He sat at his family’s home in Milton, Ont. watching and waiting.
Kwaku Boateng knew that there were questions around him. Did he want to play football or start a business career? Could he play special teams in the CFL? Were his combine numbers a bad day, or the reflection of an athlete that wouldn’t be able to cut it at the next level?
So the 22-year-old defensive end from Wilfrid Laurier University sat there with his parents, his two brothers, his girlfriend and some close friends and watched the 2017 CFL Draft on TSN. And they waited.
He saw the live shots of the first-round picks as their names were called. Many of them were guys he’d competed against in U SPORTS, many of them holding parties at bars, with dozens of people around them.
“It was very, very stressful,” Boateng said. “I’m happy that I kept it just family.”
He knew those questions around him would hurt his stock, but he figured he’d probably go in the second round. TSN aired the first two hours of the draft and switched their broadcast to the web. Boateng solemnly propped up an iPad and followed along. He looked at the time. It was getting close to 10 p.m.
“It’s getting late. I’m like, ‘Sorry, guys,” he said. He laughs about it now.
“So I was sitting around with my family and the third round went by. I was like, ‘Oh no. What is going on?’”
He called his agent, Fred Weinrauch, and was reassured that everything was going to be OK. Finally, with the fifth-round trucking by on the iPad, Boateng’s ringing phone jarred him from the internal spiral he was battling. It was Jason Maas on the other end, asking if he’d play for the Edmonton Eskimos if they took him.
Ranked 12th by the CFL’s Scouting Bureau before the draft, the Esks took Boateng 41st overall. He was happy to be chosen, but it was a tough night for him. He’d hoped to get drafted by an Eastern team, to stay close to his family. Three East teams called him the day of the draft. The West just wasn’t in his plans.
“I felt like at that point I was just so heartbroken and so defeated,” he said.
“Then I had to make the decision on whether or not I wanted to play football anymore. A part of me didn’t want to. I was in a position where I felt like I wasn’t wanted as a player.
“My girlfriend, her being a smart lady, she said, ‘Are you leaving football because you want to pursue your business career or are you straying away from it because of fear?’”
“Once I was able to sit down and think about it for a couple of days I realized she was right. I was afraid of the challenge. I was afraid of being put down and having to stand up and rise from that occasion. So that’s what I really told myself. I didn’t want to be that person that left because I was afraid of being great.”
He packed his life up and made his way out to Edmonton, living outside of Ontario for the first time in his life. He went to training camp and learned quickly that he’d be starting from the bottom.
“Coach (Casey) Creehan was my d-line coach last year,” Boateng begins. It’s another one of those moments where you laugh when you recall it, but it’s less funny when you’re living through it.
“His analogy was a pile of sh–. If configured right, if put together right, it can cause an explosion. He said that’s what I was. I kid you not. That’s what I was,” Boateng’s laughing a lot now as he re-tells the story.
“But (Creehan said), ‘I am going to configure you into a device that is explosive.’”
He went into training camp replaying that analogy.
“I was like, am I sh–? Am I decent? I don’t know,” he said.
Creehan, Maas and the rest of the Esks’ organization saw the explosive device more than the necessary ingredient.
“We liked him. We had a higher grade on him than the fifth (round),” Esks GM Brock Sunderland said. Like Boateng, they thought he might be taken in the first or second round. They were surprised when they got to the fifth and he was still available.
“What did we see? We saw everything that he kind of has turned out to be. His quickness, explosiveness, production,” Sunderland said.
His memories from that combine at Mark’s CFL Week in Regina were bad, but there was one thing that Boateng did exceedingly well.
“His interview at the combine in Regina was outstanding,” said Sunderland, who was still with Ottawa at that point.
“He knew everybody’s name. He printed out every team’s front office staff, so when he walked in he was really well-prepared.
“I’m not putting him in a Peyton Manning category, but you do hear how Peyton Manning prepared for his combine where he walked in and knew about the team that he was interviewing with. That’s very much what Kwaku did. That’s the biggest thing that jumped out at me, how mature he was, how intelligent. He really came across as having his life together and that’s really come to fruition as to who he is.”
It’s easy to sit with Boateng — we had lunch downtown in Toronto this week while he did a media blitz during his bye-week — and understand everything Sunderland is saying. You forget between his full-time role with the Esks’ defence and him talking about his dreams of helping people with financial planning that he’s only 23-years old. On the field, with five sacks this year, already ahead of last year’s total of four, he’s playing beyond his years. Off the field, there’s an old, kind soul behind his young eyes.
“I feel like as I’m getting older the things that pissed me off about my father — he has huge OCD and when he sets to do something he does it, no matter what — I’m starting to realize I have those same traits,” Boateng says.
“As I get older I’m realizing that I get that from him.”
Boateng’s parents are from Kumasi, the second-biggest city in Ghana, Africa. His father, Agyniem, came to Canada on his own in the mid-to-late ’90s. He did what he had to do to get a life going.
“When he first got here he did a lot of taxi work. Then he did a lot of meat slaughtering and things he could do, just night shifts,” Boateng said. “Then he got a job with Toyota, but more specifically with Johnson Controls, they do seats with Toyota and all of Toyota’s brands.
“He got into the automobile industry and he’s just been grinding along there.”
His mom, Afua, is a registered nurse.
When he needs inspiration, or a reminder of what struggle is about — or needed to put his draft situation into perspective last year — he looks at his parents and gets it all.
He’s channeling that into building a strong pro career. He’s smart enough to see the talent around him over the last two seasons and in the same way you hear artists or musicians talk about studying their peers, Boateng has done the same. He’s seen things that he’s liked from Phillip Hunt, from Odell Willis, from Almondo Sewell, John Chick and others and applied it to what he does. He wants to go from those lowly, earthy beginnings that Creehan spoke of before he left for a US college opportunity last year, to become that explosive device.
Sunderland says the ceiling for his fifth-round pick is very high.
“An all-star is a very realistic goal for him,” the GM said.
“I think he has the potential and capability of leading the league in sacks. That’s a big statement but I think he’s very capable of that. There were at least three, maybe four sacks that he had called back (last year). I think for him, high end, all-star, leading the league in sacks, I think that’s very realistic.”
A year and a half into his time with the team he’d never thought about until they called him that draft night, Boateng’s faith in things happening for a season is stronger than ever.
“I’m starting to realize that as a Canadian player when you get drafted you should be more concerned about where you land than when you land,” he said.
“Obviously the money is nice and the fame and exposure is great but at the end of the day the longevity of your career is dependant on where you land. I’m just thankful that I landed in this place. They found value in me and they used me immediately.”