With a population close to two million, Montreal is the second largest city in Canada with a passion for hockey that knows few rivals. Sports pages are dedicated to news of "Les Habitants" (the Montreal Canadiens) even in the summer and the goal creases of the old Montreal Forum are still freshly painted on the floor of the giant shopping mall that was built in its place when the team moved to a new arena. In a country where the government officially named hockey the national sport, Montrealers have elevated the game to a national obsession.
In the middle of this hockey hotbed is a school that has produced four Wolverine football players and sent athletes to conferences like the Pac-10 and Big East. In the heart of this hockey madness, sophomore defensive lineman Renaldo Sagesse turned the heads of American college football coaches and earned a scholarship after playing the sport just three years. This is the story of a diamond in the rough following the path of other Canadian trailblazers and fulfilling his dream of playing Division I football in the United States.
Montrealers are far more familiar with the names Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau and Saku Koivu than Chad Henne, Mike Hart or Braylon Edwards. Despite one professional team and three colleges in the Montreal city limits competing in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (Canada's version of the NCAA), football still competes for attention and respect.
"It's still cooler to be a hockey player in Montreal," said Renaldo, "but more and more people are starting to play football."
Choosing to pursue a collegiate football career in the United States is not an option for many student-athletes in Canada, but the sport's popularity south of the border has inched north for decades, helping establish youth football programs and raising the quality of play in Canada. The Canadian Football League has existed since 1958 with the popular Montreal Alouettes playing at McGill University in Montreal. With the success of the Alouettes, who have competed in four of the last six Grey Cups (the CFL equivalent to the Super Bowl), youth football leagues have sprouted up in the city and the sport's popularity has started to edge out basketball and soccer.
Sagesse did not strap on pads until he was 16 and in his final year of high school (Secondaire), which runs from seventh grade to 11th grade. His high school football program was just two years old and the coaches were rabidly combing the school for players to fill the roster. Renaldo, a six-foot plus mountain of a boy and a talented basketball player, was not interested in playing the new sport his junior year of high school, focusing instead on basketball.
"I thought I was going to be really tall and big and be like Shaquille O'Neal," said Renaldo, "but it never happened."
One day in the fall of 11th grade, the head football coach caught Renaldo eating lunch in the cafeteria. He talked him into attending a football meeting and then coming out to a practice. Curious, Renaldo strapped on the pads, strapped on his first football helmet and dominated. He was hooked.
Renaldo has been most passionate about one thing in his football career -- playing on the defensive line. He started there and has excelled there and no matter how much pressure he's received, has remained there.
"I've only wanted to play on the defensive line my entire career," said Renaldo. "Coaches have asked me to play offensive line or go both ways, but I wasn't interested. In high school, I had a few carries at running back, but I always stick to d-line."
Sagesse chose to focus on being a defensive lineman partly because of his idol, Warren Sapp.
"As a kid, I loved Warren Sapp and I wanted to be like that," said Renaldo.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Oakland Raider inspired Sagesse to line up against the offense, wreaking havoc on his opponents in his first year of football.
After 11th grade, students move on to two-year CEGEP schools (Collge d'enseignement gnral et professionnel, roughly translating to "College of General and Vocational Education") that act as college prep or vocational institutions. Sagesse continued playing football at Cegep Du Vieux Montreal, one of the more prestigious academies in the city. Located near the heart of Montreal, Vieux Montreal was well-known for its academic excellence, social awareness and its winning football team, which regularly produced athletes who played college football in the United States.
Playing with a new team and with new coaches, Renaldo excelled in a hybrid of Canadian and American football (American rules on a Canadian field with 12 players to a side), garnering attention from both sides of the border. What started as a dream was fast becoming a reality with every tackle and sack.
"It was always a dream of mine to play in the United States," said Renaldo. "We had some former players from Vieux Montreal play college football in the States, so I knew it was possible."
Sagesse's performance on the field garnered attention from a number of schools in the U.S. Vieux Montreal had produced a number of U.S. collegiate players who went on to play in the MAC, Conference USA, Pac-10 and Big East, as well as three Canadians who played for the Wolverines. Former U-M defenders Emmanuel Casseus (2000-02) and Alain Kashama (2001-03) came from Vieux Montreal, as did tight end Deitan Dubuc (1999-2002). Michigan's most famous Montreal son, Tim Biakabutuka, played for a rival Cegep, Vanier College, but is well regarded in the city. Renaldo hoped to be the next big name to leave Montreal for a successful collegiate career.
After a standout final season, Sagesse knew he was in a good position when Canadian coaches stopped trying to recruit him.
"Coaches in Canada knew I wasn't going to stay," said Renaldo. "They would tell me that if I chose to stay in Canada I was always welcome to play for their teams, but they knew I was going to the United States."
With a number of college offers to choose from, Sagesse picked Michigan and arrived on campus in 2007, playing in six games his debut season. He was surprised by the ease of his transition from a metropolitan French-speaking city to cozier Ann Arbor and fit in nicely with his third different team in four seasons.
"I've known English since third grade, but we didn't use it a lot," said Sagesse. "My friends and I would speak in French, but we only used English here and there. It wasn't a problem to speak English every day when I got here. I kind of knew what to expect because of what Emmanuel (Casseus) and Alain (Kashama) had told me. I thought language would be a bigger issue than it turned out to be. I picked it up pretty easily."
Upperclassmen help him cope with occasional home sickness and Renaldo has settled in nicely with his Michigan family."We have great players on our defensive line from Terrance Taylor, Brandon Graham, Will Johnson and Tim Jamison," said Sagesse. "They all have their own style and it's fun to be with them." Renaldo does admit to missing a few things from his hometown, including the food. "Every time I go home I get poutine," said Renaldo, "but I miss my family and friends most. That and my mom's food. It's tough to beat." As for the future of football in Canada, all signs point to the sport competing for attention in hockey-rich areas. The Buffalo Bills are scheduled to play a regular-season game in Toronto every season until 2012. The third International Bowl, pitting a MAC team against a Big East team, will be held in Toronto in the New Year and youth leagues are springing up in Canada from coast to coast. "Football is getting more popular with little kids now," said Renaldo. "Crowds don't compare with high school games in the United States yet, but a lot more people are playing because hockey can be very expensive to get involved in. More kids are trying out football and liking it." Renaldo hopes to make the trail he has followed a little bigger in his remaining seasons with the Wolverines, acting as an example for other Canadians hoping to make it in big time collegiate football. "I'm always looking out to see Canadians who are succeeding in the NFL and in college," said Renaldo. "It's always good to see Canadians doing well in sports."