Vanier College, the CEGEP in St. Laurent, has produced 35 football players who
have won scholarships to U.S. colleges in the last six years, an incredible record

St. Laurent Football Factory

by ARPON BASU, Freelance

(ORIGINAL MONTREAL GAZETTE ARTICLE PUBLISHED JULY 31, 2003)


Vanier College football coach Ray Gagnon (third from left) is flanked by (left to right) Obed
Cétoute Grenaille, Adrian Davis Marshall, Kevin Challenger, Jabari Arthur and Blake Butler,
just some of the former Vanier players who have won football scholarships to U.S. colleges.


Marwan Hage's biography on the University of Colorado football Web site is chock-full of interesting tidbits.

It tells you the 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior guard is going into his fourth year as a starter on the Big 12 powerhouse, based in Boulder, Colo. You learn he started all of his team's 13 games as a sophomore in 2001 - including a 38-16 loss to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl - and finished second on the team in blocking that season.

This year, Hage's selection as a pre-season All-American by the Sporting News also will be included.

But more intriguing for people in these parts is his high school, listed as Vanier Prep.

Translated into Canada-speak, that means Vanier College in St. Laurent, the CEGEP that has become known as the producer of some of the finest football talent in Canada.

"I don't know how it is for other teams, but Vanier's like a manufacturer for football players," Hage, who was raised in Town of Mount Royal, said in a recent telephone interview from Boulder. "So when you go down, you're representing Vanier first."

Hage, and every other Vanier alumnus who receives that coveted NCAA football scholarship, knows why this responsibility to their former school is vitally important.

They go to the United States knowing they carry the scholarship hopes of future Vanier students on their shoulders, because that's exactly what head coach Ray Gagnon tells them when they leave.

Since Gagnon took over as head coach six years ago, Vanier College has sent 35 players to American colleges on football scholarships, with 13 of those coming in the last two years. It is by far the most of any football program in the province, if not the country.

"The word of what Vanier's been doing the last six or seven years is getting out. We have great contacts in the U.S. now, the coaches are coming up," Gagnon said. "(But) there is that pressure. Every Canadian that goes down there gets judged. If he does well, that opens the door for other kids to go down and play. If he doesn't, that door can close pretty quickly."

Ron Dias, a native of Greenfield Park who runs football recruiting camps across Canada for the benefit of U.S. and Canadian university coaches, said coaches south of the border generally tend to lump Canadians into one group, whether they're from Victoria or Halifax.

As a result, despite Vanier's incredible success at consistently producing high-quality players, many colleges have yet to distinguish it from other football programs in this country, he said.

"They've had the most players over the last 17 years attend NCAA Division I schools," said Dias, who has worked in football recruiting since 1986.

"People up here recognize the number of kids that have gone from Vanier; if that school was in the States it would have an incredible reputation. Vanier will continue to be recruited, but will it build up and be the way I think it should or could be? I think it's still a battle every year."

Dias conducted - for the first time ever in Montreal - his All-Pro-Football camp at Vanier this summer, attracting coaches from Boston College, Central Florida, Michigan State, Akron, Nebraska and Boise State. Each of those schools recently signed Canadian recruits to scholarships, and the success of those recruits is the primary reason they come back.

There are programs in the northeastern part of the United States that maintain regular contact with Gagnon. But that number is not nearly as high as it probably should be.

"With the types of players we've had, we should be getting 100 schools calling us," Gagnon said. "But I look at my team, and the guys that deserved scholarships got scholarships."

Two of the latest Vanier grads to get those scholarships include wideout Kevin Challenger and quarterback Jabari Arthur, though their stories differ. Challenger is one of three Quebecers playing for Big East power Boston College.

"It's like every year they come and get another one," Challenger said.

Despite his slight 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame, making him the shortest receiver on the team, Challenger's blazing speed convinced Boston College to give him a shot. The LaSalle native said on a recent trip back home that the jump in competition is quite steep.

"The guys are a lot faster," Challenger said. "The main difference is the corners are more physical. I was probably one of the fastest guys in the league when I was at Vanier, but down there everyone's as fast as me."

Jabari Arthur, a golden-armed quarterback who signed with the University of Akron, had a different experience largely because of the position he plays. He received a ton of interest from many high-profile programs, but barely any of them - Akron excluded - wanted him to play quarterback. Arthur, to his credit, went to a lesser-known school to pursue his dreams as a signal-caller.

"Selling Canadian players is 10 times harder than to sell an American player," said Hage, who tried, in vain, to convince his coaches at Colorado to bring in Arthur as a quarterback instead of as an athlete. "They'll take a (bad) American player over a great Canadian player."

Many football recruiters will canvass areas based simply on reputation, and the fact is the Quebec CÉGEP Triple-A League hasn't quite earned that respect in the States.

"They're always going to recruit in Texas, even if a guy comes in here and doesn't do well," said Patrick Kabongo, a Pointe St. Charles native who is a fifth-year senior and starting nose tackle for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and another Vanier alumnus. "But if you're from Montreal, it's important that you come here and you work hard and you respect people. Because when you leave a good name, you leave a good name for the next guy and your program."

Hage and Kabongo both said they had to get through some homesickness the first one or two years south of the border, but on the field they were ready.

"The starters at Vanier are good enough to play in the NCAA," Hage said. "The guys coach Gagnon puts on the field, they're top guys. We ran at Vanier a kind of NCAA-style with our conditioning and stuff. Our coaches knew how the NCAA works, so they get you ready."

It would be easy for these guys to forget where they came from once they hit the big-time of NCAA football, where you become an instant celebrity once you sign that letter of intent. But Gagnon makes sure the players who leave his program do so with a great sense of pride, enough of one that they will continue to promote the little CÉGEP that could as the football powerhouse it has become.

"I'm Vanier forever," Hage said proudly. "There's a lot of guys that paved the way for a lot of great Canadian players, so I'm just trying to keep it up for them."

"People up here recognize the number of kids that have gone from Vanier; if that school was in the States, it would have an incredible reputation. Vanier will continue to be recruited, but will it build up and be the way I think it should or could be? I think it's still a battle every year."

Dias conducted - for the first time in Montreal - his All-Pro Football Camp at Vanier this summer, attracting coaches from Boston College, Central Florida, Michigan State, Akron (Ohio), Nebraska and Boise State. Each of those schools recently signed Canadian recruits to scholarships, and the success of those recruits is the primary reason they come back.

There are programs in the northeastern part of the United States that maintain regular contact with Gagnon. But that number is not nearly as high as it probably should be.

"With the types of players we've had, we should be getting 100 schools calling us," Gagnon said. "But I look at my team, and the guys that deserved scholarships got scholarships."

Two of the latest Vanier grads to get those scholarships include wideout Kevin Challenger and quarterback Jabari Arthur, though their stories differ. Challenger is one of three Quebecers playing for Big East power Boston College.

"It's like every year they come and get another one," Challenger said.

Despite his slight 5-foot-9,

180-pound frame, making him the shortest receiver on the team, Challenger's blazing speed convinced Boston College to give him a shot. The LaSalle native said on a recent trip back home that the jump in competition is quite steep.

"The guys are a lot faster," Challenger said. "The main difference is the corners are more physical. I was probably one of the fastest guys in the league when I was at Vanier, but down there everyone's as fast as me."

Arthur, a golden-armed quarterback who signed with the University of Akron, had a different experience largely because of the position he plays. He received a ton of interest from many high-profile programs, but barely any of them - Akron excluded - wanted him to play quarterback. Arthur, to his credit, went to a lesser-known school to pursue his dreams as a signal-caller.

"Selling Canadian players is 10 times harder than to sell an American player," said Hage, who tried in vain to convince his coaches at Colorado to bring in Arthur as a quarterback instead of as an athlete. "They'll take a (bad) American player over a great Canadian player."

Many football recruiters will canvass areas based simply on reputation, and the fact is the Quebec CÉGEP Triple-A league hasn't quite earned that respect in the States.

"They're always going to recruit in Texas, even if a guy comes in here and doesn't do well," said Patrick Kabongo, a Pointe St. Charles native who is a fifth-year senior and starting nose tackle for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and another Vanier alumnus.

"But if you're from Montreal, it's important that you come here and you work hard and you respect people. Because when you leave a good name, you leave a good name for the next guy and your program."

Hage and Kabongo said they had to get through some homesickness the first couple of years south of the border, but on the field, they were ready.

"The starters at Vanier are good enough to play in the NCAA," Hage said. "The guys coach Gagnon puts on the field, they're top guys. We ran a kind of NCAA-style at Vanier, with our conditioning and stuff. Our coaches knew how the NCAA works, so they get you ready."

It would be easy for them to forget where they came from once they hit the big-time of NCAA football, where players become instant celebrities once they sign letters of intent. But Gagnon makes sure the players who leave his program do so with a great sense of pride, enough that they will continue to promote the little CÉGEP that became a football powerhouse.

"I'm Vanier forever," Hage said proudly

"There are a lot of guys that paved the way for a lot of great Canadian players, so I'm just trying to keep it up for them."

© Copyright 2003 Montreal Gazette


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MARWAN HAGE AND PATICK KABONGO

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