Seven Greatest Canadians in NCAA Football History
Canada is getting very good at playing American college football, but just who exactly tops the list of greatest Canadians in NCAA Football history? We did invent this sport, after all; when McGill College (now McGill University) and Harvard played their famous two-game series in 1874, the first game under “Boston Rules” and the second under “McGill Rules,” Harvard decided they liked our rules better.
Our two football countries went their separate ways for the next 100 years or so. Canada still has its own football game with its own rules (three downs, 12 players per side, the infamous “rouge” – although nobody in Canada calls it that, it’s just a single point), not to mention its own college sports authority, U Sports. But like many of our cultural products, it’s the American version that most football fans are paying attention to.
The line between these two countries is also blurring. Now more than ever, young Canadians are bringing their talents south of the border to play NCAA college football. This past April, a record five Canadians were selected in the 2023 NFL Draft, led by Syracuse OG Matthew Bergeron (No. 38 overall, Atlanta) from Victoriaville, Quebec.
Before this influx of talent, it was very rare indeed for one of our imports to make it big on the American gridiron. You’d have the occasional Canadian-born, American-raised player like Bronko Nagurski (Rainy River, Ontario), who excelled at both ends of the field for Minnesota in the late 1920s. And we did produce a bumper crop of place-kickers like Tulane’s Eddie Murray (Victoria, via Halifax) and William & Mary’s Steve Christie (Oakville, Ontario).
It wasn’t until 2020 that the floodgates opened. Over the past four years, 14 Canadians have been scooped up in the NFL Draft, compared to 14 during the entire 2010s, and just 10 of the previous decade. All five of this year’s crop are Canadian-raised as well; Bergeron played in high school at Thetford Mines before enrolling at Syracuse in 2019.
To honour our players, Bodog Sportsbook is proud to offer our list of the top seven greatest Canadians in NCAA football history, focussing only on those players who were raised at least partly in the Great White North before making it big in America. We begin in chronological order with our first legitimate star:
Rueben Mayes (RB, Washington State)
It was nearly unheard of in the 1980s: a Canadian playing US college football at an elite level. But Mayes was no ordinary Joe. A descendant of the “Shiloh People” who fled Oklahoma for northwest Saskatchewan in 1910, Mayes was born in nearby North Battleford and led their high-school team to the 1980 provincial championship as their star running back.
Next up: the Washington State Cougars, where Mayes played four seasons – starting the final two, and finishing 10th in the 1984 Heisman voting after racking up 1,637 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 11 rushing touchdowns. That was good enough to earn Mayes the first of his two Pac-10 Player of the Year awards, and consensus All-American honours. He would later become the only born-and-raised Canadian elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and was named the greatest Cougar of all-time by the Pac-12 Network in 2017.
Mayes wasn’t done just yet. Taken by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 1986 NFL Draft, Mayes was an instant hit, rushing for 1,353 yards and eight touchdowns to win Associated Press Rookie of the Year. This was also the first of two Pro-Bowl seasons for Mayes, before injuries took their toll and curtailed his pro career. Mayes was added to the Saints Hall of Fame in 2004, and returned to Pullman to finish his Master’s degree in business administration, then launch a successful career raising funds for Pullman Regional Hospital and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Tony Mandarich (OT, Michigan State)
Offensive linemen weren’t given their due respect until the Moneyball Era of the early Aughts, when advanced analytics helped reveal just how important these players really are. So it’s almost unfathomable how big a deal Tony Mandarich was back in the mid-1980s. One of the first top players to come out of Oakville, Mandarich took an unusual route south, playing his final year of high school in Kent, Ohio before getting recruited to Michigan State by none other than Nick Saban – their defensive backs coach at the time.
It paid off. Mandarich, a giant even for today at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, was twice named the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year in 1987 and 1988, earning All-American honours in his final season and finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember Mandarich from his Sports Illustrated cover (“The Incredible Bulk”) heading into the 1989 NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, Mandarich didn’t quite make it as a pro. After going second overall to the Green Bay Packers, Mandarich played three unimpressive seasons before getting cut. Life got a bit rough after that, but Mandarich returned from a five-year absence to play three more seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, winning back a measure of respect in the process.
Tim Biakabutuka (RB, Michigan)
Tshimanga “Tim” Biakabutuka came to Canada at age four after his family left Kinshasa (in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and moved to Montreal. Football wasn’t part of his life until his high school in Longueuil put together a team; Biakabutuka then went to Vanier College, where they called him Touchdown Tim, and enrolled at Michigan in 1993.
It took a while for Biakabutuka to make his mark in Ann Arbor – but only because he was playing behind Tyrone Wheatley, one of the greatest Wolverines in the history of the program. Biakabutuka would get his turn in his junior year, breaking James Morris’s team record by rushing for 1,818 yards (at 6.0 yards per carry). That included 313 yards in Michigan’s big 31-23 win over their previously undefeated rivals from Ohio State.
Biakabutuka went straight from there to the 1996 NFL Draft, where the Carolina Panthers scooped him up at No. 8. Alas, injuries were a constant thorn in his side; Biakabutuka played parts of six years with the Panthers before hanging up his cleats in 2001. At last report, he was living in North Carolina, and the owner of eight Bojangles restaurants in Augusta, Georgia. Tell ‘em Bodog sent you.
L.P. Ladouceur (DT/LS, California)
Canadians are still known for their special teams acumen in American football, and none has made more a career for themselves than Louis-Phillipe “L.P.” Ladouceur. He didn’t necessarily plan it that way; the Montreal native played on the defensive line at John Abbott College before accepting a scholarship at Cal in 2000, then found his niche as a long snapper after two years of riding the pine.
Has there ever been a better player at football’s least glamorous position? We think not, which is why L.P has to feature in our greatest Canadians in NCAA football history. The Golden Bears didn’t allow a single blocked kick in the two years Ladouceur played on their special teams. There aren’t too many other ways to measure success as a long snapper, other than how often you miss your target or getting called for an infraction.
We don’t have any record of these things happening at Cal. And Ladouceur became as close to famous as a long snapper can get by spending 14 mistake-free years with the Dallas Cowboys before getting called for a controversial snap infraction in 2018.
By the time Ladouceur retired after the 2020 season, he was the all-time record holder for Canadians with 253 NFL games played – three more than Eddie Murray. Those games were consecutive as well, giving Ladouceur the record for both the Cowboys and for all NFL long snappers. And he made the Pro Bowl in 2014. Good work if you can get it.
O.J. Atogwe (FS/SS, Stanford)
The pride of Windsor, Oshiomogho “O.J.” Atogwe was more than just a stud football player at W.F. Herman Secondary School – he also competed in soccer, basketball and track, and excelled at all four sports. There was no question that bigger things were on the horizon.
But in which sport? Atogwe was on Stanford’s track team in 2001 and 2002, yet he had more success on the gridiron, where he moved from back-up free safety to starting strong safety and made second-team All-Pac-10 in 2003 after leading the entire FBS with six forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
Atogwe’s all-around athleticism was enough to convince the St. Louis Rams to take him in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft. His first four years went well enough that the Rams used the franchise tag on Atogwe in 2009; big contracts would follow, but shoulder issues helped wind up his career in 2012. Atogwe popped up again in 2018 as the secondary coach for the Memphis Express in the short-lived American Football Alliance, and can occasionally be found competing as an amateur inside the boxing ring.
Nick Kaczur (LT, Toledo)
Imagine if scouts paid as much attention to Canadian players 20 years ago as they do today. Maybe Nick Kaczur wouldn’t have spent his first two years after high school working in the construction industry. Kaczur was the No. 1 “prep” offensive lineman in Ontario at his hometown Brantford Collegiate Institute, but drew little interest before enrolling at Toledo in 2001.
It was worth the wait. Kaczur started all four years for the Rockets and was named All-MAC every time, including first-team honours in each of his last three seasons – not a bad record and thoroughly deserving of a spot on Bodog’s greatest Canadians in NCAA football history list. Toledo won two MAC titles, and Kaczur was among the leading candidates for the Lombardi Award (for top lineman, linebacker or tight end) and the Outland Trophy (for top interior lineman) in 2004.
As fate would have it, the New England Patriots were the team who selected Kaczur in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He spent the next five years covering Tom Brady’s blind side (and Matt Cassel’s), then injuries forced Kaczur to call it quits before he was able to collect any Super Bowl rings. He was last seen coaching the Brantford Bisons varsity football team, and working once again in construction.
John Metchie III (WR, Alabama)
The most decorated among the recent crop of Canadian talent – at least for now – Metchie was a big part of Alabama’s National Championship team in 2020, and became their top receiver in 2021 with 96 catches for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns. Metchie won the Jon Cornish Trophy both years as the top Canadian player in NCAA football.
Metchie’s backstory is about as Canadian as it gets. He was born in Taiwan, left for Ghana at age one, then moved to Brampton, Ontario and played youth football before moving once again to Maryland for high school. Despite his gifts, success was never guaranteed at any stop along the way; a torn ACL limited his college career, and a leukemia diagnosis prompted the Houston Texans to put Metchie on the Non-Football Injury list last July, after they took him in the second round of the 2022 Draft.
Now that Metchie is back in training camp, he’ll be showing off his skills for Houston before long. Will he enjoy the same NFL success as most of the other players on this list? Or will he be more like Cornish, who starred at running back for Kansas before turning pro with the Calgary Stampeders?
Speaking of Cornish, we didn’t have quite enough room on this list for the 2013 Lou Marsh Trophy winner – or for Nathan Rourke, who claimed the first two Cornish trophies in 2017 and 2018 as the quarterback at Ohio. Props must be given as well to 2022 Cornish winner Chase Brown, the former Illinois RB who’s fighting for a spot in the Cincinnati Bengals’ backfield this year.
Have we missed anyone from our list of greatest Canadians in NCAA football history? Let us know on our Twitter page.