Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Conference USA gets some Canadian capital

There's an under-the-radar quality to Brander Craighead, subject of a feature on tomorrow's Ottawa Sun Schools sports page.

The media hysteria over national signing day in NCAA football, the first Wednesday in February, is not completely lost on Canadians. There are football families up here, and the Craighead clan, of Barrhaven just south of Ottawa, got to experience it yesterday when Brander, an offensive tackle, signed his letter of intent with the University of Texas-El Paso, becoming a member of the Miners' recruiting class. (Mike Price, UTEP's coach, apparently said in his prepared remarks that Craighead was "quite a character.")

As if to add to the under-the-radar quality, Craighead's name was not among a list of Canadian signees listed at Posted Sports. In fairness, that is probably due to the fact he spent this fall at a prep school, Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, where as his mom, Pam, put it during a conversation last week, they "stripped him down and made him into a football machine ... six, eight, nine hours a day, whatever it took.."

Fork Union's program is not for the callow or weak-willed, but Craighead and another O-lineman from Ontario, centre Henry Lorenzen from Waterford soldiered through this season after going down to Fork Union on the recommendationg of Peter Zonta, who runs the Canadian Scouting Combines training program in Hamilton. Fork Union is a total military school, the whole nine yards: Reveille at 6 a.m., being confined to barracks at night, not being able to leave on weekends, no iPods, no cell phones, limited e-mail and telephone access. The 6-foot-6, 260-lb. Craighead, when we chatted, said he didn't even know what movies were playing in the theatres these days, that's how isolated it is -- but paid off for him.

It has also paid off for Henry Lorenzen, who (small world) played in in the Haldimand-Norfolk High School Football League, during the timeframe when yours truly was the sports editor of the Simcoe Reformer. He apparently has interest from see really good academic schools such as Buffalo, Colgate and Cornell.

Point being, a story such as Craighead's brings home a sense of what Canadian footballers have to do to narrow the gap in development between high school players up here and those in the U.S. Among the big college sports, it's tough for a Canadian to get a scholarship to a FBS (formerly Division I-A) school, relative to baseball, basketball, fastpitch and soccer players. The U.S. kids are completely on another level in terms of getting their names out there, with no small amount of thanks to a very well-developed media culture.

(It's changing in Canada, but very slowly. That being said, Rollins and Radoslav will no doubt appreciate seeing a highlight reel of Julius Jones-Carter, a running back recruited by their beloved Laurier Golden Hawks; that's Laurier safety Courtney Stephen handing the ball off in some of those clips).

Even if you can get noticed, coaches might say, "How good can he be? He's Canadian." It's another sport, but if you ever get a chance, ask Steve Nash what it was like for him. He should have been in the Pac-10 at Arizona or UCLA, rather than at Santa Clara before the days when "mid-major" entered college basketball fans' lexicon.

Anyway, it was cool to try to give Brander Craighead and his parents, Steve and Pam, some attention for their son's achievement. He is actually the third offensive tackle from Ottawa who's heading to a Conference USA program, along with Tyler Holmes at Tulsa and Scott Mitchell at Rice.

(By the way, it's noteworthy that Rice, which requires its football players be real students, signed two Canucks yesterday, safety Tolu Akinwumi from Brampton and D-lineman Hosam Shahin from B.C.; the Owls might become a favourite NCAA team yet).

Getting back to Brander Craighead, and hopefully the point of this post, it is a kick as a sports journalist to write about someone whose story is relatively untold. Craighead actually came to attention quite by accident, when the lacrosse coach at Mother Teresa High School mentioned offhandedly last spring that one of his players was headed down to Virginia to play football. The little hamster started running on its wheel that Fork Union might be the destination, and that led to having a fun feature to write eight months later. Who knows where this leads; when a team announces it recruiting class, it's hoping half the players pan out. Craighead's dug deep to get this far, so wish him well.

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