Mount Pearl native Simeon Mercer (64) lines up with the Vancouver Island Raiders offensive unit during a Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) game earlier this season. After finding a passion for the sport in the fledgling Football Newfoundland and Labrador youth league last year, the 18-year-old started looking for ways to get to the next level and eventually landed a second-string guard spot with the Raiders. Mercer hopes to one day play in the Canadian Football League.
©— Photo by Jenn Watson/Mijen Multimedia
It’s an unlikely story that may have an improbable ending one of these years.
Mount Pearl Senior High graduate Simeon Mercer is living in British Columbia, and just finished his first season with the Vancouver Island Raiders of the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL).
“I’m a second stringer, but that’s not bad at all for a rookie,” said the 6-2, 305-pound guard on the Raiders’ offensive line.
He dressed for games when he was healthy and got to play a couple of series in the last game of the regular season. The Raiders’ 2014 season ended last weekend with a 47-16 loss to the Okanagan Sun in Kelowna, B.C.
“Hopefully, I can take over one of the starting positions and see some more playing time next year,” Mercer said.
It’s all pretty much a dream right now, he said, because of his lack of experience in the game.
One thing is for sure: he’s very appreciative of the coaching he received in this province as he begins to follow that dream.
Mercer came out of the relatively new Football Newfoundland and Labrador (FNL) youth league with a desire to play at a higher level of competition.
It was only last year at a FNL scrimmage session that Mercer realized that, as a big guy, football was made for him and he had a passion for the sport.
“It’s an aggressive sport and I like hitting people,” he laughed.
Mercer credits the FNL program, now in its second season, and its coaches with getting him this far.
The only player on the Raiders from Atlantic Canada, Mercer turned 18 last month.
He took a circuitous route to the west coast of the country to play ball.
After playing in the FNL program, he sent out-emails, filled out recruit questionnaires and talked to coaches in Canada and the United States.
He said he got the attention from St. Francis Xavier and Saint Mary’s of the Atlantic University Sport conference, probably because of his size.
He was invited to a camp in Toronto in April, which helps showcase high school football players.
“I jumped at the opportunity because I was never sure of where I fit in with other elite high school football players in Canada,” he said.
The Super Elite Football camp was run by former McMaster University player Nick Burns.
Mercer said he stood his ground against players from Ontario, and earned the respect and recognition of the coaches and the players for his hard work on the line.
“I returned home with a better idea of where I stood skill-wise compared to other elite high school football players,” he said.
He was in contact with the president of the Ottawa Sooners in the Ontario conference of the CJFL last spring, but the problem was the Sooners do not have a housing program.
“That means the players are on their own for a living which, at 17, was a problem for me and my parents,” he explained.
“That’s mostly why Ottawa fell through,” he said.
He had another option with the Vancouver Island Raiders.
After filling out an online questionnaire and sending a highlight video, Mercer wasn’t overly confident about hearing back from the Nanaimo-based team because it is one of the most successful operations in the CJFL.
“But a B.C. coach did contact me. They wanted me and were willing to pay for my travel,” he said.
The coach was Brian Ridgeway, a former linebacker with the Montreal Alouettes, and now the head coach for the Raiders.
After discussing the opportunity with his parents, Mercer packed his bags and was at the Raiders’ training camp in July.
One thing about the Raiders, Mercer said, is that the team understands the struggles of living away from home. Players on the Raiders can live on their own, but there’s also a billeting system available which Mercer takes advantage of living in Nanaimo.
“I don’t have to worry about food or anything like that, so I can focus on football.”
Mercer is grateful for his situation.
“If it wasn’t for a billet or the support from the coaching staff and the team’s board of directors, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.
“Today,” he added, “I’m playing against CFL draft picks, CFL practice roster players and former college players who are no longer in school, not to mention future college players.”
He pointed out that some players in junior football have been able to jump straight to the CFL.
Still, only a handful of juniors are normally signed directly to CFL rosters each season.
Although it’s rare for a player out of the junior ranks to start in the CFL, Andrew Harris, the standout running back with of the B.C. Lions, who is out of the Vancouver Island Raiders team, is an exception.
As much fun as he’s having, it hasn’t been easy.
“The wear and tear on your body is really hard,” he said. “We practiced just about every day. There’s no contact on Mondays, but there are three-hour contact practices Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
There are areas where Mercer says he has to improve to take the next step in his development.
“I need to improve my foot speed. My footwork isn’t quite there yet to play at this level. I also need to work on my strength.
“I want to go as far as I can, honestly. I’m going to work hard every day.”
Mercer didn’t attend school this year, but he is considering entering university next year in B.C. Still, a lot of the players in the junior league are not in university.
If he does make it to the pros, he wouldn’t be the first Newfoundlander to play in the CFL.
Kilbride’s Geoff Drover didn’t play minor or high school football, but went on to play five seasons in the CFL (2001-2005) with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers as a wide receiver and on special teams.
The first and only Newfoundlander to play in the CFL never played organized football growing up in St. John's, but made the University of Calgary Dinos as a walk-on in 1995.
So a precedent has been set.
Mercer is not sure how far he’ll get in the game he loves, but he’s certain he’ll give it his best shot wherever that leads.