One of the top defensive tackles in the 2020 NFL draft played high school football just 10 minutes across the Rainbow Bridge.
The University of Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore, projected to be a top-50 pick, is a product of the Canada Prep Academy in St. Catharines, Ont.
Canada Prep was created for the purpose of developing an avenue for Canadians to play college football in the United States.
When it was founded in 2012, it was the only Canadian high school playing both four-down football and a schedule comprised solely of U.S. high school opponents.
“I feel like if you had told me six or seven years ago that you are gonna be at the NFL combine and competing, I’d have said you were crazy,” Gallimore said in Indianapolis last week. “I’m really just blessed to be here and have an opportunity.”
Gallimore is a 6-foot-2, 304-pound penetrator expected to become the first Canadian drafted as high as the second round since 2011. ESPN’s Mel Kiper rates him as the No. 4 defensive tackle in the draft. Gallimore is rated No. 37 overall by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
Gallimore grew up in Ottawa, the son of Jamaican parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. He spent his last two years of high school at Canada Prep, in 2013 and ’14, in order to get more exposure in the quest for a scholarship.
“I love the game, and I played a lot of football back in Ottawa,” Gallimore said at the combine. “But you always want to see how you rack up against better competition. I feel like, for me, that showed me I know I’m pretty good and I can do this. Going against teams that had a lot of guys who were getting recruited as well, that showed that I could compete and still dominate. That really gave me the courage that it was time to move forward.”
The transfer worked. Gallimore picked Oklahoma over Auburn, Ohio State, Florida State and USC.
Canada Prep coach Andre Clarke said his school has sent 15 players to U.S. college football. Among their colleges are Indiana, Nevada, Yale, Liberty and Maine.
Brandon Brown, a 2015 second-team All-Western New York pick from Bennett, spent a year at Canada Prep before moving to Central Michigan, where he’s a junior defensive back. South Park’s Tyree Brown, the 2015 Buffalo News player of the year, spent a season at Canada Prep before moving to Brockport.
The Canada Prep program, built by former University of California receiver Geoff McArthur, averages only 25 to 35 students per year, all of whom play football. In 2019, there were 26 players. To say the schedule is ambitious is an understatement.
In 2019, the school lost at Cincinnati powerhouse Moeller, 53-14, and at Erie, Pa., powerhouse Cathedral Prep, 55-0. Other U.S. powers like Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic and St. Frances Academy of Baltimore have been on the schedule.
In 2016, Canada Prep went 3-5, its best season, with Buffalo’s two Browns on the team. But it won just one game in 2018 and none in 2017 and 2019.
“There’s a bigger picture behind it,” Clarke said of the scheduling. “Here’s the tough side of it. A lot of Canadian kids have the dream. Having the dream is one thing. Being ready for that dream when it gets there is something else. A lot of kids aspire to be NCAA players, but when they come to camp, they haven’t done the necessary work because they’re behind to begin with. So they have to learn it. ... You’re trying to emulate these programs over time, and sometimes you have to take a butt-whipping to better yourself.”
"I hate losing," Gallimore said. "But at the end of the day, it was an opportunity for me to get recruited. I had to come with a positive attitude no matter what.”
That attitude, Clarke said, is a key to Gallimore’s success.
“He has the personality, the charisma, the ability to make people laugh,” Clarke said. “When Neville came here, we knew we had a special talent, but over time you saw the work ethic.
“His roommate would say I’m sleeping at 3 in the morning and I roll over, and Neville is on the ground doing pushups and situps,” Clarke said. “He was already determined to change his life though football.”
Another program has followed Canada Prep’s lead. Clarkson Football North began play in 2016 and also plays four-down football against solely U.S. foes. Clarkson scored wins over Cathedral Prep in 2018 and 2019 and beat Cleveland juggernaut St. Ignatius in 2019.
Gallimore is encouraged.
“I just hope the game evolves in the sense that coaches and scouts are willing to go wherever they have to go to find the talent,” he said. “I’m not speaking for Canada, I’m not speaking for Ottawa, I’m speaking for the kids who have a dream and grow up watching football, grow up having that passion, and have that talent and the work ethic.
“If you have the desire to play, you won’t have to go out of your way to get found. They’ll come find you,” Gallimore said. “No matter where you come from and what your background is, you still can get that opportunity.”