Sports gambling has exploded in popularity and presence since the recent legalization of single-game betting in Canada, but one of the top prospects in the 2023 CFL Draft wouldn’t be where he is today without a very different type of wager.
University of Guelph cornerback Siriman Harrison Bagayogo is now considered to be the best player at his position in the country but growing up in the Montreal suburb of Bois-des-Filion, football wasn’t in his repertoire. He played hockey and then emerged as a dangerous centreback in soccer, before flipping to basketball late in his high school career.
At 18 years old, there seemed to be no sport he couldn’t conquer athletically. That led to a spirited debate with his cousin that would change the course of his life forever.
“I told him that basketball players were more athletic than football players,” Bagayogo recalled in an interview with 3DownNation. “He’s like, ‘No way’ and I said, ‘Okay, let me just put on my soccer cleats, get on the field, call your coach and I’ll just show you.’ And he did it.”
His cousin’s attempt to call his bluff resulted in an open invitation from a local coach to try the sport for the first time — one he was so certain was a joke that he missed the first practice. It was only after the coach called again that Bagayogo realized he was serious and ventured out in his pink soccer cleats to take him up on the offer.
Originally lined up at receiver before switching to defensive back, he found the experience to be an exhilarating new challenge. While his stature and athletic ability continued to give him an advantage over opponents, the physical aspect of the game ensured nothing came easy. His previous assumptions about basketball player superiority were shattered.
“To be honest, I don’t think that now,” Bagayogo laughed. “In terms of jumping, yeah, they are but when it’s come to running, we’re faster. I think I lost that bet but I gained the love of the game — it’s just a trade-off.”
Seven years later, that lost wager has him on the precipice of a professional career. Bagayogo was recently ranked as the 11th-best prospect on the CFL’s winter Scouting Bureau rankings and the second-highest-rated U Sports player in this year’s draft. With many of the top prospects expected to receive NFL interest, a rare first-round selection as a Canadian defensive back is not out of the question.
However, the 25-year-old’s path to dominance was not a straightforward one. Though his raw talent was apparent from that first fateful tryout, picking up the game so late posed some serious logistical issues. He had already aged out of high school football in Quebec and was too young for club football, leaving him without a place to play.
Instead, Bagayogo went online and found an open prospects showcase on Facebook. Without a snap of organized football under his belt, he showed well enough against established competition to receive an offer to play at CEGEP Champlain College Lennoxville, where he would have to learn the game from scratch.
“When I went to Champlain, I didn’t know anything about football. The only thing I knew was Cover 1,” Bagayogo recalled with a chuckle. “Zone, line of scrimmage, quarterback sneak, o-line — they meant nothing to me. The one thing I knew was to press the guy in front of you. It took me two years to learn football.”
The learning curve was steep and despite his unique physical tools, Bagayogo did not establish himself as a starter until his third season with the Cougars. The challenges were even greater off the field, where the francophone defensive back was learning to navigate an academic setting in English for the very first time in his life.
Prior to arriving at Champlain, even watching and understanding an English television program was an impossibility for him. There were times when he considered simply giving up and going home but he pushed through to complete all seven years of his post-secondary education in his second language, graduating with a degree from the Lang School of Business this year.
By challenging his brain to learn in two languages, Bagayogo believes he made himself a better player on the field as well. His mental processing is quicker than most because it was trained to be in his everyday life.
“It taught me to not only play with your skills but that you’ve got to play with your head too, which is something I feel like a lot of players forget,” he said.
After posting a break-out season with Champlain in 2018, Bagayogo opted to continue his English education and chart a unique path by leaving his home province for Guelph — a rarity for Quebecois prospects. He cemented himself as the school’s starting cornerback almost from the moment he arrived on campus and accolades weren’t far behind.
After a solid freshman campaign, Bagayogo used the cancelled 2020 season as an opportunity for growth and moved to Montreal to commit to high-level training. He has been named a first-team All-Canadian in each of the two seasons since, earning the Gryphons’ Donald Forster Most Valuable Player Trophy in 2022.
Through 23 career games, he has recorded 50.5 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles and two blocked kicks. Those unassuming statistics hide the fact that he has allowed just 16 catches and a single touchdown against in three years of play at Guelph, making him the nation’s premier lockdown corner.
At six-foot-one and 195 pounds, he is rarely found outside the hip pocket of the nearest receiver. As a prospect, he checks many of the most important boxes — instinctual feet, fluid hips, and the length to break up passes. At the recent College Gridiron Showcase in Fort Worth, Texas, he even stood out amidst American competition and earned interviews with three NFL teams.
While being drafted or signed south of the border is a long shot, Bagayago has NFL aspirations. In 2020, he watched former Guelph teammate Tavius Robinson transfer to Ole Miss and make an immediate impact in the SEC, developing into a legitimate NFL Draft prospect this season. He believes that he possesses similar athletic talent and while no NCAA opportunity ever materialized, his end goal is the same.
“I want to be that guy from Guelph who didn’t get any NCAA offers, who grinded his ass off and played an American-style game in the Canadian Football League, then brings that to America to show them that we can do it,” Bagayogo said.
With his skillset, an NFL mini-camp invitation is not out of the realm of possibility and there is no telling what could happen down the road. Last season, Canadian cornerback Tyrell Ford performed at the same all-star event and left without having spoken to an NFL team, only to be signed by the Green Bay Packers after a season in the CFL.
Ford was the ninth-ranked prospect in his CFL Draft and ultimately landed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the second round, though his elite movement skills made him an easier projection for scouts on both sides of the border. Bagayogo will be the subject of more intense debate, as his style of play will face questions from Canadian talent evaluators.
Though other defensive schemes are no longer a mystery to him, Bagayogo remains a press-man corner by trade and was employed as such with the Gryphons. While that’s exactly what intrigues NFL teams about him, those in the CFL will wonder how he will transition into the more zone-heavy systems that will need to employ him.
In that regard, the young defender believes he is a victim of circumstance.
“Pressing, being in man coverage, is probably my strength but I think people don’t understand that I can read a play too. My only picks, against Laurier, I was in zone. I was reading the slotback all day long,” he insisted.
“So I can play zone too, it’s just the scheme that we’re using at Guelph doesn’t allow that position to play a lot of zone.”
What can’t be questioned is the quality of Bagayogo’s resume, as he stands head and shoulders above the other U Sports cornerback prospects available this year. It has come as a result of testing himself against a number of elite receivers on a daily basis.
Guelph has quietly become a factory for Canadian pass catchers and it was originally his responsibility to sharpen the iron of current Saskatchewan Roughriders standout Kian Schaffer-Baker — who logged nine NFL workouts this offseason — as a freshman. Since then there has been Kiondre Smith — who made an immediate impact as a rookie with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2022 — and No. 14 ranked 2023 CFL Draft prospect Clark Barnes, as well as OUA all-star Vyshonne Janusas.
“I think that’s why I was able to do what I was able to do because games were easier than practice, to be honest,” Bagayogo grinned. “I was going one-on-one against Kian, one-on-one against Clark, one-on-one against Vyshonne. We made each other better.”
Locking down CFL calibre receivers won’t be a problem for him, something he hopes to prove to scouts again in person at the National Combine next month. After that, the waiting game will begin to see just how high he’ll be selected in May.
One way or another, Bagayogo might just become the first person to cash-in big on a bet they lost.