He was a part of five different team interviews on Saturday night and Gordon Lam was taking on questions like they were a gauntlet of defensive backs with wet noodle-like arms.
That’s how it felt for the Waterloo receiver, at least. It didn’t matter who he sat with; he felt ready for everything that was asked of him. If teams like to use those 15-minute windows with players to see how they react when the spotlight gets put on them, Lam didn’t flinch.
“I was just able to be confident and be myself and make people laugh when there was opportunities to laugh. I just think that there was a consistent me throughout all my interviews,” Lam said after a post-combine workout on Wednesday.
“In these environments people get nervous or they get shy. They tend to be timid, or they tend not to express what they truly have in their hearts. Even if it was bad, or if it was good, I was able to express it all and say it with confidence and say it with a good manner and in a respectable way. I just got a good feeling and a good vibe from each of the teams.”
The five-foot-nine, 187-pound receiver also took the time to shine the spotlight back at the teams he spoke with.
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“My one question to each of the teams was what they thought of me as an individual,” he said. “I was happy to hear nothing but great things.”
A conversation with Lam presents you with a very thoughtful, charismatic person very quickly. He anticipated some of the testing results he had over the weekend, but came away happy with the experience overall. He thought his one-on-ones gave a good glimpse into what he can do and that he connected with the teams that he interviewed with. He thinks his football resume — he’s a three-time OUA all-star (2018, 2019, 2021) and was named a second-team All-Canadian in 2018 — will speak for itself. Last season, priding himself on his route-running ability, he led the Warriors in receiving with 570 yards and three touchdowns through seven games.
What likely came up in those interviews is Lam’s journey to this point. It’s one filled with challenges, of family spread far across the country and eventually the globe. It has life-altering lows and lessons of resilience, mixed in with teammates and friends that became family when they were needed the most.
“There’s certainly been peaks and valleys with Gordon,” said Chris Bertoia, the head coach at Waterloo, who first met Lam when he was a part of the Team Ontario coaching staff.
“He’s had a different ride and a different journey than probably 99 per cent of the guys in the locker room.”
Lam was born in Ethiopia and came to Canada with his family, which first lived in Hamilton and Mississauga. When Lam’s parents split up, his mom moved to Edmonton with his two sisters. He and his father settled in Kitchener. It was difficult, but Lam had a number of cousins there and they’d play a bigger part in his life than he could have known.
When he was in the eighth grade, Lam’s cousin and current teammate on the Warriors, Barnaba Niel, encouraged him to come out and try football. Lam went to a Twin Cities Predators practice and was hooked. He played bantam football with them and by the time he got to high school, he a rising star. He played on Team Ontario when he was in the 11th grade and got to play at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. U SPORTS teams were flocking to him and Lam was starting to get a vision of his future.
Then his father delivered some difficult news. He told Lam he wanted to move to Khartoum, Sudan to reunite with their family there. He said he of course wanted his son to come with him, but gave him options. He could move to Edmonton to be with his mother and two sisters, or if he wanted to stay where he was comfortable, he could move in with his cousin, Barnaba Niel.
“I never thought of going back with him because at that point…I really made a foundation for where I am as a football player and I knew I couldn’t leave Ontario,” Lam said.
“That was my No. 1 thing. But then the second thing is I honestly couldn’t fault him.
“It’s a different situation for us. We’re a first-generation family in Canada. To be 30-something and to leave your hometown where all your cousins, your mother, your brothers, your sisters, your nieces and nephews are, to leave all that abruptly to take your kids and family to Canada to give them kind of a chance at a better life and better education? I felt like that was a big, big, big cultural shift for him. I never never faulted him for wanting to go back.”
At the Niel house, he and Barnaba were given the basement as theirs. Lam missed his father, but he went to a good setting and stayed there for two years.
“It was the time of my life. I loved it,” he said.
“I thank Barnaba’s family for giving me the opportunity to live with them. I got to live with my cousin and my best friend. We were in high school and got to do nothing but go to high school and play sports.”
When he got to Waterloo, Lam had Niel with him and they had an older cousin, Lam Diing, on the team with them.
Lam moved in with the Hinsperger family. Throughout his years playing football, Lam always had a Hinsperger on his team. First it was Jack Hinsperger, who is a year younger than Lam. The next year it was Devon Hinsperger, who was a year older than Lam.
At Waterloo, it eventually was Devon, Jack and James Hinsperger, all on that Warriors team together. There was so much familiarity there — the boys’ father, Casey bought Lam his first pair of cleats after seeing him play back in bantam football — that the move felt natural. Lam could walk the five minutes from their home to the Waterloo campus.
In his first year at Waterloo, he’d need find more support and people around him than he could have imagined. In April of 2018, Diing was killed in an altercation at a party. It was shocking, but Lam saw his Warriors teammates come together over it in a way he didn’t expect.
“That was tough for not just myself but for everybody on the football team,” Lam said.
“He was a very, very, very lovable guy. He was six-three, six-four, a gentle giant. Big smile on his face all the time and people like that, that everybody loves and gravitates toward, when those people pass away it’s hard on everybody.
“Even though it may be Barnaba’s and mine cousin, we should feel those emotions 100 per cent, but shouldn’t expect everybody else to. But it was amazing to see our team rally with everybody and with each other and form a tighter bond after that happened.”
In the darkest moment of his young life, Lam also found a light in it, in the way that his team rallied around him and Niel after Diing’s passing.
“There’s nothing in the coach’s handbook for that one,” Bertoia said.
“It was a scenario where we all needed to lean on each other. We carried it forward in the following season. We played for him. Our slogan was ‘make it count.’ It hits you in the face, regardless of who’s on the team and what role they have, whether it’s me as the head coach, or the last guy on the bench. You do have to make each day count because tomorrow’s not guaranteed.”
“Don’t let the numbers fool you. He can flat out play.”
— Waterloo coach Chris Bertoia on Gordon Lam
It’s no coincidence, Lam says, that when he got back on the field later in 2018, that it was the year he was named to the All-Canadian team. He played to honour Diing’s memory and he thinks about him now, having gone through the combine over the weekend and where his cousin might have been in all of this.
Lam sees similarities between Diing and Calgary Stampeders’ receiver Luther Hakunavanhu, that big-framed player that was a little under the radar in U SPORTS that had all of the ability in the world in the right setting is exactly what he saw for his older cousin. He hopes the same will happen for Niel, who stands at six-foot-five but was also under the radar at Waterloo. Niel took part in the Ontario Regional Combine earlier in the month.
Tragedy hit the family again when another cousin, Korbil Gany, was in a serious car crash in 2019, which took him off of Waterloo’s basketball team.
It’s surprising in some ways, given the challenges of having family stretched so far and the loss and pain that came for him over the last few years, that Lam is this positive, charismatic presence. These things can be crippling to people — “And rightfully so,” Lam said — but him and Niel have made it the opposite.
“I don’t blame anybody for falling during those times, because they are difficult times,” he said.
“Stuff like this is tough on people and people are given two options. Not everybody overcomes and perseveres through their situation. Me and Barnaba, specifically speaking…we were able to turn all these negative events and all these turns that life gave us that tried to keep us down and use it as motivation and power and a reason to wake up and a reason to get better.
“There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t be where we are. It’s nice to be a first-generation family in Canada and be able to do all these things for ourselves and our family. It’s nothing but motivation for us, but not everybody is able to use it as motivation. I’m proud of myself and Barnaba for being able to do so.”
Bertoia said that Lam has had that same, upbeat attitude after the combine, where his testing numbers were questioned somewhat. He remains confident Lam will be drafted and said Lam told him this week that he just needs one team to give him that chance.
“Don’t let the numbers fool you. He can flat out play,” Bertoia said.
“And provided an opportunity in the draft, he’s going to make a team happy because he’s one of the best football players I’ve ever been around. He has a high football IQ and even after those numbers, I still endorse him and put my name on him.”