2024 CFL Draft profiles: former Clemson REC Ajou Ajou not thrilled by fall from grace

Photo courtesy: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

It’s been nearly four years since Ajou Ajou first danced into the lives of sports fans. His starring role in a cover of Michael Jackson’s Thriller produced by the Clemson University football team generated headlines on both sides of the border and close to 300,000 views on YouTube.

That Halloween classic now seems an apt metaphor for the Canadian receiver’s football career. Back in 2020, he was a bright-eyed true freshman at one of college football’s most prestigious programs, taking centre stage as he ripped off a long touchdown. Then the ghosts and ghouls of poor decision-making descended upon our unwitting protagonist, leaving him for dead.

“I’m just excited, man. There’s so much unknown with the name of Ajou Ajou,” he told 3DownNation in an interview at the CFL Combine. “Everyone’s like, ‘What is he gonna do? He had a little drop-off.’ Alright, we’re gonna see what a drop-off really is. We’re putting the pads on, turn on the tape and they’re gonna see there’s not really no drop-off.”

Back when he was best known for hip thrusts in red leather, much was written about Ajou’s unlikely rise to the top. Raised by a single mother who immigrated from South Sudan, he was brought up in the tiny town of Brooks, Alta. before his natural athletic gifts took him first to Edmonton and later to Clearwater, Fla. for high school.

He captured national attention as a four-star recruit and fielded offers from every major program in the country, becoming the first Canadian ever to sign with the Tigers. The early returns were positive on a roster loaded with elite talent. Ajou played 22 games over his first two seasons on campus, including a pair of starts, making eight catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.

Far less has been written about his fall from grace, which began late in his sophomore year in 2021.

“Honestly, just a lot of impulsive decisions, a lot of greediness on my end,” Ajou admitted. “I wasn’t willing to trust the process, I wanted that instant gratification. I thought I could offer more and be an impact player. I felt like I was Him. I felt like I could be that guy for them.”

Unsatisfied with his playing time, he rushed to leave Death Valley and entered the transfer portal. He landed at the University of South Florida under head coach Jeff Scott, who had run point on much of his recruitment at Clemson.

The struggling Bulls appeared to be a perfect spot to get on the field and dominate, elevating a beleaguered program. Instead, Ajou caught just two passes for nine yards in the season-opener before suffering a sports hernia, costing him the entire year. The team finished just 1-11 in the process, costing Scott his job.

When Ajou returned for offseason workouts under new head coach Alex Golesh, he wasn’t back to full strength. Rather than wait out his return to form, the once-promising prospect was politely told there was no longer a spot for him on the roster.

“Life’s not fair and everything happens for a reason,” Ajou smiled. “This is just God testing me and I’m battle-tested. I’m one of the most resilient people on this earth. I really took it with a shoulder shrug, man.”

Left without a Division I home, he elected to try his luck at the junior college ranks, heading to Garden City Community College in Kansas. It was a profound culture shock, as Ajou had become accustomed to all the bells and whistles associated with collegiate programs that print money.

Here the standard for recovery was a steel tub and ice, not cryotherapy. The absence of luxury led the young receiver to a profound realization.

“That was my notification. It was like, ‘ding’, the bell’s ringing, that I don’t do this for that. I do this for the love of the game,” he said. “Even though we didn’t have the facilities that Clemson or USF had, football was still fun.”

Ajou appeared in seven games for the Broncbusters in 2023, hauling in 17 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns while adding four tackles. He found himself playing a considerable amount of tight end, mixing it up with defensive ends and linebackers in the box.

With two years of college eligibility remaining, there was time to explore that position switch at a higher level and restore his NCAA stock. Instead, he elected to declare early for the CFL and NFL Drafts, trying his hand at breaking into the professional ranks instead.

According to Ajou, his family situation was the driving force behind that decision. He feels the need to support his mother and younger siblings as the primary breadwinner, rather than working his way back up the amateur ranks.

That’s a story rarely heard in the CFL, as the relatively modest rookie salaries aren’t enough to get players to surrender the chance at a college degree. While his desire to get paid suggests viewing the league as an NFL stepping stone, Ajou insists that isn’t the case.

“I just take it one day at a time. I don’t like to get too eager about the future and get anxious. I just try to be great where my feet are and not really think too much about that,” he said. “If that happens, then so be it, that’s God’s will. As of now, I’m just excited for a CFL team to draft me and see what I bring to the table.”

Just how early that will happen in April’s draft, if at all, remains a mystery. Entering the CFL Combine in Winnipeg, Ajou was by far the biggest wild card and the early results have not been kind to his stock.

Teams were expecting the freak high school athlete he was in Brooks or the physical specimen from Clemson, where he was “five percent body fat, 240 pounds, and running 20 miles per hour” according to his own description. Instead, he showed up at a standard six-foot-two and 211 pounds, clocking the slowest forty-yard dash among receivers at 4.85 seconds along with otherwise pedestrian testing numbers.

After sitting out the first competitive session on Friday with a twisted ankle suffered in testing, he returned to the field on Saturday with the hope of salvaging the week. He made a few plays and believes the physicality he learned last season as a tight end will help him stand out as a player willing to do whatever it takes on both offence and special teams.

“I’m not ducking no smoke. I’m not ducking no contact. I’m a fiend for it,” Ajou grinned.

“I can’t wait for them boys to see me do what I do and know they got a winner, they got a leader on their hands that knows that winning culture. Going to Clemson for two years, they taught me what it takes to win, how people need to act. You’ve got to be a pro before you’re a pro. I just can’t wait to show these folks what I can do.”

Perhaps more important are the prospect interviews, where teams have had to suss out if the receiver’s boyish charisma is a fit for their locker room or a distraction from the immaturity that led to a shortened and nomadic college career.

Thankfully, Ajou appears willing to publicly own his mistakes. Though he swears he wouldn’t change his path, he does have a message for that young man cosplaying as the King of Pop.

“If I could go back in time, I’d tell my 18-year-old self like, ‘Yo, trust me. It’s not what you want right now, but just keep your head in the gutter, keep on working and it’s gonna get there.”

With midnight fast approaching on the CFL Draft on Tuesday, April 30, things look bleak for the thrilling young Canadian. All that’s left is to see if the zombie turns to face the camera and starts dancing again.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.