Waterloo Region Record
Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks defensive lineman Asante Mizan carries the weight of his world on his back.
His hulking six-foot-two, 290-pound frame is already transporting a banged up wrist, a nicked elbow, a nagging headache no thanks to the Western Mustangs, endless worry about his mom and the hopes of his entire neighbourhood in New York City.
He could do without the nagging injuries, but Mizan is more than happy to shoulder the expectations from his family and friends.
For years now, the veteran defensive tackle has made it his personal mission to reward the folks who’ve helped him in his Brooklyn neighbourhood with hopes of pro football career, one they can all take pride in.
With big dreams to match his imposing physique, the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-raised Mizan, 23, has no intention of letting all those folks down.
Mizan got close this past summer. He earned a free-agent tryout at the Montreal Alouettes’ training camp before he was released by the CFL team and sent back to Laurier.
Despite the initial disappointment, he’s determined to give pro football another shot — and he’s tantalizingly close.
After sitting out some early week practices because of those injuries, Mizan received medical clearance to suit up for the Hawks’ Homecoming game when Windsor visits on Saturday. It’s a 1 p.m. start at University Stadium.
“This, honestly, isn’t for me at all. It’s all for them. I’m a product of my community. So the best thing I can do for them and for my mom is to make it to the CFL,” he said this week.
“All (his mom’s) sacrifices and all of (the neighbours’) long talks, short talks, those hellos and hugs and kisses were worth it. They went somewhere.”
Chronic illness has plagued his single mom, Azali, for years. Her health woes have meant she has never seen Asante play for Laurier. Asante carried his mother’s photo onto the field last year for Senior Day.
Mother and young son travelled from Toronto to New York more than a decade ago to be closer to family.
“We ended up staying in Brooklyn with family. My mom was really in love with the immersed black culture,” Mizan said.
“Back home, there are always the neighbours in the windows watching out for you. I remember having stoop nights, sitting with the elders, laughing, kicking back.
“I learned so much from them. Or if I was acting up, older gentlemen would come up and slap me upside the head.”
After helping his inner-city school, Thomas Jefferson High, win the city championship, a full-ride scholarship to play football fell through.
He was nearly out of options until his cousin, Golden Hawk hall of famer and former Calgary Stampeder Yannick Carter, pointed him in the direction of Wilfrid Laurier.
Mizan said he knows exactly how fortunate he is — and how much the Laurier community has helped him.
Most of the young men his age in his neighbourhood have abandoned the gridiron altogether. One of them was even indicted on murder charges recently.
“I come from a background where not everything is promised. Every time I put my hand in the dirt to run a play, I know it could be my last time.
“I’ve seen a lot of people lose it or just never even get the chance at all.”
He’s made the most of those chances, said his coach at Laurier, Michael Faulds.
“Asante has been a pleasure to coach. He comes to work every day.”
And he puts a smile on the faces he encounters every day, too. Even the Alouettes noticed that.
“Montreal told me I did almost everything right. They said they loved me as a person, as an athlete — right from the GM down to the regional scouts,” Mizan said.
“That was really encouraging — hearing that I did some great things and they liked me as a person. That was really validating for me.”
All teams, no matter at which level they compete, can make room for a guy like that.
“We liked Asante’s energy. His motor runs all the time and he was productive,” Alouettes general manager and head coach Jim Popp said from his Montreal office this week.
Mizan’s athleticism means he can drop into pass coverage and he has enough speed to slide down the line to play defensive end, Popp said.
“Asante knows what he needs to work on. It’s good that he had the opportunity to return to school to do it.”
Toward that end, Mizan is rounding out his game on the university circuit in his final varsity season.
This year, he has seen limited time on Laurier’s offensive line in addition to his full-time post on the defensive line. He’s also playing special teams.
“Montreal said to me: ‘We don’t know how much you can do.’
“I told them I can do it all.”
Mizan is also working odd jobs on campus, including a stint refereeing intramural flag football games so he can scrape together some money to send to his mom.
“Back home, they are all waiting to see what I do next. I just don’t want to let them down.”
Mizan will remain on the Alouettes’ radar, Popp said, adding the club will re-evaluate him at the end of the season with an eye to inviting him back to training camp next summer.
“He’s an ambitious young man. And hopefully, after Asante finishes up at school he’ll get the chance to play pro football,” Popp said.