony Coombs, Ottawa Redblacks (Winnipeg, Man.) — The selection of Coombs may come as a surprise, but the top experts agree that a third pure running back would be a detriment in this type of tournament. The former Manitoba Bison isn’t afraid to go between the tackles but brings enticing schematic advantages as a receiver, the type of versatility needed in this spot.
Luke Willson, Free Agent (LaSalle, Ont.)* — Willson might be a bit past his best-before date, but he is still the best eligible pass-catching tight end and the Super Bowl winner brings veteran leadership to a roster that skews young.
Antony Auclair, Houston Texans (Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Que.) — As one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, the Laval product had to make this roster. He can contribute in-line or from the backfield.
Theo Johnson, Penn State Nittany Lions (Windsor, Ont.) — Cue the outrage for including a college sophomore over current NFL players Bruno Labelle and Rysen John and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 CFL Draft, Jake Burt, but some analysts felt Johnson is already the best Canadian tight end. He was the nation’s top recruit in 2019 and blazed a Penn State positional record 4.51 second forty-yard dash this spring.
Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers (Abbotsford, B.C.)* — What more needs to be said? Claypool was physically dominant as an NFL rookie and will be this team’s offensive engine.
Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers (Brampton, Ont.)* — A fantastic deep threat, the 2021 third-round NFL Draft selection out of Tennessee is an easy No. 2 on this team.
John Metchie III, Alabama Crimson Tide (Brampton, Ont.)* — He may still be in college, but the 2021 National Champion and reigning Jon Cornish Trophy winner is on his way to being a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2022. He’s shown a willingness to do all the dirty work and could even pinch hit on defence in a crisis.
N’Keal Harry, New England Patriots (Toronto, Ont.) — Harry may be labeled a first-round NFL bust, but he’s plenty good enough for this roster. Team Canada will find a way to get him the ball in space, where he was unstoppable at Arizona State.
Tevaun Smith, Edmonton Elks (Toronto, Ont.) — Talent-wise, this former Iowa Hawkeye might just be the best Canadian receiver in the CFL. He’s used to making the most of his touches in a crowded receiving corps, something he’ll have to do in this tournament.
Lemar Durant, B.C. Lions (Coquitlam, B.C.) — The Canadian receiving leader in the CFL by a wide margin in 2019, Durant simply couldn’t be left off this roster. He’ll provide a thicker target in the slot.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kansas City Chiefs (Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que.)* — There is a lack of pure Canadian left tackles with pro experience these days, so this spot caused some anxiety. Ultimately, the choice is to bump the nation’s best lineman and reigning Lou Marsh Trophy winner back out to tackle — his university position — and trust the Super Bowl champion delivers.
Brandon Revenberg, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Essex, Ont.)* — He doesn’t get nearly the hype he deserves because he plays guard, but Brandon Revenberg may be the CFL’s best Canadian offensive lineman. He’s a lock here at left guard.
Sean McEwen, Calgary Stampeders (Calgary, Alta.)* — Veteran leadership is essential in the trenches and we moved some things around late to get McEwen on this roster as the starting centre.
Brett Jones, Free Agent (Weyburn, Sask.)* — Saskatchewan legend Brett Jones has made a career backing up the centre position in the NFL, but he’s also played some quality games at guard. That’s where he’ll play here to maximize Team Canada’s proven talent up front.
Chris Van Zeyl, Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Fonthill, Ont.) — 37 years old is a tough sell in a grueling tournament like the Olympics, but there was zero chance I was going to leave the CFL’s reigning Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman sitting at home.
Dakoda Shepley, San Francisco 49ers (Windsor, Ont.) — The backup interior offensive line role on this team came down to Ryan Hunter or Shepley, but it was the UBC product’s spectacular rookie season in Saskatchewan and his great feet that got him the spot.
Carter O’Donnell, Indianapolis Colts (Red Deer, Alta.) — A U Sports player sticking at tackle in the NFL is a rarity and O’Donnell’s year on the Colts’ practice squad is more than enough to convince me he deserves a spot on this team.