It's been a long wait for Rene Stephan, one the Winnipeg Blue Bombers believe was worth it.
When the club selected the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker in the fourth round (23rd overall) of this year's CFL draft, the immediate response from many Blue and Gold observers was coloured in skepticism.
The draft process already contains elements of chance for most teams -- some players don't pan out, that's the gamble -- so the Bombers seemed to heighten the risk by going with a player who was two years removed from playing at a tiny Division II school (Harding University) in Arkansas.
Stephan last suited up for the Harding Bisons in 2009 and at first glance, given the extended time removed from the field, he would be a long shot to make the CFL. Two years away is a lifetime in a football career.
"Let's see, I've been training, going to tryouts, going to combines, trying to stay on the radar -- things like that," the San Jose, Calif., product said after a spirited rookie camp workout at Canad Inns Stadium Thursday. "That's about it. I was a regular at tryouts and combines last year. This year, I just waited until the evaluation camp and the draft.
"It's taken some time to get noticed. Hopefully it works out."
Stephan said he attended seven different camps and tryouts in 2011, ranging from individual workouts for Arena League teams to bigger events like NFL regional and national combines. He didn't have an agent at the time, and getting out the word about his skill set was difficult. So when the suggestion was put forth to explore his non-import status and head up north, the 24-year-old decided the CFL might be a path for him.
Born in St. Catharines, Ont., Stephan's family moved to California when he was seven years old so he wasn't certain he could qualify as a non-import. Turns out he could (his mother is Canadian) and once the paperwork was completed, he set a course for Toronto and the evaluation camp this past spring.
"I tried to stay in football as much as I could," he said. "I didn't go the route of semi-pro because I didn't want to pick up any bad habits. I wanted to get coached up the proper way. To me, working on drills that teams evaluate players on was a better path.
"If I could do well in those, maybe a team would take a shot on me."
The plan worked. Stephan excelled at the E-camp, finishing near or at the top of his position in most of the six categories CFL coaches and player personnel brass measure players by. His 40-yard time clocked in at 4.63 seconds -- tied with Laval's Frédéric Plesius, the 10th overall pick (Hamilton), for first among the 11 linebackers at the camp.
"I felt like I did pretty well there," he said. "A lot of times I felt that people were looking at how many years I've been out, rather than what I was doing currently or looking at me as a person.
"This organization actually took the time to look at me; take what I said in the interviews and process it. They seemed to look past what was on paper."
The Bombers say Stephan was on their radar before the evaluation camp, and his results there only encouraged further exploration. Once they did that, and after talking to Stephan, it became apparent he was going to be a target for the Bombers on draft day.
"The thing we had to clear up was that he left a couple of schools," head coach Paul LaPolice said. "We gave him an evaluation test that we give to a lot of the players and he came back testing through the roof. We did extensive research after that, talked to his college coach, (receiver) Kurt Adams played with him.... (we) had good conversations about the kid."
The Bombers are hoping Stephan, a rare non-import with zero background in the Canadian game, can pick up some work on special teams this year. The coaches like his speed and physicality, believing he can grab one of the open roster spots made possible by the release of James Green and the trading of Merrill Johnson this past off-season.
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