Year-round training key to Recruit Ready’s success

Local speed and skill football program has produced numerous CFL, U SPORTS and NCAA prospects

Bison receiver Shai Ross at training camp, Ross is a graduate of the Recruit Ready program.Bison receiver Shai Ross at training camp, Ross is a graduate of the Recruit Ready program.

Recruit Ready, a football specific training program, has come a long way since 2013 – both visibly and developmentally.

“We started with Recruit Ready just in [Winnipeg High School] Oak Park’s basement just doing weight lifting with the guys,” said co-founder Blair Atkinson.

“We enjoyed doing that but after spending time with the young guys and having them get bigger and stronger, we noticed that they were bigger and stronger and more athletic, but they weren’t much better football players.”

For Atkinson and fellow co-founder Brad Black – both Manitoba Bison football alumni – the solution was simple: get their athletes on the field, doing football-specific training and skill development, instead of simply getting bigger in the gym.

“If you look around at other sports, you see basketball, hockey, baseball, they’re playing the sport a lot longer than they’re training for the sport and for some reason, football is the exact opposite,” Atkinson said.

“We’re lifting weights eight months out of the year and playing four months out of the year, and so we took a page from the other sports and decided we wanted to get the guys out on the field year round.”

And with that, the basic philosophy for Recruit Ready was born. It did not take long for the program to gain interest from athletes all over the city, due in part to the Recruit Ready-trained Oak Park varsity team ’s upset win over perennial Winnipeg High School Football League powerhouse St. Paul’s in the ANAVETS Bowl in 2013-14.

“That got a lot of attention from guys around the city who wanted to come train with us, but couldn’t, because we were stuck at Oak Park. So at that point, we decided to open it up to everybody and go with the on-field approach,” Atkinson said.

“We went after the city’s top coaches that could commit the time to being at the golf dome first thing in the morning, three to four days a week.”

The effort of Atkinson, Black and their fellow coaches paid off. Over the years, the program has attracted big-name talent, including NFL defensive lineman David Onyemata, as well as current CFL players Landon Rice, Anthony Coombs, Kienan LaFrance, and Nic Demski  – all former Bisons.

The Recruit Ready program begins each January, with the high school players putting in three days a week of on-field work at the golf dome. The CFL players take to the indoor turf four times weekly. Everything is run in the morning before school, which Black said “weans out the kids that don’t want to be there.”

At the end of April, the pros head back to their respective teams, while the amateur players transition to seven-on-seven tournaments both in Canada and the United States.

“When you play on our seven-on-seven team, you get the chance to play against the best high school players in the United States, and when you go against that level of talent, it just elevates your game,” Black said.

Once the U18 Football Canada Cup ends in July, Recruit Ready starts back up again on a five-day-a-week schedule, which gets the U SPORTS and high school players ready for the regular season in August.

Despite only operating for a handful of seasons, Recruit Ready has already seen a number of players offered the opportunity to play NCAA Division 1 football. Almost every U SPORTS school also features at least one of their athletes as well.

While the program has had a profound effect on a number of individuals, players such as the Bisons’ Shai Ross stand out.

A receiver, Ross did not start playing football until his senior year of high school at Dakota. He then played a few seasons with the St. Vital Mustangs major team – for 18-22-year-old players – but wasn’t planning on continuing with the sport. Then, in 2014, he started training with Recruit Ready, which helped him realize his full potential.

“Recruit Ready was everything for me,” Ross said. “Once I started training specifically for the sport, that’s when my game I’d say stepped up.”

His dedication to the program helped him earn a spot with the Okanagan Sun of the British Columbia Football Conference, and last season he was named a conference all-star as a kick returner in his rookie campaign with the Bison football team.

“We’re just proud of them all, really,” Atkinson said. “Whether they’re starting as a backup or they’re starting as a star player and we just help them put the icing on the cake. Whatever it is, we just take enjoyment in helping them improve.”