BRADENTON, Fla. -- As players hailing mostly from the South played 7-on-7 football across multiple fields last weekend, Liam Powers stood out like a sunburned arm. The quarterback of the team known as IDFFL was easy to spot because of the wicked farm burn covering any area not protected by his uniform and because of his Toronto Blue Jays cap.
Powers wasn't making a fashion statement; he simply rocked the cap of his hometown baseball team. In fact, the Jays are the hometown team of the entire IDFFL, which stands for International Developmental Fast Football League. The team spent 31 hours traveling on a bus from Toronto to play in the IMG 7v7 National Championship at IMG Academy. "It was long," Powers said of the trek. "Long and smelly."
Long, smelly and worthwhile. For Canadian players who want to get noticed by American universities, the trip offered exposure they couldn't get at home. IDFFL players faced players holding scholarship offers from schools in every FBS conference. The Canadian players want their own shot at scholarships, but to do that, they need to find a way to pique the interest of American college coaches. If they can hang with some of the best players in the United States, then they might inspire college coaches to take a look at the Canadians' tackle film and possibly offer scholarships.
The IDFFL was the brainchild of Gina Topolinski and Anthony Cannon. Topolinski grew up in Chicago but settled in Toronto. Her sons, Tyler and Michael, played at the high school level in Canada, but Topolinski quickly found out that American college recruiters rarely cross the border. Last year, Topolinski took her sons on a 45-day trek to visit schools in the Big Ten, ACC, Big East and Ivy League. Michael, who played two seasons at the New Mexico Military Institute, and Tyler, who will graduate from St. Andrews College (a Toronto-area high school), will be preferred walk-ons at Purdue this fall. Their journey to American college football was guided by a mother who made the effort to learn the (often unwritten) rules of the American football recruiting game. Now, mama Topolinski hopes to pass that knowledge on to other Canadian high school players. "I had two kids who wanted to go play in the U.S.," Topolinski said. "And there was no one to help them."
With financial support from Topolinski, Cannon will help the next group of Canadians with American football dreams. Cannon grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga., and played linebacker at Tulane before spending three seasons with the Detroit Lions. After the Lions cut him, Cannon crossed the border, playing for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts in 2011. Cannon remained in Toronto after his career ended. There, he found an underdeveloped youth football system and high schools unequipped to help players navigate the NCAA's initial eligibility rules.
A promising high school freshman in the U.S. will likely be pulled aside by his high school coach and guidance counselor. They will explain what classes that student will need to take to qualify for an athletic scholarship. As the player gets older, the coach will likely send the player's information and highlights to various college coaches. At most schools in Canada, that isn't the case. Combine that with different rules for the Canadian game -- longer field, 12 players on a side, three downs to make a first down -- and the Canadians are at a significant disadvantage.
Some Canadians have overcome that disadvantage to earn scholarships. Steve Spurrier recruited quarterback Jesse Palmer to Florida from Nepean, Ontario. Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe plucked center Brett Romberg from Windsor, Ontario. Other Canadians have come south for high school and gotten noticed. Quarterback Michael O'Connor grew up in Ottawa but played for the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn., before transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton. Earlier this month, O'Connor committed to Penn State.
Cannon hopes to help other Canadian players find American football scholarships by building the IDFFL into a program that takes in interested players either early in high school or before high school and helps guide them through the eligibility process while also exposing them to American competition. The IDFFL was one of the first programs to join the NFA, a governing body created by IMG to run 7-on-7 football tournaments. Sure, 7-on-7 isn't actual football. But despite college coaches' insistence that they don't recruit based on play in 7-on-7 tournaments, their scholarship offering patterns tell a different story. A Canadian player might not earn an offer strictly based on beating a quality American recruit in 7-on-7, but that performance will ensure American college coaches pay closer attention to the Canadian's tackle-football exploits.
Getting the IDDFL team to Florida required about $15,000. Players sold t-shirts to cover some of the cost, while Topolinski, who just sold her food manufacturing company, chipped in the bulk of the money to cover travel, entry fees and food. "We've been going to those buffets," Topolinski said. "Which are awesome."
In the searing Florida heat last weekend, the Canadian team looked as if it might melt like the chocolate in a Golden Corral dessert fountain. The IDFFL lost all four games in pool play Saturday. "They were overwhelmed," Topolinski said. During Sunday's double-elimination tournament, the Canadians lost their first game and then won three in a row before getting knocked out by a team from Chicago. Cornerback Dayvon Love said the speed of the American players was jarring at first, but once the IDFFL players settled, they had little trouble keeping up.
After his team's last-second rally against the Chicago team fell short, IDFFL assistant coach Jordan Younger tried to ease the pain of the loss. "If they did a ranking from day one, that would have put us in last place," said Younger, who grew up in New Jersey and played cornerback for Connecticut and the Argonauts as well as the Edmonton Eskimos. But the IDFFL had exceeded all expectations by winning those three games. In another year, the Canadians will be back and even better prepared to show they can compete with their American counterparts. "You belong here," Younger said. "And you proved that."