It's the opportunity of a lifetime for college football players and McMaster's Matt Sewell is one of only two Canadian players to be given it.
Sewell will join Calgary's Kirby Fabien to participate in the East-West Shrine game Jan. 19 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Sewell, a six-foot-eight, 340-pound native of Milton, Ont., will suit up for the East while Fabien, a six-foot-six, 295-pound Calgary native, lines up for the West in a contest that will be broadcast by the NFL Network.
The two Canadians will be put through their paces daily by pro-level coaches in the leadup to the game as former NFL head coaches Leeman Bennett and Jerry Glanville head up the respective staffs. The workouts will also be conducted under the watchful eyes of CFL and NFL scouts.
Fabien has been through the auditioning process before, having performed well enough to be taken in the first round of last year's CFL draft by the B.C. Lions.
But the Shrine game kicks off what will be a busy off-season for Sewell. The 22-year-old commerce student is anxious to see how he compares to his American college counterparts.
"It's a great opportunity to get out there and get some exposure to some different teams or people who've not seen me or heard about me before," Sewell said Thursday. "I want to show them I can play football at the next level and that I have the potential to be a pro football player."
CFL officials are high on Sewell's potential. The league's scouting bureau ranked him second among the top-15 prospects for this year's draft and he'll certainly draw plenty of interest at the CFL evaluation camp in Toronto in March.
But a good showing in Florida could also solidify Sewell's NFL prospects, either bolstering his stock for the league's draft in April or as a free agent.
Fabien was bypassed in last year's NFL draft but solid play in Florida could strengthen his case as a potential free agent. At worst, exposure to pro coaching should not only help his development but also better prepare him for life in the CFL.
This game has been a springboard to a pro career for Canadian players in the past, including former Queen's offensive lineman Mike Schad (a 1986 first-round pick of the NFL's L.A. Rams), Manitoba defensive lineman Israel Idonije (currently with NFL's Chicago Bears) and Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (2012 third-round pick of NFL's New Orleans Saints).
Also, Saskatchewan offensive lineman Ben Heenan — the first player taken in the 2012 CFL draft by the Roughriders — took part in the game last year.
According to the East-West Shrine website, 246 players who participated in the game are on current NFL rosters. Every year since 1985, CIS players are invited to play in the game, which annually attracts many top U.S. college football performers. Sewell and Fabien boost the number of Canadians to participate in the game to 60.
Sewell will become just third Marauder to play and first since tailback Jesse Lumsden in '05. Running back Kojo Aidoo was also invited in 2002.
Fabien will become the 11th Calgary player to take part, the most of any Canadian university. Slotback Anthony Parker was the last Dino invited to the prestigious contest, that coming in 2011.
The East-West Shrine is U.S. college football's longest-running all-star game, having been held annually since 1925. Proceeds go to Shriners Hospitals for Children across North America.
Fabien and Sewell will have some adjustments to make in Florida because the game is being played by American rules on a smaller, narrower field with four downs and 11 men aside (compared to three downs and 12 players in Canada). But the biggest challenge they face will be having defensive players line up directly in front of them instead of a yard off the ball.
Fortunately for Sewell, he spent a year at a prep school in Massachusetts before enrolling at McMaster and has experience playing the American game.
"I know kind of how it is and have been exposed to it before so it's not going to be completely new to me," he said.
Sewell says he'll head to Florida with a clear mind and without any lingering disappointment from his final game of the season. A 2012 second-team all-Canadian, Sewell finished his season in a second straight Vanier Cup although this time it was a crushing 37-14 loss to Laval.
In 2011, Sewell and the Marauders beat Laval 41-38 in overtime to capture the Canadian university football title, McMaster's first Vanier Cup.
"I've moved on," Sewell said. "I've had to move on in order to get ready for the next level and take the next step in my career.
"I can't afford to be lingering over it too much."
The 22-year-old Fabien returned for a final season at Calgary after being drafted and will cap his college career in the East-West Shrine game. Fabien was a first-team all-Canadian for a secondstraight year and the Dinos' nominee for the J.P. Metras award as Canadian university fotoball's top lineman. He was also a conference all-star for the third time in four years.