McMaster LB Enoch Penney-Laryea set to become the CFL’s ambassador to the United Nations

Photo courtesy: Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca

In a league that loves to check passports, Enoch Penney-Laryea may just be the perfect CFL prospect.

While a player can only ever play with one status, the undersized McMaster defensive end is the closest thing possible to a ratio triple threat. He hails from the West African nation of Ghana, where he spent several of his formative years, before eventually picking up the sport of football after moving to New York City.

In other circumstances, he might have entered the CFL as a Global or an American, but thanks to new rules in effect for the 2022 draft class, Penney-Laryea will get his pro shot as a National.

That sound you hear is commissioner Randy Ambrosie salivating all over his suit jacket.

“I never put much thought into that, but now that you mention it, I guess I’m a perfect blend,” Penney-Laryea laughed while leaving the field at the CFL National Combine in Toronto.

For much of the league’s history, the only thing that could gain a player entry into the CFL Draft was a Canadian passport or permanent residency. Talented U Sports players from foreign countries had almost no shot at continuing their careers, despite putting more hours into the advancement of Canadian football nationally than dozens of American-trained athletes whose passport status came through their parents.

That finally changed in the last collective bargaining agreement, allowing for any player who played four years in a U Sports program and graduated to enter the CFL as a National. The 2022 draft class will be the first affected by the new rule, with a number of high-profile, newly-minted Canadians eligible for selection. After advancing to the National showcase with a stellar showing at the Ontario Regional, Penney-Laryea has quickly made himself the most prominent.

“It’s actually really amazing,” the international man of mystery said of his status as a honorary Canadian. “Hopefully, I’m paving some kind of path for those who might look to me in the future and say, ‘Hey, this guy Enoch, he did it.'”

The testing numbers speak for themselves, with an impressive 4.58 second forty-yard dash, 39.5-inch vertical, 10-foot, seven-and-a-quarter-inch broad jump and 27 reps on the bench all putting him among the most athletically gifted players at the Combine in any position group. His path to selection on May 3 now seems clear and whatever team takes a shot on his physical upside will have the United Nations to thank for the opportunity.

Penney-Laryea’s father, also named Enoch, was responsible for bringing his Ghanaian family to the Big Apple while he worked for the UN Department of Safety and Security at the organization’s New York headquarters. The elder Penney-Laryea had previously been responsible for the security of UN personnel in Liberia, Rwanda, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“He definitely has some stories, but I don’t think he likes to tell us all of them because some are pretty serious,” the prospect explained. “Once in awhile, he’ll meet up with a buddy and I’ll hear them talk about something — I overhear some pretty serious stuff.”

When his father’s job called him away from the New York office to run UN security in South Sudan, the family stayed put for stability. It was that decision that allowed his son to become a budding high school football and track star, eventually earning a collegiate opportunity at NCAA Division III Union College.

Penney-Laryea spent two seasons as a depth running back at the private university, before his father was again transferred, this time to Armenia. Now a stable job in a safe location, the entire family was set to join him, but with nothing holding him to his expensive New York education, Penney-Laryea began to explore other options.

A close friend from Canada prompted him to look north of the border for opportunities and he settled on McMaster, drawn by the school’s illustrious football history and strong academics.

Photo courtesy: Jay Barlett/McMaster Athletics

His country of residence would not be the only thing to change, as a broken foot his final year at Union College continued to have a lingering impact on his ability to cut. Not moving as well as he hoped, Penney-Laryea chose to switch to the defensive side of the ball and play his high school position of linebacker to ease the burden.

That lasted until a pre-season matchup with the Saskatchewan Huskies, when injuries pressed him into action at defensive end. He never left the role, though positional changes were far from the only difficulty in transferring into the three-down game.

“My first training camp at Mac, I felt pretty lost on the field. Just even being a yard off the ball, those little nuances, it took me some time to actually get moving on the field,” Penney-Laryea admitted.

“It slowly came, I got in the film room, got to understand some of the differences and put in the time. The differences didn’t mean too much after a while.”

In 21 games since his transfer, Penney-Laryea has proved to be a consistent presence off the edge, making 55 total tackles, 10.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception. Off the field, he spent his summers with the family in Armenia and interned with the UN Industrial Development Program in 2019. With degrees in philosophy and biology, he’s now working full-time as a drug strategy coordinator at a pharmacy in Hamilton.

Soon to be the CFL’s foremost expert on the burgeoning Armenian automotive sector — the focus of his internship — Penney-Laryea’s status as a small compact car at a position played by trucks will require the five-foot-11, 217-pounder to transition off the line and return to linebacker. Having not taken a rep at that position in almost four years, the Combine process of one-on-ones was a major adjustment.

“It’s a bit shocking, but I’ve been training with one of the best linebackers in the country, Nate Edwards, and he’s been coaching me up a little bit,” Penney-Laryea said, noting not every rep he put on tape would be flattering.

“There’s some nuanced stuff that I still need to understand. Rasheed Tucker just toasted me on an in-breaking route because I wasn’t keyed in on his hips from the start.”

For every mistake made, however, Penney-Laryea’s athletic ability shows a flash of the potential he could have if given the right opportunity. Players with his speed and explosiveness simply don’t come available in the CFL Draft very often, but the McMaster product knows his value will need to be on special teams as he develops in other areas.

“I can be one of those depth linebacker guys who’s going to learn and slowly come up the ranks,” he said. “Physically, I feel like I’m gifted and I can do everything. It’s just a matter of that technique, experience and understanding all the nuanced stuff.”

If there is one thing that Penney-Laryea has proven capable of doing, it’s adapting quickly to unfamiliar situations — be that new positions or new countries. That’s an intangible that he has inherited from his globe-trotting father, who’s now living in Jamaica as the regional security advisor for that country, as well as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos.

While the family always emphasized stability, entering into the unknown is something that has become second nature.

“I’m thankful for the traveling that I have done. I think there’s a lot of perspective that comes with being born and raised in Africa and then living in New York and moving all the way east to Armenia,” Penney-Laryea smiled.

After all of that, fitting into a CFL locker room hardly seems like a challenge.

Abbott is a UBC student, youth coach and lifelong CFL fanatic. He specializes in coverage of the CFL draft and the league's global initiative.