They seem to move as one, a groggy line piling into the white Chevy Venture in the early-morning haze against a Thanksgiving tableau, with the big red barn and the expansive 50 acres of grass, trees and gravel roads surrounding them. Their eyelids are usually half-mast, trudging along like teenagers do when they’re going off to school.
The canyon-wide divide this morning between what these six teenage boys do as opposed to other kids is that they’re going off to another country. They do it six days a week, beginning the 42-mile round-trip trek from Ridgeway, Ontario to Athol Springs, New York. They’re gone from 7 a.m. until around 7 p.m.
They yawn and walk around in a daze, and live very regimented lives all for the sake of doing one thing, living one dream — playing American high school football.
The six Canadian teenagers are known as just that by their
St. Francis (Athol Springs, N.Y.)
teammates, “The Canadians.” Juniors Akeel Lynch
, Ryan Dixon
, Will Hudson
and Matt Johanson
, with sophomores Nick Bested
and Matt Levasseur
, have committed themselves to making the sacrifice each day during football season to cross the Unites States-Canada border so they could have the chance to strike football gold and land a Division I scholarship at an American college.
For years, American teenagers invaded Canada to play hockey. Now the tide has turned, with a growing number of Canadian teenagers coming to the United States to play American football. In northern New York alone, Canisius (Buffalo, N.Y.)
has a host of Canadian players, including its quarterback, Travis Eman
, but he lives with a host family throughout the school year.
That's the arrangement most Canadian teenagers have. But not the St. Francis six. What they do is highly unique, traversing nations five days a week for school and practice, and an additional day for games or Saturday practices.
Making the largest sacrifice is Trisha Levasseur, the mother of Matt Levasseur, who the boys live with, who drives them where they need to go, and whose top floor they occupy in her two-story 1880s redone farmhouse made of solid wood.
This all started when Trisha’s son, Matt, decided he wanted to come back home to Canada, instead of attending another American prep school, which he did from 2007-09 in the hopes of improving at the American game and possibly attracting the eye of a college recruiter.
Instead of taking back her son, along with childhood friends Bested and Hudson, Trisha wound up the adult guardian of six 16-year-old boys, when the families of Lynch, Dixon and Johanson were presented with the chance to play high school football at an American school.
"This is a huge undertaking; I went from being an empty-nester for three years and now I find myself the adult guardian of six teenage boys — I shake my head every time I think about it," Trisha said, laughing. "I'm fortunate, because they’re all good kids, but every once in a while, you're barking orders to get things done; like when they have to clean their rooms, and you have to turn off the Xbox to get your point across.
"The other thing is that they may be six, but they eat like 12. Remember, we’re talking about six teenage boys, who easily go through 70 to 80 pounds of meat a week, and they just started getting into granola bars. We go through about two or three boxes a day of them. It's all about getting an opportunity, which is something we don’t have up here in Canada. We have to play in the U.S. to get any kind of attention. This is what we were told about my son Matt. The odd kid will get a scholarship to a U.S. school and that’s it. It’s very rare.”
Canadian universities offer a maximum of $4,500 in athletic scholarship money and the Canadian academic system does something Trisha Levasseur referred to as streamlining students. Certain students will get streamlined through eighth grade, and consequently, don't meet the proper academic requirements to attend a Canadian college. Attending an American high school can amend that gap.
Enter St. Francis, a 500-student private Catholic all-boys school featuring ninth through 12th grades located in Athol Springs, which is 10 miles west of Buffalo. It's a high-caliber academic school with an open-enrollment policy ($8,300/per student) that provides financial aid to students based on need, but not athletic scholarships. All families have to do is meet the tuition and academic requirements — which allows the six Canadians to attend the school.
The Red Raiders play in the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association Class AA Division (large schools), which is comprised of four schools. And they're coached by the legendary Jerry Smith, who’s in his 22nd year and has coached such football dignitaries as Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Polian and Brian Polian, Chris’ brother, who is Stanford's special teams coach.
When Trisha was looking at American schools, she contacted Smith, who has seen his share of things at the high school level, but nothing quite like what the Canadian kids are doing.
"It’s a unique situation and sometimes I’ll talk to them and I tell them I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Smith said. "I've never seen anything like it. Doing this, they need to be more mature, because they’re on their own. They all hang out together and eat together. I think they’re all coming along. Some of the kids are better at adjusting to the American game than others, but they're all getting there."
All six players were brought up playing four-down football on the larger Canadian fields. But the Canadian game is drastically different than the American game, from the three downs, to having players in motion and allowing them to lean forward as the ball is being snapped, to the wider-belly ball.
Smith laughed, explaining, "The kids kept going in motion and I tried to explain to them that you can't rock forward like you can in the Canadian football. Other than the extra guy and the larger field, it's really the same game."Playing Football In Two Different Worlds
If the need ever arises, the Canadian six have the ultimate excuse for missing practice: "Coach, I couldn’t get back into the country."
They haven't had to use that yet.
Though each time the white eight-passenger Chevy Venture pulls up to the United States border, it’s something different. The first couple of weeks there were problems from the border patrol. The boys were detained, taken aside and asked if they were being taken into the U.S. against their will. Some guards they found were less stringent than others, asking the boys to show their F-1 VISAs, which acts as a student VISA.
Every once in a while, they got into a situation, like the time Johanson lost his wallet and couldn't get back into Canada, staying with a St. Francis family overnight until his wallet was found the next day.
As for social mixing, their American counterparts will poke and tease "aboot" their accents, and joke why they’re not all playing hockey instead of football. Their St. Francis classmates refer to them as the "Canadians" — and they laugh.
"It is different, doing what we do," said Matt Levasseur, 6-0, 200 pounds, and the Red Raiders' junior varsity starting quarterback. "There is a bond between the six of us bigger than the other guys on the team. We're the only Canadians on the team, so the guys call us 'the Canadians.' We’re all here for the same reason, to play American football and get better.
"You can’t play any better competition than the American game. Canadian football is so much slower than the American game, and we’re all getting pushed to be better. We have to be precise in everything we do, on and off the field, and we know it. This is a sacrifice on my family, on all of our families, and sacrifice when it comes to social life. I want to get a football scholarship to an American college and this is the best way to do it. This is what we all want — and there’s no other way around it."
The most talented of the group is the 6-1, 190-pound Lynch, who has scored eight touchdowns for the 1-3 Red Raiders, including a career-best five scores and 184-yard rushing performance (298 all-purpose yards) in a 49-21 victory last Saturday over area rival St. Joseph's.
Lynch has big-time potential, with the possibility of big-time programs taking notice.
"Akeel is definitely a legitimate Division I player," Smith said. "What level will depend on what takes place over the next year. He's a very smart kid, has a great personality and has the potential to be a big-time player. He just comes across as someone that's on a mission. He has legit 4.6 speed in the 40. He just has to realize the American field is a little smaller than the Canadian field."
But being away from home, and going back-and-forth across the border every day, Lynch had some trepidation at first. He was leaving his family and younger brother behind in Toronto, where Trisha Levasseur contacted Lynch's mother and presented the idea.
"When you want to chase your dreams, you have to do whatever it takes," Lynch said. "But in the beginning, I was really home sick. It is a big sacrifice, doing what we're all doing. I kept asking myself if this is worth it. We’re all putting a lot into this. I kept telling myself this will be worth it in the long run. It's a hard road and I keep thinking that if I could stick through it, something good will come out of it."
Hudson had perhaps the biggest adjustment to make. The son of former nine-year CFL veteran Warren Hudson, who scored two touchdowns to help the Winnipeg Blue Bombers win the 1990 Grey Cup, was practically weaned on the Canadian game. He’s been friends with Matt Levasseur since the two played youth ball, so when Matt wanted to make the move, Will went with him.
The 5-8, 165-pound junior safety/cornerback played hockey, but chose football over the national Canadian sport. He has fallen in love with American football.
"When I first got here to the U.S., I was getting ready to punt on third downs," Will said, laughing. "I got used to the American game, and my father was a big influence on me. Some of the guys at St. Francis wonder how we go back and forth across the border every day. But I'm actually really happy to do this. In Canada, you have nowhere near the amount of opportunities as you do in the U.S. to play football. I think if more Canadian kids were exposed to American football, they would like it, especially if they got more coaching."
Dixon, a 5-9, 205-pound junior running back and linebacker, scored his first American touchdown in the St. Joseph's game. He likes the shorter American field, and admits the American high school game is played at a higher level, but … "There are some Canadian teams that have decent enough talent that I think would be competitive with the U.S. teams. I really think that. I think for all of us, though, we had to make this move to make it easier to land a D-I scholarship. I think it’s been worth it."
Johanson, a 5-9, 160-pound safety who has been out this season with a shoulder injury, just shakes his head at the thought of what is offered to American teenagers — and the great sacrifices he and his five buddies have had to make to play a game offered everywhere in the United States.
"It’s all about opportunity," Johanson said. "I'll be able to go to college, either for football or academically. It's hard. Especially being hurt and watching everyone practice every day. American kids have a great game. But no Canadian kid is going to get a football scholarship to an American college without playing football in the U.S. It doesn’t happen.
"Canada has hockey, lacrosse, and maybe football. I think American kids take for granted what they have in American football. We come down here knowing what it’s like with what they have. It’s a great game."
In the St. Joseph’s victory, the Canadian players on St. Francis accounted for six of the Red Raiders' seven touchdowns (Lynch five and Dixon 1). As the St. Francis team bus neared the school, the Canadian players broke out into a rendition of "O Canada." Before they knew it, the rest of the team began singing with them … followed by a chorus of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
The players knew every word of both national songs and as the team pulled into the school driveway, they all broke out into a roaring collective laugh.Joseph Santoliquito covers high schools for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a contributor to MaxPreps.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.