Klaus Wilmsmeyer came out of Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont., as one of the best kicking prospects in North America and eventually spent six years in the National Football League.
Chris Schultz had to hop on a bus at the age of 18 and show up to American universities unannounced in order to get any attention.
Wilmsmeyer was a fortunate exception when it comes to Canadian football players, while Schultz’s struggle is a little more common.
Two weeks ago, Andy Fantuz from Chatham, Ont., was cut from the Chicago Bears roster and has since returned to the Saskatchewan Roughriders to continue his Canadian football career.
While Schultz, who was drafted and played three seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, says there are reasons this year specifically that Fantuz wasn’t given the best shot (the lockout that cut training camps short was a big one), he also says the disadvantage for Canadians begins way before a big-league try out.
“You have to understand the transition from high school in Canada to the NCAA division one might be a bigger jump than from college to the pros,” Schultz told the Toronto Observer.
“A lot of it has to do with the level of athlete you’re competing against.”
Schultz said he experienced a talent shock in his first outing in American football, going from his high school in Burlington to the University of Arizona.
“I walked in there and all of a sudden I’m competing with guys with beards and moustaches and families and kids,” he said.
Committment is different
The problem, both Schultz and Wilmsmeyer agree, is the emphasis on the high school game in terms of facilities and demanding practice and workout schedules.
That type of commitment doesn’t exist across the board in Canada.
“In Canada, the priorities are different,” Wilmsmeyer, a punter and holder for three different NFL teams over his career, told the Observer.
“Up there [in Canada] we practised after school then played after school, it’s changed quite a bit now but it isn’t required to lift weights and there was no strength coach like down here,” he said.
“At school in the United States they do that as a unit, while back home there was nobody to push you, you had to push yourself. Down here it’s more of a requirement if you’re on the team.”
Wilmsmeyer believes there is potential in Canada to produce a high-level brand of football player, however he says the entire Canadian operation from house leagues, high schools and universities just doesn’t match up with the American programs.
“They start football [in the U.S.], in the high school level, a lot earlier in the season. They train offseason like the colleges do,” he says. “They train in the summer and are allowed to have a certain amount of practises, two-a-days.
“Once the school year starts, it’s just a different ball game.”
Schultz agrees, adding the system in Canada plays second fiddle to other things, while in the United States it is No. 1 priority that everyone takes pretty seriously.
“It’s a faster game, and all of a sudden you’re 18 playing a game with grown men of 22,” he said.
“They’re behind in Canadian high schools because it’s not as an established sport … If you go from a Canadian high school to a U.S. college the first thing you’re shocked about is that everything is run almost militarily in terms of being on time, and practices and the pace of everything is a lot more intense.”
Only few have a chance
With a lack of focus, especially with the popularity of baseball, soccer and hockey in Canadian high schools, only the select few will continue to get an opportunity to begin a career in football in the U.S., they believe.
But Wilmsmeyer says regardless of his birthplace, he still had a dream and still believed it was possible. He just knew he was going to have to fight for it, like many Canadians do from year to year.
“I didn’t take anything for granted when I got here,” he said. “I just made sure I worked as hard or harder than everyone to make sure I earned everyone else’s respect, try not to complain and just do what I was asked to do.”