When Adarius Bowman first saw Ajou Ajou, he saw plenty of himself.
The six-foot-three, 215-pound Ajou, of Brooks, Alta., is a budding star receiver with the fourth-ranked Clemson Tigers. But Ajou was heavily involved in basketball and track when he took up football at Edmonton's Harry Ainlay High School, where Eskimos star slotback Bowman also coached the school's receivers while working with former CFL teammate Brock Ralph.
"I definitely saw the basketball side of him," Bowman said during a telephone interview. "He reminded me of myself, I was a basketball guy also who kind of converted over to receiver.
"I knew he was going to going to fill out, I knew he was going to be fine. I weighed maybe 180 pounds at the most in high school and after one summer of working out in college I was 210."
Ajou, a freshman, cracked the roster at Clemson (6-1), which held the No. 1 spot until a 47-40 double overtime loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7. Ajou has two catches for 41 yards and a touchdown this year.
After playing collegiately at both North Carolina and Oklahoma State, the six-foot-three, 215-pound Bowman came north in 2008 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Over 11 CFL seasons he registered 652 career catches for 9,491 yards (14.6-yard average) and 49 touchdowns, being named a league all-star three times and winning a Grey Cup title in 2015 with Edmonton.
The 35-year-old native of Chattanooga, Tenn., retired after the '18 season and was nominated for the CFL's all-decade squad (2010-20). The married father of two young daughters now calls Edmonton home.
Bowman was also serving as a high school coach when he saw a young Chuba Hubbard dominate as a running back at Bev Facey High School. And it didn't take Bowman long to get in touch with his alma mater (OSU) and sing Hubbard's praises.
After rushing for over 2,000 yards with the Cowboys in 2019, the six-foot, 208-pound Hubbard, of Sherwood Park, Alta., has run for 581 yards on 125 carries (4.65-yard average) and five TDs for No. 14 Oklahoma State (5-1).
"Hands down, Chuba's the most talented kid I got to see with my own eyes," Bowman said. "After our game, I got to meet him and it was the most humbling thing.
"He was doing track also and I asked his mom if she minded if I reached out to my college coaches and she said that would be so nice. I hit my coaches up . . . it kind of started right there."
Hubbard and Ajou aren't the only Canadians excelling in NCAA. In a year where tackle football has been shunted to the sidelines in Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's no shortage of Canucks taking leadership roles with major American universities.
"I've been looking at Canadian talent the past 10 years and the last five or six years my coaches back home been calling me," Bowman said. "For a while, they were always looking for offensive linemen because Canada produces some big boys.
"But they've been big on getting a receiver, D-linemen and then a running back with Chuba. It's been going on behind the scenes but I think it's more coming to light now because people are understanding. I think people are coming up because the Canadian talent has changed dramatically."
That includes in Bowman's home state as Josh Palmer, a senior from Brampton, Ont., is a star receiver with the Tennessee Volunteers. Bowman said football fans in Chattanooga either support Tennessee or the Alabama Crimson Tide, where John Metchie III, a sophomore receiver also from Brampton, has emerged as a big-play threat.
"I'm an American but I'm Canadian at this point in my life and that's why it feels so good to me," Bowman said. "It's our Canadian prospects making a difference for the country of Canada . . . going to university and being that key player, that X-factor."
Bowman said a reason for that has been a change in thinking by some parents. While hockey and basketball both remain very popular in Canada, Bowman said more people are taking notice of how Hubbard and other Canadians are performing south of the border.
"Our summers are short and (parents) didn't see the value of investing into football training," Bowman said. "But in the past four, five years I've seen that whole mindset change and more parents are investing into sending their kids across the border to camps, they're investing in 1-on-1 programs.
"Football isn't the No 1 sport because you have hockey and I think basketball has always been rocking but football is getting its recognition. NCAA teams want the best players . . . I used to say there were players just hanging out in Canada who could (play better) than some of these players in college, but weren't getting the opportunity to showcase it. Now, I think there are more opportunities to showcase it."
Bowman said there's many reasons fore that.
"I don't think it's one thing," he said. "It's a better job of coaching, it's a better job of exposure.
"I've been in Edmonton training kids the past six, seven years and you've got guys like Andrew Harris (Winnipeg running back) and Odell Willis (veteran CFL defensive lineman) doing it. You've got guys, CFL all-stars, sticking around in Canada and being able to put their expertise back into the community."
Bowman hopes he made a small difference for both Hubbard and Ajou along the way.
"At Oklahoma State they call Chuba Mr. Canada . . . for me, I get a little bit of excitement from that," Bowman said. "I'm not saying I did anything for Chuba, I just like the way my journey kind of aligned with his.
"I hope some of the little things Ajou and I worked on and talked about leaned him towards being a receiver . . . but from this day forward, the best player in Canada will always be getting scholarships down in the U.S. because of guys like Chuba and Ajou. They're paving the way."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press