The Canadian Press
Kwaku Boateng is playing with a huge chip on his shoulder this season.
The Edmonton Eskimos defensive lineman has registered a team-best five sacks in his first full campaign as a CFL starter. That’s heady stuff for a second-year player but especially impressive considering Edmonton took Boateng in the fifth round of the 2-17 CFL draft.
That’s also what’s fuelling the former Wilfrid Laurier star. Each time Boateng steps on to the field, he wants to prove to opposing teams they erred in not selecting him.
“Obviously I didn’t want to go in the fifth round, the pride and competitiveness in me didn’t want to go that far,” said Boateng, in Toronto this week during the Eskimos’ bye week. “But I think that chip on my shoulder is what really drove me and made me work so hard on football like I’ve never worked before.
“My first year was to prove to the Eskimos they got a steal and this year it’s to prove to the whole league you all made a mistake. When people ask me how I feel about being a starter this year I say it’s stressful … obviously the team has goals for me but my personal goals are higher because I want so badly to just prove something to the rest of the league. I’m not an angry guy, but when I put on the helmet now I have a whole different demeanour.”
Boateng was ranked as high as No. 6 on the CFL scouting bureau’s list of top-20 list of Canadian draft-eligible players. But that winter, the 23-year-old native of Ghana, who grew up in Milton, Ont., worked at an accounting firm as part of a school co-op and sometimes found it hard to juggle workouts and office commitments.
As a result, Boateng reported to the CFL combine about 10 pounds lighter and admits he didn’t perform as well in some drills as he would’ve liked. But Boateng was surprised league officials put so much weight on his test results in their final evaluation.
“I figured your game tape would be No. 1 because it shows how you’ve been working the past four or five years,” he said. “I feel they didn’t leverage that.
“In my last semester I was wedged between, ‘Do I go towards my academic career or my athletic career,’ when I want to do both. All your life you’re taught to be a student first and once the moment comes, people kind of question how much you love the game because you’re so focused on being a student-athlete. That’s what’s caused so much energy in me to perform so well.”
Fortunately for Boateng, he went to Edmonton and got to learn the tricks of the trade from veteran pass rusher Odell Willis. The 11-year CFL veteran has 94 career sacks, including eight this year with the B.C. Lions.
“The biggest thing Odell showed me was to always have confidence in myself,” Boateng said. “I think my first year I lacked confidence at certain points because the whole defensive line was made up of Americans and sometimes I felt like, ‘Am I ever going to get to play because they don’t need to have me on the field.’
“As much as I love being a Canadian player and Canada as a country, I had to tell myself to play as an American for them to respect me and that’s what I did. I watched my practice tape and corrected things and then I’d watch Odell’s practice and other defensive linemen to see what they were doing because the people in my group were all-stars and I’d be foolish to not soak that up.”
The key, Boateng said, was proving he could play defensive end based on his ability, not his passport.
“I don’t want to be on the field because that position is Canadian,” he said. “I want to be on the field because I’m the best option at that spot.”
Predictably, the jump from Wilfrid Laurier to the CFL was big for Boateng, who offered an interesting reason why.
“What I tell younger players is many people think the CFL is a huge step down from the NFL,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, there is some discrepancy, but in my two years here I’ve realized there are three individuals in the CFL.
“There’s the outstanding Canadian players who’re capable of making it out of Canadian university. There’s the Americans who played in the NFL but for whatever reason issues have kept them out of that league. And then there’s the up-and-coming stars, American and Canadian, who’re still trying to go to the NFL. People don’t understand the CFL is no joke and is comprised of three main groups all fighting to be great and I think that’s what makes it so great.”
Boateng had a brief taste of NFL life in 2017 when he attended the Chicago Bears’ mini-camp. He’d welcome another shot down south, but doesn’t stay up late at night worrying about.
“I’m very passionate about football, but I know I have a backup plan with my education and accounting degree and can always fall back on that,” he said. “I want to play in a league where I have fun and know I’m valued.
“If I’m playing well enough where the NFL wants to give me another shot, of course I’m going to take it. But I don’t think to myself, ‘I need to make the NFL or else I’m useless or not completing my life-long goal.”‘
Boateng’s biggest concern is helping Edmonton (7-5) finish strong in the ultra competitive West Division. The Eskimos in a battle with Saskatchewan (7-4) for second, four points behind front-running Calgary (9-2).
That could all change Saturday as the Stampeders visit Hamilton (6-5) and the Riders host Ottawa (6-5). But Boateng said the Eskimos’ thrilling 48-42 win over Calgary last weekend should serve notice they’re definitely a Grey Cup contender.
“From a mental aspect, that (Calgary win) was huge,” Boateng said. “It shows all the doubters that we can definitely compete for that Cup because everyone has said Calgary is the team to beat.
“We were also able to (beat) Saskatchewan (26-19 on Aug. 2), so right now I feel real confident in the team we have. If we can stay disciplined and do the things our coaching staff knows we can do, it’s going to be tough to take us down.”