A new 2023 Crystal Ball for Illini football

A new 2023 Crystal Ball for Illini football

LONDON, Ontario – Sydney and Chase Brown could’ve held their draft party in Florida, among the palm trees and warm, sunny weather. The All-American twin brothers – an apt moniker despite the Browns’ lack of American citizenship – could’ve watched the draft somewhere in Illinois, where they became college football stars and NFL prospects with the Fighting Illini.

But the Browns decided to return home, across the northern border, where their improbable American football upbringings began, where those who knew them before they became NFL players could celebrate their selection into the sport’s elite club.

“I was surprised they were going to do it here in Canada. I was just a little surprised,” said Raechel Brown, the twins’ mother. “But I think it means a lot for them. There were kids here [at the draft party] that they knew from public school and they’ve stayed really close with and family that can’t make it over the border. So it’s nice.”

In a family friend’s fancied-up pole barn in rural Ilderton (Ontario), Sydney Brown received the phone call from the Philadelphia Eagles. The three-time All-Big Ten safety was drafted No. 66 overall (third round) by the reigning NFC Champion and celebrated amid a large gathering of family and friends.

“My people around me,” Sydney told Illini Inquirer moments after getting drafted. “I wouldn’t have been able to do bringing this down to Florida or doing it in the states.”

A day later in a rented Airbnb condo in their hometown of London (Ontario), Chase Brown received the call from the Cincinnati Bengals. The 2022 Second Team All-American running back was drafted No. 163 overall (fifth round) by a franchise that has made the AFC Championship Game in consecutive years, advancing to the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, and he celebrated with a more intimate group of family and friends.

“This is where it all started in this city,” Chase said. “Being able to have my family around and people that were extremely influential in our lives, that’s where we wanted to be. This is the perfect spot to do it.”

Walk around downtown London (Ontario) and you won’t see many American football references. Though you will see plenty of locals wearing hockey sweaters. One brick wall of a downtown alley features a mural of a rod hockey table game. The local newspapers didn’t mention much about the NFL Draft in the days leading into it. TSN, the equivalent of ESPN in Canada, devoted a few minutes of its broadcasts to the NFL but mostly focused on the NHL playoffs.

Still, a TSN production crew – along with an NFL Network crew – hunkered down with the Browns throughout NFL Draft weekend. The Browns are a story not just back in Illinois and among NFL hardcores but also in their home country. And those people closest to them were proud that the Browns returned home to celebrate the biggest moment of their lives (to this point) in their home country and serve as inspiration to the younger generation who are seeing more and more Canadians break through into the NFL.

“It does say a lot,” said Dave Martin, the Browns’ youth football coach in London. “They are very appreciative of everything here. It means a lot here, but I think it actually means more to them. I think that they’re always going to have a connection here, and I think they’re always going to be back here.”

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‘A wave and not a blip here’

Football, of course, is not the top sport in Canada – even though Canadians contributed to the early roots of the game we today call American football. The most popular sport in Canada, of course, is hockey – likely followed by soccer, basketball, golf and baseball, while curling also holds a special place in the country’s sportscape. But football has gradually grown in popularity. The Canadian Football League, which was founded in 1958, is a staple – with a media-rights contract with TSN worth a reported $50 million annually – and half of CFL rosters are required to be Canadian.

But Canada’s impact on football in America has been mostly minimal. There were some breakthrough stars, like Bronko Nagurski, Tony Mandarich, Mark Rypien, Tim Biakabutuka, Jesse Palmer, Mike Vanderjagt and Nate Burleson.

But what was once a slow trickle of Canadian players in NCAA football and the NFL is building into an actual wave. Last fall, more than 200 Canadians played Division-I football in America, up from 80 just a few years ago. Meanwhile, 25 Canadians were on NFL rosters during the 2022 season.

The wave keeps growing too. The Brown brothers were two of five Canadians drafted into the NFL last month, a record for the highest number of Canadians drafted in a single year. Matthew Bergeron, a Syracuse offensive lineman and Quebec native, was the highest-drafted Canadian this year (No. 38 overall to the Atlanta Falcons).

Jim Mullin – the executive director of Football Canada, the governing body for amateur football in Canada – said the increase is a sign of the sport’s breakthrough in the country. And he said the recent run of skilled players – like the Browns, Chase Claypool, N’Keal Harry, Chuba Hubbard and John Metchie – has only helped make the sport more popular in Canada.

“We used to be a country where we’d send down kickers and offensive linemen and defensive linemen,” Mullin said. “Now, the guys that we’re talking about are wide receivers, defensive backs, quarterbacks even and running backs. …Those types of guys really catch the attention of the Canadian football fan.”

In some ways, the rise of football talent is about two decades behind the rise of basketball in the country. The last three decades have featured an explosion of Canadian talent infiltrating the NBA, including two No. 1 overall picks (Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett), a two-time MVP (Steve Nash) and multiple other lottery picks (Jamal Murray, RJ Barrett and Bennedict Mathurin). Last season’s Naismith College Player of the Year, Zach Edey, also is Canadian.

Those Canada-to-US success stories have only grown participation in basketball to the point that youth participation rates in basketball are neck-and-neck with soccer.

“I think what we saw in basketball that every year a kid was in the NBA Draft or in March Madness, you just felt like basketball in the country got more confident every time one of these kids were there,” said Dave Naylor, a reporter for TSN. “What we’re getting now is what we were starting to get in basketball 20 to 30 years ago, that is kids growing up believing they can play top-level NCAA and the NBA. That’s started to happen.”

Football is strong in the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well as pockets of Ontario, including London, which features one of the strongest university teams in the country: eight-time national champion University of Western. But Naylor also points toward the growth in Quebec, a mostly French-speaking province, as proof the sport is really gaining ground in the country. Sidy Sow (Eastern Michigan) and Matthew Bergeron (Syracuse), who were both drafted last month, are from Quebec.

“I really believe we’re seeing a wave and not a blip here,” Naylor said.

But like with most top basketball prospects, most of the country’s top football prospects head south to follow their sporting dreams. Mullin said nine of the top 10 Grade 12 players in the country play prep football in the United States.

The opportunity, the development and the finances for football players are all better in America. Universities in Canada are only allowed to give athletic scholarships of $5,000, while American universities can provide the full cost of tuition, cost of attendance and many other perks, including access to the best coaches in the world, the best strength and conditioning coaches in the world and multi-million dollar (sometimes up to nine figures) facilities with the best equipment and technology for development and recovery.

The phenomenon – the best talent leaving the country to reach the highest level – is a double-edged sword for Mullin. In one aspect, he’d love to keep the best at home. On the flip side, Canada’s best going to America gives them the best chance to live up to their potential.

“I think one of the challenges we have for football in Canada is keeping our best players at that high school age in the country,” Mullin said. “That does put a strain on the system. It’s something we’re working to address. In that aspect, there’s a downside to it. In terms of the upside, you take a look at the numbers … in terms of Canadians in Division-I football. When we really started to track this thing seven years ago, it was 64. Now, it’s 203 as of last year. We haven’t even done a count for this year coming up. It is part of a wave of Canadians. The most encouraging thing is it’s in every position in the NCAA — except punter because all of those freakin’ Australians take all those punter spots.”

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‘You got to take that jump’

Dave Martin admits he wasn’t a fan of the Browns leaving Canada to pursue their football dreams.

“Truthfully, when Sydney and Chase tried to leave originally, I fought them on it,” Dave Martin said. “I fought their family on it. I thought it was a terrible decision.”

Not that Martin, the longtime coach of the London Junior Mustangs Football Club, thought they weren’t talented enough to ultimately make it. Martin said he “knew they were special right away.” The Browns “were athletically superior,” had “nasty” to them and “took off” once they started to understand the game, Martin said.

But Martin had heard too many horror stories of Canadian kids going to American prep schools that were shams. He was concerned the Browns would get little academic support and ultimately be set up to fail. He thought they would get great support and have the chance to succeed at home in Canada.

But at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Florida, the Browns found all the support they could ever imagine, including from host family Phil and Karen Yates and St. Stephen’s coach Tod Creneti. Martin is glad he was wrong. The Brown Brothers led St. Stephen’s Episcopal to back-to-back state titles, graduated from high school and earned Division-I football scholarships: Sydney at Illinois and Chase originally at Western Michigan before transferring to Illinois.

“Who knew they were going to go down there and stay with a military family and get the support they needed and great things would happen?” Martin said. “That’s the reason I was against it. I was happy for them to leave if they could get in a good situation, I just thought we could do a lot for them here and get them into a good university and get seen by people here as well. We always knew they were special and they were always the best and most athletic. You just didn’t know how they’d compete down south. Obviously, I was very wrong about all of that.” 

Martin no long begrudges Canadian players for finding opportunities south of the border, just as he doesn’t begrudge American football players for finding professional football opportunities in the CFL. And in the end, the exposure of great players like the Brown brothers – and their success stories – only inspires more Canadian kids to pick up the sport and pursue their dreams.

“Any kid that has that kind of ability, go for it. You got to take that jump, you got to take chance,” Martin said. “Is it hurting football in Canada? No, it’s not hurting football in Canada. Not every kid that goes makes it in the NFL, not every kid gets a D-I scholarship. But a lot of them come back to Canadian universities or come back and play in the CFL, and it helps grow the game here as well. Kids getting $100,000 full rides now, especially with the NIL deals that are out there, there’s a lot of opportunity for them to earn and make money and do green things.”

“It’s the same as the stories from the States. There’s all these stories of kids coming from bad situations and poor families and living in housing projects, that’s essentially the same thing Sydney and Chase did the equivalent to here. It just shows kids anywhere, whether they’re American, Canadian or not, that if you work hard and don’t give up on your dreams and you keep with it.

‘A wave of inspiration’

Chase and Sydney Brown loved playing football growing up, but they didn’t really have a connection to a specific NFL team. Though as they got more involved in the college game, they paid closer attention to the NFL players and the NFL Draft Combine.

“You don’t really know who to cheer for. Detroit or the Bills?” Chase said. “You don’t really know who to cheer for.”

The Browns also didn’t have a ton of Canadians who could show them a clear path to the NFL, especially locally. The last London native to be drafted into the NFL was defensive lineman Vaughn Martin, a fourth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers who played five seasons in the NFL. But the Browns have seen more examples recently, particularly John Metchie (Brampton, Ontario) and Jesse Luketa, an Edmonton (Alberta) native who went to Penn State and was drafted in the seventh round by the San Francisco 49ers last season.

Now, the Browns – along with the three other drafted Canadians: OL Matthew Bergeron (No. 38 overall, Atlanta Falcons), OL Sidy Sow (No. 117 overall, New England Patriots) and EDGE Tavius Robinson (No. 124 overall, Baltimore Ravens) – hope to provide inspiration to younger Canadian football dreams that they too can be NFL players. Illinois offensive lineman Isaiah Adams, an Ajax (Ontario) native, is next in line as a projected 2024 NFL Draft pick.

“Names like that have gone before me and helped kind of pave the way and kind of set guidelines that, ‘Yeah, OK, we can do it,’” Sydney said. “But just to add to that hopefully it inspires more, especially in this area of London, Ontario.”

College football is not very popular in Canada, but the NFL is. Mullin thinks the Browns have the potential to be household names now that they’re playing on the biggest stage – and playing highly-visible positions on championship-level teams.

“This draft for the Brown brothers, depending on where it goes, is one of those stories that’s going to cross over from the sports department over into a news story,” Mullin said. “This is going to be something you see on national news here. …These two guys have been outstanding representatives for what football is in Canada. We’re really proud of them representing us.”

Naylor and TSN have done their part in promoting the Browns. Naylor and his production team have done several feature stories on the Browns, including an in-depth news magazine feature that included travel to Florida and Champaign.

“We’re getting behind it because we think it’s a great story,” Naylor said. “It’s got all three elements: great story, awesome kids, play like crazy.

But Naylor also thinks the Browns’ story can help boost football in his country. Naylor sees the confidence of Canadian football players grows with each successive Canadian who gets drafted into the NFL.

“I think what we’re seeing is that with every one of these, the belief of what is possible kind of grows,” Naylor said. “I’m 54, when I was a kid, the only NFL player with a trace of Canadian was Roy Gerela, the kicker of the Steelers that went to high school in Alberta for like two years. That was it. There was no reason to believe that you could do this. I think what the Browns represent is that even if you’re from modest circumstances, even if you don’t know how you’re going to do this, if you have talent and will and dreams, it can happen — and it can happen from anywhere in Canada.

“I think what they represent is belief and hope and the building of confidence about what Canadian football players can do.”

Sydney and Chase Brown might not have returned home for the NFL Draft with the specific intention of providing inspiration to Canadian youths, though they have spoken at local schools and clubs sometimes when they return home. As Martin, their youth coach said: “They’re just humble kids who come back home and hang out with their buddies and have a good time.”

But the All-American-but-Canadian-born football stars represented their homeland well by returning their home for their life-changing moments. In doing so, they continue to inspire the next generation of American football hopefuls north of the border.

“It’s possible,” Chase said. “Chase your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s impossible because there were countless times throughout this process that maybe it didn’t feel achievable or it was going to happen. But I always knew in the back of my head that if I stayed the course and trusted my work ethic and opportunities in front of you that one day it would come true.”

Added Sydney: “I hope it’s just a wave of inspiration. There’s not a lot of people that have done it. There’s not a lot of people that have the opportunity that my brother and I both have. …I just hope it inspires younger generations because you’re seeing more Canadian guys make this jump and get drafted earlier in these bigger rounds.”

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Sydney (left) and Chase Brown (Photo: Getty)

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