When I first heard of the CFL quarterback internship program I was a second-year at McMaster University with no understanding of what the opportunity offered or what the goals were.
In 2013 I was given the chance to visit Calgary and work with the Stampeders for two weeks in an experience that completely re-shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a quarterback in professional football.
Nine more young Canadian passers will get that chance this month as each CFL team once again welcomes in a young pivot to peel back the curtain and give the ultimate education, from field to film room and everywhere in between.
The year I arrived in Calgary, John Hufnagel was the head coach, Dave Dickenson the offensive coordinator and Drew Tate the presumed starter. Lingering in the background was cagey veteran Kevin Glenn and some kid named Bo Levi Mitchell who would go on to win the Grey Cup just the next year.
I’ll never forgot my first moments in the Stampeders’ culture. As I was given a tour of the facility to get my bearings, I entered Dave Dickenson’s office who by way of introduction began barking out the cadence — in full throat for everyone in the facility to hear like it was game day — in an attempt to get me up to speed and be ready for real reps quickly as possible.
I walked downstairs to find a shaggy haired Drew Tate riding through the McMahon parking lot on a bike that he’d “just bought from a kid in his neighbourhood.” Soon a car door opened with the confident swagger of a man who has produced nearly everywhere he’s been. Now Kevin Glenn and Drew Tate had arrived. As they showed me the locker room where legendary Stamps equipment man George Hopkins welcomed me with open arms, Bo Levi Mitchell was busy in the attached weight room, by himself the day before rookie camp opened.
Each quarterback — including Dickenson and Hufnagel — had such a unique background, way of carrying themselves and approach to the same position. Put into the same room they created an incredible mosaic of knowledge, youth, perspective and style.
Add in Brad Sinopoli as a quarterback-turned-receiver for the first time in his pro career and the educational opportunities were endless. I watched as ‘KG’ and Tate battled through camp. I saw scuffles and watched walk-throughs with receivers Nik Lewis and 2007 first overall pick Chris Bauman.
All while trying to absorb the monster that is a pro football playbook. A quick study in survival, I learned by about Day 3 to write on my wrist band what the Stampeders terminology meant to me in McMaster’s language.
“Rebel right, Bomber-64 chip Iroquois Cross, X-indy on white
– “This is 60-Oakland”
It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough to help me seem the part long enough to stay relevant and take some real world reps against world class talent.
Somehow the moments off the field felt as meaningful in my understanding of what pro football really meant. After a lifetime of watching television and movies glorify the casual circus that is a locker room, I finally had context for this strange exciting world.
Days before the Stamps-Lions preseason game – which was the ultimate birthday gift for someone who loves the game as much as I do and happens to be born June 15 — I was nearly late for a team meeting. I remember slinking down into a chair at the back of the room just before Dickenson began to set the itinerary for all 40 or so players in attendance. I felt relief until I realized the Stampeders’ offensive coordinator’s eyes were locked on me, subtly motioning to move, or get anywhere other than where I was. Not sure what the problem was I spun around to read a piece of paper taped to the plastic backing of my seat.
Just as I read it I locked eyes with the Stamps head coach, who was standing over my shoulder. As I began to stand and offer what was rightfully his, Huf put a hand on my shoulder saying, “No, it’s yours now.”
I stood against the wall and the chair remained empty. Another lesson in respect and the ultimate hierarchy that permeates every organization.
On the day I was scheduled to leave for home after my two weeks absorbing Calgary football, multiple American players stopped me as I walked through the locker room with my playbook.
“Damn, did you get cut? I’m so sorry man, it was great to meet you!”
I explained I was there on an internship program and I was headed back to my senior season that fall, but they never knew and none of them ever cared. I was respected, welcomed and given the chance to learn things I would need to improve if I ever wanted to make a roster for real.
I wasn’t good enough. I knew I wasn’t a CFL-calibre player, but the internship program has lived on to benefit names like Buckley, Merchant, Ford and more on their way to getting a real look. It’s an integral and underrated part of the ever-increasing level of Canadian quarterback play in this proud football nation.