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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018
CFL comes a calling for Jacob Czaja
by Randy Pascal

The end goal may not have always been crystal clear for former Lo-Ellen Park lineman Jacob Czaja.

But when football became his one primary focus, there was simply no denying the Lively native.

The recent graduate of St Francis Xavier University became the first local product to be drafted by a CFL (Canadian Football League) team since Kyle Kirkwood was selected in 2007, with Czaja nabbed by the Ottawa Redblacks in the 8th round of the 2018 draft in April.

Pretty impressive stuff for a young man who was by no means the “talk of the town” when he suited up for the Knights in the SDSSAA high-school ranks a few years ago. “At one point, I was just going to go to college and give up on football,” said Czaja recently, just before leaving for his first professional football training camp in the nation's capital.

“I wasn't getting many looks. I had talked to a couple of schools, but nothing that caught my eye. I got a late call out east and ended up playing.” The lack of overwhelming attention did not shock, in any way, the physical specimen who could quite aptly be dubbed a late bloomer.

“As a kid, I was always playing hockey,” Czaja recalled. “Hockey has always been the big game. As a kid, you would always go watch hockey game – football wasn't as big.” Eventually settling in as an offensive guard during his time with the X-Men, the northern Ontario recruit had very limited exposure to the offensive line prior to leaving for Atlantic Canada.

“I just played “D” line most of the time in high school,” said Czaja. “And in high-school, it's just the basics. You don't have any individual coaches. Once I moved on, I would spend half my night with just my offensive line, one on one with my “O” line coach.”

It was that bond with former CFL great Bob Howes that began to pave the pathway for what would become an outstanding AUS career for Czaja. “He just kept telling me to keep going, that I had something special, and motivated me to keep playing.”

Howes would help mold Czaja, a driven athlete with potential and a great work ethic, gradually fine-tuning the skills that would lead to increasing notoriety. “I think technically, my hand placement, and my physicality, those are my two main attributes,” said Czaja. “And my intelligence for the game, being able to see what's about to happen, knowing if a lineman is about to stunt, if someone is going to blitz, those kinds of things.”

By the time the CFL draft drew nearer, Czaja understood that there was at least a chance that more doors would soon be opening. “I had a little bit of a sense, but I didn't want to get my hopes up, obviously,” he said. “That Tuesday night (two days before the draft), I took a couple of phone calls from a couple of teams.”

“But Ottawa was definitely the team that asked me a lot of questions: Would I like to play in Ottawa? Would I like to live in Ottawa? They kind of hinted, a little bit.”

Since then, it's been a bit of a whirlwind. Convocation was right around the corner, with family flying in from Walden. Former teammates would return, offering their congratulations and best wishes. In the meantime, Czaja had only limited initial contact with the Redblacks, post draft.

“I only talked to the team that night, and it was really kind of a welcome to the family call,” he said. “After that, it was my agent handling most of it.” Since then, a contract has been signed, as Czaja prepares for his first appearance in a CFL exhibition game before the end of May.

An accounting degree in hand, the well-spoken gentle giant (6'3” - 290) is still leaving his options open to pursue further studies. “We'll see how football goes, and then think about that.” True to form for a young man who has been more than willing to take things as they come.

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