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There are roughly 1,800 players in the National Football League and nearly all of them come from the same stream.

American college football programs deliver thousands of pro-ready players each spring when the NFL holds its draft, far more than the league can accommodate. It makes earning an NFL job an extremely challenging proposition, especially for players who come from off of the American football map.

University football in Canada – both as a game and a business – is a much different kind of a deal. There are no multi-million dollar TV contracts, schools manage tight budgets and going to class really does have to come first.

In the history of the sport, there have been fewer than three dozen Canadian university football players who have dressed for an NFL regular-season game, and only a handful who have established what could reasonably be considered an NFL career.

Last season, there were just seven former Canadian university players in the NFL. 

Remarkably, four of those come from the same school, a place in the heart of the Canadian football breadbasket where kids were taught by a veteran coach to play big and think bigger.

That's the simple explanation of how former University of Regina Rams players Brett Jones, Stefan Charles, Akiem Hicks and Jon Ryan, have all found themselves in the NFL at the same time.

They come from different places – one a native of Regina, another from small-town Saskatchewan, one from California and another from just outside of Toronto.

They share a bond of beating the odds, taking an unlikely journey from a school on the Canadian Prairies to play with the best players in the world.

Frank McCrystal has been a Regina Ram most of his life.

He played five years for the team as a linebacker and running back, coached five years as its defensive co-ordinator and then became the head coach in 1984 – a position he held for 31 years as the program transitioned from a junior football club to the university level.

There was as time in his life when the Regina native coached both high school and with the Rams, going to one from the other for six or seven hours each afternoon and evening.

But his relationship with the game was always about the players.

“The game was more of a vehicle for me,” said McCrystal. “My thing was to find value in an activity that allows students and players to grow as people. I believe I lived that as a player, both in high school and with the Rams, and I tried to carry that over during my days as a coach. We were developing a program; we weren’t just talking about playing football.”


That program was the gold standard of junior football in Canada, complete with scholarships, mentorship and physical training that put the team far ahead of its competition by the mid-to-late 1990s. The University of Regina didn’t have a football program at that time, but many of its students were playing for the Rams. So the school and the football program joined forces and in 1999 the Regina Rams moved from junior football – where they competed in the Prairie Football Conference of the Canadian Junior Football League, winning 10 championships – to the Canada West Universities Athletic Conference.


On the bigger stage, competing at a higher level, McCrystal continued teaching his players to set big goals. He would take his teams on retreats where they would commit their aspirations to paper.

“We would make them write their goals down and how they were going to achieve them,” said McCrystal. “If you are going to play in the NFL, how are you going to get there? We would talk about what it was going to take physically, technically, psychologically and socially. By putting their goals down, it made them think more. 

“I think you have to make them realize it’s more than just physical. You have to deal with the complete journey.”

Those words helped McCrystal inspire and motivate his young players to open doors for themselves that otherwise might have remained closed.

“If you’re from small-town Texas and you end up in the NFL, why can’t a small-town Saskatchewan guy end up in the NFL?” McCrystal said. “What makes them stronger, tougher and smarter? So let’s find out. Let’s find out what you can reach with the opportunities that are presented.”

 For Jon Ryan, Stefan Charles, Akiem Hicks and Brett Jones, seeing beyond their modest circumstances proved beneficial, building a path from the University of Regina all the way to the National Football League, where McCrystal has been to see each of them play in person.

 “It sounds corny, but I’m just really happy for them,” McCrystal said. “I could sit here and say I’m proud or I told you so, but more than anything I am just happy they are having this experience. And if I had a part in it I’m just glad to know them.”

Brett Jones can thank a rejection from medical school for his National Football League career.

When he left the University of Regina after four years in 2013, the offensive lineman told CFL teams interested in drafting him that he had played his last down if his application to the University of Saskatchewan medical school was successful.

“Growing up in the family I did, and with the path I was on, sports never were the full focus for me,” said the 26-year-old member of the National Football League’s New York Giants who was twice named Canada West’s top student athlete. “It was always school first. I was always a good athlete, but never really applied myself until university.”

McCrystal remembers Jones as a “roly-poly” kid from Weyburn, Sask., who “certainly wasn’t a cut guy who worked at it.”

But that changed during Jones’ four seasons with the Rams, when he turned himself into one of the highest-rated prospects for the 2013 CFL Draft. It was a transition McCrystal saw happening right before his very eyes as the dedicated student went to school on learning the game of football.

“There were times he surprised himself, that he didn’t know he was that good and how good he could be until he started to work out and learn the game,” said McCrystal.

By the time he was ready to graduate, Jones had started wondering about the NFL, especially since teammates Stefan Charles and Akiem Hicks had landed opportunities down south.

“That’s when I started to think about it … Akiem and Stefan had gone to the NFL and when I asked about it [teams] said, ‘We need more film of you against better competition,’ ” Jones said. “That’s why I signed a [minimum two-year] contract in the CFL because if I was going to play in the CFL I wanted to try to play in the NFL.”

It was a vision that was encouraged by his head coach.

“He was your biggest fan and he told you to shoot for the best – try to play in the NFL,” said Jones. “And he was able to help you get there.”

Though he was ranked among the top-10 picks for the 2013 CFL Draft, his interest in medical school made him slip to No. 16 where the Calgary Stampeders took a gamble that paid off. 

Jones was voted the CFL's rookie of the year in 2013 and its top lineman the next season.

That’s when the NFL came calling, as Jones earned workouts with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Giants. Only New York offered him a contract.

Jones concedes he owes a debt of gratitude to Hicks and Charles, whom he practised against with the Rams. If you want to be an NFL-calibre offensive lineman, you might as well be practising against two future NFL defensive linemen.

“Brett is being modest,” said Charles. “He did a lot of things in the CFL with Calgary. He’s smart, he sticks to his work ethic and that’s where it got him.”

Though Jones ended up playing pro football instead of going to medical school, his higher learning has continued. He is close to completing a degree in petroleum systems engineering from the University of Regina. 

He also signed a one-year, $2.914 million restricted free agent tender with the Giants this off-season. And after starting 13 games for New York in 2017, he is expected to compete for the starting centre job this upcoming season.

“I have a lot of pride about my time with Regina and playing for Frank,” said Jones. “I’ve come a long way past where I thought I could get to in football but every day you just keep working at it and once you start having success it’s easier to have more success.”

McCrystal remembers Stefan Charles visiting the University of Regina in the fall of 2010. The big, athletic defensive lineman was a long way from home, still chasing his dream of playing professional football.

“I brought in Stef and he was very serious and on task and sitting in the defensive line locker room and staring off [into the distance],” said McCrystal. “I said, ‘Are you okay?’ And he said, ‘I’m just taking it all in, coach.’”

Charles surely never imagined living in Regina. But back then he never imagined playing in the NFL either.

As it turns out, he’s done both, with one circumstance leading directly to the other.

“It was definitely a culture shock coming from Toronto,” said the 30-year-old who was born in Scarborough, Ont., and raised in Oshawa. “It definitely gave me a breath of fresh air to see what it’s like in the Texas of Canada for football.”

Charles had been playing junior football in British Columbia and working at a job hauling tires from giant bins at Kal Tire, when he came to Regina just “looking for a way to stay on the field.”

“I was a first-year walk-on. I never got a scholarship, so I went with [student loans],” he said. “It was a leap of faith, really.”

A leap that has paid off as Charles is taking part in his sixth NFL training camp this month, this time as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs following stints with Tennessee, Buffalo, Detroit and Jacksonville.

When he played high school and junior football, Charles was firmly focused on playing in the CFL and never gave the NFL much thought. That changed when he got to Regina and encountered another freshman defensive lineman, Akiem Hicks, who had a different story.

 

A California native, Hicks had been recruited to Louisiana State University, where he was expected to star and pursue an NFL career. But an NCAA eligibility violation meant he couldn’t play at any of the top programs in the U.S. So instead he came to Regina, where he became a teammate of Charles.

The two men were close in age, roughly the same size and played the same position. It wasn’t long before they shared the same dream.

“[The NFL] was a dream but one of those far-off things … like I want to own a Ferrari,” said Charles. “But it started to resonate when me and Akiem got there in our first year …He played edge and I played tackle. We would sit up at night and talk about how we were going to make this happen. And we made it happen.”

The two massive defensive linemen became close friends who would push each other on the field and motivate each other off it.

“I was just happy I had Akiem there,” said Charles. “I saw that if this is the gold standard in America, then I have a pretty good shot.”

In 2011, the second season they played together, Regina led Canada West in sacks, was first in overall defence and both Hicks and Charles were named conference all-stars.

“I don’t think Canadian university football had ever seen what we did to that conference,” Charles said. “We definitely did some spectacular things on film.”

That film was making its way south of the border where pro scouts who hadn’t forgotten about Hicks were tracking his progress in Canada. Whether Charles would have been identified as an NFL prospect on his own is impossible to say, but it didn’t hurt that many of the eyeballs studying Hicks just happened to find him as well.

“We sent stuff on Akiem who was a year ahead and they would come back and say, ‘Who is that guy?’ ” said McCrystal. “And that kind of got the ball rolling. You need a little backspin sometimes.”

Charles’s name would even come up during conversations Hicks was having in meetings with prospective NFL teams.

“He called me and said, ‘I just sat down with [Cincinnati Bengals head coach] Marvin Lewis and he was talking about you … you’re going to be all right.’ …That just energized me.”

Although Charles wasn’t selected among the seven rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, he signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans and that was enough to scare off CFL teams – he fell to the 10th overall pick of the Edmonton Eskimos.

He was signed off of Tennessee’s practice roster that season by the Buffalo Bills, for whom he made his NFL debut that season and remained with through the 2015 season before signing as a free agent with Detroit.

“In the NFL there are a lot of things that are out of your control,” Charles said. “It's just a long-shot deal and nobody gives you anything. But you have to know what you want and you can't get a return on yesterday’s work. I don't believe in luck but you do have to be determined and persistent and hope the stars line up.” 

For more on Charles and his time at the University of Regina, click here.


McCrystal remembers being at the East-West Shrine Game at Orlando, Fla., in January of 2010, when he was approached by a member of the coaching staff from Louisiana State University who had a question.

“Are you that coach from Canada?” asked D.J. McCarthy, who is now a member of the Edmonton Eskimos staff. “You have different rules for eligibility up there, don't you? ...Because I've got a guy who needs a place to play.”

That player was Akiem Hicks, a defensive lineman from Sacramento City College who had signed on to play at LSU after the 2008 season as one of the most highly recruited junior-college players in the nation.

But an eligibility scandal related to transportation and lodging kept him from playing. Instead, Hicks was living with his sister in Colorado where he worked in a DirectTV call centre.

Then one day in mid-February he got a call from a coach in a place called Saskatchewan.

“When I got his number I thought, ‘As if this kid is going to come here,’ ” recalls McCrystal. “I phoned and told him about us and then we talked a few times back and forth. But then I didn’t hear from him until March. So I fly down to Denver and then rent a car go to Colorado Springs and meet him and his mom. Then I didn’t hear from him for two or three weeks and he calls and says, ‘I’m going to come.’

“He drove up here with another player we were interested in like a 1990 Chevrolet half-ton. I meet him at the border and they say it’s great to be in Canada. And I say, ‘Only another two-and-a-half hours and we’ll be there. And by the way, the 100 on the signs is kilometres, not miles, per hour.’”

Having never visited Canada before coming to attend school, Hicks wasn’t sure what to expect from his new surroundings. He was far from home, playing a game that he recognized but that wasn’t quite the same as the one he’d always known.

“Frank McCrystal … he showed me a lot of love and really made me feel welcome in a place he knew I had no familiarity [with],” Hicks told the Toronto Sun in 2017 (click here for more). “You know, I felt isolated. He did a really good job of making sure the guy he brought over the border did okay.

“It was a good experience. Stefan and I really flourished, playing off each other and getting to pick each other’s brains to become better players. Even though we were playing against maybe not the Division 1 [NCAA] competition, we still had an opportunity to develop our game.”

While the Rams rewarded Hicks with a place to play, he rewarded his teammates by making them better.

“Right from the very first time he got there ­– in a positive way – he demanded that people work hard and practice hard and he demanded to know things on the field about how the defence worked,” McCrystal said. “He was attentive, passionate and competitive and he expected big things from his coaches and the program to help him get to where he wanted to go.

“Brett Jones was just a young guy and here is this guy from one of the top U.S. schools and so that gives them the confidence and understanding of what they had to do to compete at the next level.”

Although Hicks had left the U.S., fortunately, for him, he wasn’t at all forgotten.

By the spring of 2012 he was getting plenty of attention from NFL teams and wound up being selected in the third round by the New Orleans Saints.

“That was one of the first things I told Frank McCrystal when he came down to visit me,” Hicks said in 2017. “I said my goal was always, and always will be, the NFL. And that was something he did a good job of just reminding me of. You know, saying to me, ‘Are you sure you want to come out of the game on this snap? Are you sure you want to do this if your aspirations are such? Shouldn’t you be putting forth the effort in order to get to that point?’ He always did a really good job of keeping me focused on my goal.”

Growing up in Regina, Jon Ryan was obsessed with the game and the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“As a kid, the NFL wasn’t a thought because the No. 1 thing is playing for the Roughriders,” said Ryan, 36. “The NFL didn’t come into my mind until my second or third year of university. The dream was to play in the CFL.”

That’s exactly what Ryan got to do for two seasons after being selected out of the University of Regina by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with the 24th pick of the 2004 CFL Draft. He was stellar during his CFL stint, finishing his rookie year with the league’s second-best punting average and then leading the league in 2005.

“That’s where I got confidence that this might not just be a CFL thing, that there might be an opportunity to play in the NFL and that started to drive me a little bit,” he said.

Growing up, Ryan had been an all-around athlete who also played hockey, basketball and lacrosse and competed in track. He was a high school running back and special teams star, skills that he took with him when he went to the University of Regina and became a receiver.

“He punted, place-kicked and kicked-off,” recall McCrystal. “We were playing a game in Saskatoon where he scored a 90-yard touchdown, kicked the convert and then kicked-off into the end zone for a single point.

“He’s just an amazing guy. We tried to back him off a bit and had some other guys place kick and he didn’t like that at all. He wanted to do everything.”

Early during his time at the University of Regina, however, it became evident that his professional potential was in punting, a skill he had honed as a kid on the school grounds of Regina, when he would stay out after everyone else had gone home, booting the ball from one end of the field to another.

McCrystal believed there were many Canadian university players capable of playing in the NFL.  It was a seed he wanted to plant with Ryan.

“Frank always let guys dream a little bit,” said Ryan. “Frank talked about the NFL with me since Day 1. He thought it was something I could do. With Frank, that was just how he talked to me and when you have someone who is such a big part of your life it allows you to dream like that.”

 

After two CFL seasons, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers came calling, which seemed like a perfect fit for Ryan, given the club's community ownership and the fact that Green Bay can feel a lot like Regina. But there was a whole new set of skills to learn and develop.

“In the NFL it was a big difference with the fair catch and pooch punting and it took me a while to get used to it," he said. "And if you miss a punt you better miss it high because if you hit a line drive to Devin Hester it’s not going to end well.”

After two seasons with the Packers, Ryan was released at the end of training camp in the summer of 2007. He was immediately signed by the Seattle Seahawks.

It was a move that Ryan hadn’t forgotten seven years later when the Seahawks faced Green Bay in the NFC championship game and he made a small bit of football history, becoming the first and only former Canadian university player to throw an NFL touchdown, which came on a fake field goal where Ryan was the holder-turned-passer.

It came with the Seahawks down 16-0 with less than five minutes remaining  the third quarter as they lined up for a 38-yard field goal, a play that turned the momentum in Seattle’s favour and helped propel them to a Super Bowl win two weeks later.

“I remember everything that happened … it was a rollout to my left – a run-first play – and [Packers linebacker] A.J. Hawk came up on me and I ended up passing. I ended up close to the visitors sideline and [Packers coach] Mike McCarthy was standing 10 feet away and he was the guy who cut me all those years earlier. I was standing there pointing at him. It was kind of a cocky move, but at the time it was so cool."

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