March 22, 2024

Sitting in on a CFL Combine Interview

The carpet just outside the room at the Hotel Fort Garry where Winnipeg Blue Bombers management are camped out to conduct one-on-one interviews with Canadian Football League Draft prospects is being worn bare by constant traffic.

Up and down the hallway – the Ottawa RedBlacks also have a spot on this level, with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts set up not too far away – prospects decked out in suits or their Sunday best pace back and forth nervously, waiting for their chance to make a good in-person impression on CFL brass just over a month away from the April 30th draft.

Kyle Walters has sat across from hundreds and hundreds of prospects in his 10 years as the Blue Bombers GM – and the four years before that as a coach and as assistant GM.

Over time, so many of these sessions have become a blur. Others, it turns out, are a little more memorable… like last year’s interview with Tanner Schmekel, a defensive tackle from the University of Regina the Blue Bombers would later select in the fourth round, 35th overall in the 2023 CFL Draft, just weeks removed from their first in-person meeting.

“Schmekel… Oh, Schmekel,” began Walters with a chuckle. “He was like Bluto from ‘Animal House.’ He was amazing. He wore a (expletive deleted) tweed suit that looked like it was two sizes too small, and he couldn’t breathe because it was so tight. Was it ‘Bluto’ from ‘Animal House’? Maybe it was ‘Flounder’, the chubby guy. That’s the guy.

“Anyway, Tanner is 300 pounds. It’s hot and he’s wearing a wool, tweed suit. He looked like he was a thousand degrees, and the sweat was pouring off him. His face was red, and it looked like his head was going to pop off. I kid about him, but we liked him right away. He’s a funny dude. He’s a good dude and he obviously made a great impression on us.”

That basic theme – whether a prospect is a good dude or not – is critical to how the Blue Bombers conduct these interviews and key to their end goal in the process. Draft choices are based primarily on football skill, absolutely. But it’s so much about fit with an organization that has found such a perfect locker room mix while advancing to four consecutive Grey Cup games, with wins in 2019 and 2021.

The club’s brass allowed yours truly a chance to sit in on one of the interviews this week to get a feel for the experience from the team and the player’s perspective.

This, then, is a sneak peek behind the curtain of one of the more fascinating aspects of this whole event, a part of the evaluation process that also includes testing and on-field components over a five-day span. Welcome, Blue Bombers fans, to the CFL Combine interview …

Inside the Blue Bombers room in Salon C at Hotel Fort Garry is a long rectangular table covered with a white tablecloth and with enough seating for 20. Walters, new special teams coach Mike Miller and yours truly are the only people present – assistant GM Ted Goveia, offensive coordinator Buck Pierce and director of football operations Matt Gulakow are elsewhere in the hotel conducting interviews with offensive prospects, while head coach Mike O’Shea bops back and forth between the two rooms to introduce himself, listen in and ask his own questions. All told, the club plans to interview 70 prospects through this weekend.

It’s 11:15 in the morning and next up on the Blue Bombers interview list is Terrence Ganyi, a linebacker who was born in Cameroon and moved to Montreal when he was seven and then played his college ball at Connecticut, where he earned a sociology degree, and then Maine, where he added an MBA. Last month he was named to the Coastal Athletic Association’s Commissioner’s Academic Honour Roll.

Ganyi offers a firm handshake to everyone, seeming to make extra effort to look each recipient squarely in the eyes while doing so.

As the interview unfolds, it’s Walters asking most of the questions. Ganyi’s road is a fascinating one, as he left Quebec with friend Kevens Clercius – also attending this week’s Combine – for an opportunity to finish out his high school career at a school in Ohio, returned to Montreal because of visa concerns, sat out almost a year and then completed high school courses at an adult school while taking his SAT. He then landed a scholarship at UConn on the spot following a tryout camp and finished up at Maine following a coaching change at Connecticut.

After that journey is detailed, Walters asks about Ganyi’s injury history and if he has ever been in trouble with the law, including speeding tickets or traffic violations. Ganyi admits to having picked up a couple of parking tickets at Maine, to which Walters laughs before adding, “University parking tickets? Everybody has those. I still have some outstanding at Guelph. I’m not welcome back there. I’d get my car towed.”

Each team attacks prospect interviews with their own unique approach. A few years back, Ottawa placed a box of donuts by the door, asking each prospect to grab one on the way in and then quizzed them on their choice – as much as a fun icebreaker as anything.

Other teams will press the prospects on potential red flags, often making the interview feel more like an interrogation. Just to be clear, there are no gimmicks with the Blue Bombers approach whatsoever.

“The closest thing we might do to that is say, ‘Pick a seat’ and then when they do we go ‘Ooooh boy… not sure about that one,’” said Walters. “But we’re just messing around with them and then it’s ‘Sit wherever you want, man. It’s all good.’

“Honestly, we look at it as a chance to just check on the base information we get, check on their academic situation – whether they are graduating or going back to school and then we let the conversation go where it goes. We’re not trying to trick anybody or put anyone on the hot seat.

“We just want to find a bit about who they are. There’s a perfect example: we had a guy in here already who had a story that, on paper, just wasn’t right. It was, ‘What’s wrong with this guy and his story?’ He came in and he explained what happened and we were left thinking he was a perfectly good dude. It was, ‘That’s a good guy. That makes perfect sense now.’ Anybody’s story can be skewed somehow. That’s why it’s great to sit with them, talk with them and hear their stories.

“Most of these guys are good dudes. There’s not many times over the years where we’ve said, ‘Man, that guy is a dick.’”

After the CFL Combine this week the club will then piece together its draft rankings list, with a particular emphasis on their Top 20 – Winnipeg has three selections in that grouping at the 8th, 17th and 20th overall spots.

As the draft nears, there may be follow-up calls with their top prospects, checking to see if the player is still healthy or a check in on further medical questions that may have arisen.

The session with Ganyi is nearing the 15-minute mark. Lunch awaits for the entire Blue Bombers staff, at which time they’ll briefly run through their first impressions on the interviews so far.

Mike Miller checks with Ganyi about his high school days in Montreal and explores his connection with current Blue Bombers dime back Redha Kramdi, who attended the same institution. Asked what Kramdi might say about him as a person, Ganyi’s face lit up instantly.

“I consider Redha my big brother. He’s proud of me,” he explained. “We train at the same gym and chop it up every time we meet up and he’s given me some good feedback about the team and the CFL in general.”

Ganyi is then quizzed about his role on special teams in college and whether he’d be a good fit. Miller follows that up with, ‘What’s your edge on special teams?’

“I’m a physical guy,” Ganyi explained. “And I’m fast.”

“Good,” said Walters. “Show that over the next few days at practice. Your testing will be what it is, but when you put your pads on, show that you are physical and can run around, can move and aren’t afraid of contact.”

The session about to conclude, Walters asks the prospect if he has any questions. Ganyi pauses for a moment, then adds:

“No questions. I just want to say it would be a great opportunity to come and play for you guys. Simple as that.”

Walters stands then, as does Ganyi and then Miller.

“Good answer,” said Walters and there are handshakes all around again. “That’s what we like to hear.”