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Interview with Tiger-Cats has French defensive lineman excited about CFL's European draft

Valentin Gnahoua. - Postmedia News

Valentin Gnahoua is one earth-shattering phone call closer to the Canadian Football League.

And the 24-year-old defensive lineman from Le Mans, France is finding it incredibly hard to maintain a sense of calm.

“I’m trying not to put too much pressure on it but it’s definitely one of the greatest moments in my life, just to get this call today.”

Not the one from Postmedia. The one from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He said co-manager of football operations Drew Allemang and co-ordinator of Canadian scouting Spencer Boehm rang him up on Tuesday, two days before the Tabbies are scheduled to make the first selection in the CFL’s first draft of European players.

“It was like an in-depth interview about my background, school, strengths and weakness, the things I like in life,” said Gnahoua. “It was a lot of personal questions about my family, studies, the good and bad choices I made in life.”

The Ticats were the only CFL team to speak to him since he ripped it up at the CFL’s international combine in Toronto last month. GMs and coaches raved about the six-foot-one, 235-pounder and it’s clear he led the contingent of 18 European players. He spoke to the Montreal Alouettes in Toronto but said he has had no contact with any other teams.

Only nine of those 18 European players will be drafted on Thursday.

“People tell me you never know what could happen at the draft. Going first would be awesome. It would be amazing. I’ve worked hard the past eight years, been through ups and downs. Just talking about it feels amazing,” said Gnahoua.

“Hopefully I get drafted. No matter where or what position I get drafted, I’ll go right into camp or rookie camp or whatever mini-camp the team is holding. I’ll go there and show the best to the team, to prove they made the right choice drafting me.”

He’ll also blaze a path from Europe to the CFL for friends and former teammates with the Caimans of Le Mans, and current teammates with the Berlin Rebels of the German Football League.

“It’s going to open doors where there were no doors before. It’s going to give a chance to young guys who are working hard every day trying to reach their dream, doing the right thing every day and sometimes they just don’t get that chance. … It will be a huge achievement for not only me but everyone coming after me. I’m just trying to be a good example, the way I carry myself every day. If I can be an example for one of them, that would be a huge honour.”

Being drafted would continue a circuitous journey from France to the CFL. By leveraging a connection one of his Le Mans club coaches had with McGill, Gnahoua spent the 2016 U Sports season with the Redmen, registering nine tackles and a sack in eight games.

When he came back for the winter semester in January 2017, the province of Quebec had begun charging international students a much higher tuition fee.

“It was a lot of money, way more than we expected. It was impossible for me and my family. I had to come back home and do something else. It’s something I regret but something I can’t control.”

He made the best of it, playing well in an early 2017 season with his hometown semi-pro Caimans, then jumping immediately to the Rebels for their 2017 and 2018 campaigns. And when it came time for the French American Football Federation to nominate players for the CFL’s international combine, he was at the top of their list. His performance over two days in Toronto kept him there.

Though he pulled a hamstring during his first 40-yard dash and clocked a rather pedestrian 4.84 seconds, all his other numbers and his one-on-one performances were good and he made himself some fans among CFL personnel.

“Since I was at McGill, the goal was to get drafted,” he said. “It’s a different path, but here we are today.”

He knows draft day isn’t the end he was chasing, only the beginning, but a selection would make his parents proud. His father Emile is an airline worker in Paris, his mother Daniele a nursing home staffer in Le Mans.

“They have supported me my entire life, made great sacrifices for me, so I think this will be a great payback to have their son being drafted in the first international player draft for Europe. It would be the start of another road for me but it would definitely be a happy day for them.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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