Winnipeg-based Recruit Ready program prepares young football players for U.S. high school, pro ranks

More than a decade ago, former Manitoba Bisons players began Recruit Ready, a Winnipeg-based football speed and skill training program. Since then, graduates have not only gone on to play high school football in the U.S. but secure NCAA scholarships and pro opportunities in Canada.

Blue Bombers Brady Oliveira and receiver Nic Demski, once participants of the program, now coaches

Seven people stand in a line looking at the camera on a football field.
Since 2012, Recruit Ready has trained and prepared young players to go on and play high school and university football in the U.S. That includes Ryland Kelly, fifth from left, a defensive back at the University of Minnesota. Also appearing in the photo are, left to right, CFL player Nic Demski (program coach), Blair Atkinson (co-founder), Manitoba Bisons receiver Abdul-Karim Gassama, Boyd Barrett (coach), Kelly, Brad Black (co-founder) and Dave Donaldson (coach). (The Canadian Press)

What began as a way to remain involved in football and develop young players has blossomed into something unique for Brad Black and Blair Atkinson.

Back in 2012, the former Manitoba Bisons players began Recruit Ready, a Winnipeg-based football speed and skill training program. Since then, graduates have not only gone on to play high school football in the U.S. but secure NCAA scholarships and pro opportunities in Canada.

Running back Brady Oliveira and receiver Nic Demski, both Winnipeg natives currently with the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, participated in Recruit Ready as youths. Now, they're giving back as coaches.

"When you're done playing typically you're coaching a team in the fall and that wasn't something that was realistic for me," Black said. "I felt I'd have more of an impact working in the off-season and spending more time with players, then sending them back to their high schools as opposed to coaching at the school.

"There were many good kids with baseline athleticism that needed a little polish. If they were developed the right way, they could do big things and go further in football than your typical Canadian kid."

A man in a toque, sunglasses, and blue and white jersey stands in an empty football field smiling.
Brady Oliveira stands on the field at the Mosaic Stadium in Regina in a 2022 file photo. Oliveria is a graduate of the Recruit Ready program. (Joanne Roberts/CBC)

It's a winning formula as Oliveira and defensive lineman Mason Bennett — another Winnipeg native who participated in Recruit Ready — both attended North Dakota before heading to the CFL. The Bombers drafted Oliveira in 2019 while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats selected Bennett the following year.

Program graduates currently in the NCAA include: Trae Tomlinson (defensive back, Richmond), Zack Lytle (defensive end, Dartmouth), Nathan Carabatsakis (defensive lineman, Robert Morris), Rhyland Kelly (DB, Minnesota), Marcus Wahl (DB, North Dakota) and Dolapo Egunjobi (offensive lineman, (North Dakota). Among those looking to join those ranks are Clearwater Academy International players Dallas Sims, a six-foot-three, 195 pound receiver, and Sean Sevillano Jr., a six-foot-two, 300-pound defensive lineman.

Both have received more than 20 NCAA offers. Minnesota, Boston College, Purdue, Iowa State, Indiana and Pittsburgh are among the schools to make offers to Sims while Ohio State and Notre Dame have done so with Sevillano.

"When we started, we just wanted to develop kids and didn't set any kind of expectations with it," Black said. "We want to make sure we're delivering on what we say we do and we've remained very consistent with that and kind of let things grow organically.

"We didn't really push anything, things kind of took off and here we are."

A football player in white and blue with a gold helmet and pants celebrates while another player in black and yellow stands by.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers wide receiver Nic Demski is pictured scoring a touchdown during the 2021 Grey Cup. He took part in the Recruit Ready program. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Recruit Ready runs its training sessions four times weekly, starting at 6 a.m. Joining Oliveira and Demski as coaches are Dr. Terence Coutu, Bombers Adam Bighill, Brandon Alexander and Willie Jefferson, Saskatchewan Roughrider Kienan Lafrance and former CFL/NFL players Kelly Butler, Anthony Coombs, Boyd Barrett and Dave Donaldson.

Recruit Ready also travels to American events, including seven-on-seven competitions. What's more, there's no cost to participants as fundraising events generate what's necessary for operation.

Attendees range from those in middle school up to high school. Roughly 200 recruits try out for 30-40 program spots.

It's not uncommon for youngsters to change position upon joining Recruit Ready. For example, Sims is a converted running back.

A player in football gear lines up to run a route outside.
Dallas Sims, a 17-year-old receiver from Winnipeg, is mulling his options about where he wants to play U.S. college football. He has already received 18 scholarship offers, including several from big-time schools after taking part in the Recruit Ready program. (Submitted by Dallas Sims)

"Many times kids come to us playing a position their school or team needed them to play," Black said. "If you're the best athlete, chances are you'll play quarterback because (coaches) want the ball in your hands, whether you project to be a quarterback or not.

"With Dallas's measurables — his length, height, jumping ability, wingspan — he was a no-brainer for us to move to receiver. Our program is for kids in middle and high school and it's an interesting time in their life and when you're developing athletes you've got to really work on movement and keeping them co-ordinated, then teach them a new position."

Sims and Sevillano aren't the lone Recruit Ready players to make the move to Clearwater, which has won consecutive Sunshine State Independent Association titles. The program has been working with Clearwater since 2020 when the global pandemic halted football in Canada and travel into the U.S.

"We had to find something for our kids because those years were basically being taken away from them," Black said. "So I connected with (Clearwater head coach Jesse Chinchar) and sent our first three kids down during the pandemic and all of them are playing Division 1 football now.

"After that initial group, we figured we were still finding and developing these kids and Clearwater Academy gave them, based on location alone, more opportunity to be seen. We're not selfish, we look at these kids as our own because we spend so much time with them but if we can train them for three, four years, send them to Clearwater and they can go to schools like Ohio State, well, they're going to Clearwater. That's kind of how things have progressed."

Chinchar said the collaboration is one that works for both parties.

"Brad runs a big-time organization up there in Winnipeg and his development and care for kids in his program really align with what we're doing at CAI," Chinchar said. "In today's day and age, I think so many people are more interested in getting credit than actually helping.

"Brad and his coaches go above and beyond for their boys and it's been a ton of fun to see the athletes and program have success."


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