It’s back-to-school time across the country and that means only one thing: the return of university football.
U Sports teams in the Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario are scheduled to kick off the 2022 season on August 27, with Western Canada joining in the action starting September 2. For the first time since 2019, teams will compete in a full eight-game schedule as they quest to capture the 57th Vanier Cup in November.
College football is big business south of the border but university athletics in Canada is often treated as little more than an afterthought by both students and the general public. For the savvy consumer, however, it offers a chance to see the football stars of tomorrow at rock-bottom prices.
In honour of U Sports kick-off weekend, 3DownNation is going conference-by-conference to unveil the greatest alumni every school has sent to the professional ranks. This list is limited to the modern era — leather helmets need not apply — and based on their accomplishments at the CFL or NFL level only, not collegiate accolades.
From CFL all-stars to NFL Pro Bowlers, Lou Marsh award winners to Hall of Famers, some truly legendary athletes have graced Canadian campuses. We’ve already shown you the best and brightest from Atlantic University Sport, the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, and Ontario University Athletics. Today, we finish our cross-country trek with the Canada West.
Alberta Golden Bears: Joe Poplawski, Receiver
Some great CFL players have donned the face of GUBA, but Poplawski’s start-to-finish brilliance places him a cut above the rest. The CFL’s Most Oustanding Rookie in 1978 would go on to win Most Outstanding Canadian twice in his nine-year career with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, including his final season in 1986. The five-time all-star racked up 549 receptions for 8,341 yards and 48 touchdowns, receiving Hall of Fame induction in 1998.
Honourable mentions: LB Tom Towns, OL Leo Blanchard, REC Ken Nielsen, OL Blake Dermott
Calgary Dinos: Stu Laird, Defensive Tackle
One of the greatest ever Calgary Stampeders, Stu Laird’s connection to the city dates back to his college days. The 1994 West Division all-star quietly managed to amass 219 tackles and 72 sacks in his 12-year career — the most by a Canadian at the time of his retirement in 1996. His impact off the field was even greater, earning Laird the Tom Pate Memorial Award in 1991.
Honourable mentions: OL Sean McEwen, OL Vic Stevenson, REC Don Blair, DT Kent Warnock
Manitoba Bisons: Israel Idonije, Defensive End
David Onyemata may well surpass him before his time with the New Orleans Saints is over, but right now Idonije is still the cream of the crop when it comes to Manitoba products heading south of the border. After going undrafted in 2003, he eventually landed with the Chicago Bears and stuck around the NFL for 12 seasons. In 149 games, Idonije racked up 288 tackles, 52 tackles for loss and 29 sacks, forcing eight fumbles and recovering six, including one for a touchdown.
Honourable mentions: DT David Onyemata, FB Wade Miller, LB Bernie Morrison, REC Gord Paterson
Regina Rams: Akiem Hicks, Defensive Tackle
The Rams boast many legendary alumni from their time as a junior football team but none qualify for this university era list. Luckily the school has unwittingly become Canada’s top NFL factory, with more players carving out careers south of the line than we even have space for in the honourable mentions. California native Akiem Hicks narrowly beats out local legend Jon Ryan for the top spot by virtue of the difficulty of his position. The former Chicago Bear has become one of the NFL’s top pass-rushing nose tackles with 40.5 career sacks since being drafted in the third round back in 2012. He was a Pro Bowler in 2018 and will look to repeat the feat this year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Honourable mentions: P Jon Ryan, OL Brendon Labatte, REC Jason Clermont, OL Brett Jones
Saskatchewan Huskies: Scott Flory, Offensive Line
The Huskies’ greatest pro product also happens to be their current head coach, as Scott Flory took over the team in 2017 and returned them to U Sports powerhouse status. As a player, he was drafted in the third round of the 1998 CFL Draft by the Montreal Alouettes and held down the fort at guard for a remarkable 15 seasons. Flory was an 11-time Division all-star who took home CFL honours nine times — the second most in league history — while being the East Division nominee for Most Outstanding Lineman five times, winning twice. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018.
Honourable mentions: OL Gene Makowsky, DB Dale West, REC Dan Farthing, LS Chad Rempel
UBC Thunderbirds: Don Moen, Linebacker
Hall of Famer Norm Fieldgate could have been the choice here but given he played for the Thunderbirds for just two months in 1954, it seemed unfair to include him. Instead, I’ll go with Toronto’s franchise record holder for most games played, Moen, who suited up for 222 contests over 13 seasons — including an incredible 198 straight appearances. Named an East Division all-star just once in 1988, his value as the heart of the team’s defence far exceeded any accolades. Named an all-time Argonaut in 2017, Moen was credited with 521 career tackles — despite that stat not being recorded for his first three years in the league — and added 35.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries while leading the team to Grey Cups in 1983 and 1991.
Honourable mentions: OL Leo Groenewegen, LB Kevin Konar, REC Vince Danielsen, DB Taylor Loffler