Syracuse offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron hails from Victoriaville, Quebec, a relatively short drive of five and a half hours from campus.
The proximity is one of the reasons Bergeron, one of Canada’s best football prospects in the class of 2019, chose the Orange to begin with.
But during the 2020 season, an unexpected downside emerged. Because of COVID-19 restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border, Bergeron couldn’t see his family at all from June to December.
While his American teammates welcomed their relatives to town, Bergeron and his loved ones — normally a short drive away — had to resort to FaceTime instead.
“The thing that made it worse is just seeing everybody with their family, and you can’t see your family,” Bergeron said. “I think that was the hardest thing: They were so close, but they couldn’t come here.”
For Bergeron and the few Canadians playing Division I football in the United States, including Mississippi State lineman Albert Reese IV, pandemic restrictions are the latest curve in an already difficult road. Getting noticed by college coaches, adjusting to new rules and — in some cases — learning a new language has already been hard enough.
But those who have made the leap in search of NFL dreams don’t regret the cost.
“It has been tough, but I definitely always remind myself that even since high school, going to a boarding school, I’m definitely making the sacrifice and working here to make a sacrifice for my family, and hopefully one day it could pay off for them,” Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III said.
‘You’ve got to ball’
Asked how many current Power Five players claim Canada as their home country, Bergeron pauses a moment to think.
He guesses 100. Then 50.
Still, he’s too high.
There are only 37 people playing major-conference football from a neighboring country with a population slightly more than 38 million. The odds are, quite literally, less than one in a million.
“It ain’t a lot, man,” Syracuse linebacker Geoff Cantin-Arku said. “You’ve got to ball. The stars have to be aligned for you.”
Bergeron and Cantin-Arku — who is from Lévis, Quebec — both attended a CEGEP, a pre-college education program unique to the province. They both said the two extra years they spent in school helped them prepare for college life.
But as Cantin-Arku noted, “everybody has his own path.”
Twenty-seven of the 37 Canadian players on Power 5 rosters, including Syracuse wide receiver Damien Alford, went to high school or prep school in the U.S.
Reese was one of them. At Clearwater Academy International, he earned the recruiting attention he never would have gotten in Edmonton, Alberta.
“With Canada, a lot of players tend to get overlooked or they just don’t get looked at enough because they’re not in the U.S., they’re not able to go to camps or whatnot,” Reese said.
Players unable to visit bigger schools often wind up at smaller ones. Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Chris Fournier, from Ottawa, Ontario, visited the closest schools to his hometown — three hours to Syracuse, seven to New Hampshire and Maine.
“There’s only so far you can drive to do a camp over a weekend,” Fournier said.
The graduate transfer started his college career at Lehigh after attending prep school at Episcopal in Alexandria, Virginia, where he played with six other Canadians. Three were also from Ottawa — Jonathan Sutherland from Penn State, Luiji Vilain from Wake Forest and Patrice Rene from Rutgers.
The Nittany Lions have a Power Five-high five Canadian players, while the Scarlet Knights have three. Besides Syracuse, the only other schools with three Canadians are Ole Miss and West Virginia.
Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley has a Canadian player on each level of the defense — lineman Ahkeem Mesidor, linebacker Deshawn Stevens and defensive back Alonzo Addae. Lesley said he’s learned Canadian players are an “empty cup” willing to learn and take on new information.
“Those guys are humble. They’re hungry,” Lesley said. “They have something to prove. They have an edge. They have a chip.”
But they face lesser competition in Canada than do American high school players, which Lesley said is a point against them while not a dealbreaker.
“I think the big evaluation for us is, athletically, can they do what we’re asking them to do?” he said.
‘A whole ’nother game’
Early in his first fall camp with Syracuse in 2019, Bergeron began to stride off the practice field when he realized it was third down.
“You can’t walk off right now,” he was promptly told. “We’ve got an extra play.”
Bergeron was used to working with three downs in Canada, one of the several rules differences between Canadian football and its American equivalent. Lesley said there’s been a big push in both Canada and Europe for American football rules, but many players grew up playing their home country’s version of the game.
There, it’s 12 players per side, and the field is considerably wider — 65 yards compared to 53 1/3. For a linebacker like Cantin-Arku, the game speeds up in the U.S. when there’s a lot less time to watch the play develop.
“The way we play football is completely different,” he said. “I had to learn a whole ’nother game.”
Many Canadian players struggle with that transition and adjusting to the pace of American college football. The best — like West Virginia’s Mesidor — don’t.
“Ahkeem has one speed,” Lesley said. “No matter what the speed of the game is, he plays the game the same way.”
For linemen like Reese, Bergeron and Fournier, it’s not so much the speed but rather the lack of a 1-yard buffer between the offensive and defensive lines that took some getting accustomed to.
“That was the main issue for me: just getting used to having these D-ends right in your face,” Bergeron said.
Many Canadian players, particularly those from Quebec, must overcome an even less tangible barrier than the line of scrimmage: learning English. In the province, French is the official language, and roughly 10 percent of residents are English speakers.
Bergeron said he learned English in school the same way many American students learn Spanish. He said he spoke with a thick accent his first year in the U.S., but it no longer shows.
Cantin-Arku dealt with the same thing when he came to Syracuse with Bergeron in 2019.
“I didn’t speak English very well when I came to the United States, so it took me a while to understand American culture and adapt to it,” he said.
Apart from their size and status as student-athletes, Canadian players simply stand out as international students, Reese said. He fields plenty of questions about every Canadian stereotype you could think of: “Do you see polar bears in your backyard? (“I probably wouldn’t be around if that was the case,” Reese said.) “Are there a lot of moose there?”
“It’s just fun being Canadian in that way because you’re so different in terms of the way you grew up,” Reese said.
Fournier agreed Canadian players stand out, and with that comes the task of being a good ambassador for the U.S.’ northern neighbor. He’s glad to do it.
“I have pride in my country, and I’m happy to represent Canada so far away from home,” Fournier said. “Whenever I meet someone, it’s good to know they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s the Canadian guy. He’s a good person.’”
On the same path
After Syracuse hosted Boston College on Nov. 7, 2020, Cantin-Arku sought out Eagles wide receiver Ezechiel Tieide.
The Orange linebacker had played against Tieide when Cantin-Arku was 15, and he wanted a picture. With Alford and Bergeron standing beside them, the duo posed for a shot in the end zone.
“Every time we see each other, it’s always fun to see somebody from home, balling against him,” Cantin-Arku said.
Indeed, there’s a sort of connection among the Canadian players across the country — not just those on the same team. Fournier named several Canadians on the roster at Texas State as well as pointing to former college players like UCLA defensive lineman and Penn State quarterback Michael O’Connor.
“I’m really happy to see other people take the same path that I did,” he said. “It’s not easy, and it’s a bold move to move so far away and compete with people who are really passionate about this game.”
Bergeron mentioned Mesidor and Penn State receiver Malick Meiga, saying he tracks his fellow players across the U.S.
“We just keep up with all the Canadians,” he said. “We just want to see each other win.”
That’s why they’re all here, after all, leaving their families behind and setting out on their own early in life. For some, the sacrifices have been significant.
Metchie said at SEC Media Days in July he hadn’t seen his family in two years. Even when the Crimson Tide won the national championship, a phone call was the best he could do.
“Of course they were happy for me, and I was happy, so we’ve kind of just been handling it as best as we could,” he said.
The situation isn’t the same for everyone. Reese’s mother Sue Wasson is currently living in Starkville, spending six months with her son to make up for lost time.
Fournier isn’t sure if he’ll return to Canada once his final season is up. He’s got a girlfriend in Pennsylvania, so if he stays in the States, he’ll still be close to home.
Bergeron will await a Sept. 21 update from the U.S. government, seeing if the country will begin to admit Canadians to cross the border. He’s hoping for good news.
Cantin-Arku saw his mom Nancy Cantin this summer, and she came to town for Saturday’s game against Rutgers, but he won’t see her again until December. Three visits a year is all he gets.
“That’s a big part of what makes it difficult being a Canadian in America: leaving your country, leaving your family, leaving everybody behind to realize your dream,” Cantin-Arku said. “That’s a big part of the decision I had to make.”
But all of them made that choice, and they’d make it again. Bergeron said his dream has always been to play in the NFL, and he knew that wasn’t going to happen without playing American college football.
“I felt like I had a responsibility to work hard and succeed for the people back home,” he said.
And the people back home support those chasing their dreams across the border. In Edmonton, in Victoriaville, in Ottawa, in Lévis, they’ll always be watching.
“It’s great to have the chance to represent my country,” Cantin-Arku said. “I worked very hard to be able to play in the U.S., so it’s always fun to see that people at home are proud of us and what we’re doing.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.