For a shot at pro football, Jerod Zaleski was more than willing to put the start of his career in education on hold.
Instead of preparing for his teaching practicum this year, the 22-year-old from Kelowna will be bidding for a full-time gig with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
Zaleski, who signed a two-year contract—plus an option—with the Als last week, will head to Montreal at end of this month for the club’s rookie camp.
If all goes according to plan, the amiable Zaleski will be on the roster for the Alouettes’ first exhibition game June 14 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“I still get a bit giddy when I think about it, but I know I have to keep it all in perspective and stay grounded,” Zaleski said. “I still have to go down there and make the team, I know nothing’s going to be given to me. I’m excited to give it my best shot and see what happens.”
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound KSS grad first caught the attention of CFL teams this spring in Toronto at the National Invitational Combine, a camp held annually for draft-eligible prospects. Then earlier this month, Montreal made Zaleski one of their final choices in the CFL draft.
In particular, the Alouettes liked Zaleski’s skills as a long snapper, a crucial position on every football team. Montreal was also attracted by his versatility, his ability to fill a number of roles across the football field, including special teams, inside receiver, and tight end, all positions he played during his university career at Simon Fraser.
And with every CFL team required to carry a minimum of 20 Canadians on their roster, Zaleski’s nationality shouldn’t hurt his cause either.
“He’s a big kid who can play special teams, he’s athletic, he can run and jump, and he’s a willing blocker,” said Joey Abrams, the assistant director of football operations and a scout for the Alouettes. “The fact that he long snaps is big, it’s an extremely critical position. You don’t know how much until you lose one of those players.
“He has all of that going for him, talent and size, he’s a Canadian and he long snaps,” added Abrams. “Now we’ll find out if he can bring all it at this level. Just like any player who comes to camp, he’ll be given a chance. The rest is up to him.”
That Zaleski is this close embarking on a pro career seemed anything but certain a year ago.
After four seasons at SFU, the ups-and-downs of university ball and the physical punishment had both taken their toll, and Zaleski had lost much of his passion for the game.
But at the urging of his girlfriend, he decided to return to the gridiron one more time in 2011 as a member of the B.C. Football Conference’s Langley Rams.
It turned out to be just the football elixir Zaleski needed.
“My love for the game was rekindled in Langley,” Zaleski said. “Their coach, Jeff Alamahoda, told me I had the skills and the body to play the game and he really helped me enjoy and appreciate the game again. He’s a big reason I’m following this dream now.”
Making it in the CFL was an ambition that first surfaced for Zaleski a decade ago on the Mission sports fields when he was playing junior bantam football in Kelowna’s minor system.
“It was definitely a dream of mine when I was a kid, a friend of mine and I talked about how cool it would be to play in the CFL someday. It’s just like when you’re a kid playing ball hockey, you dream about playing in the NHL…this is my version of that. Now, I’m almost there. I just have to take one more step.”
Based on his bloodlines, there’s no mystery where Jerod’s athletic prowess comes from—his older brother Jon is a former captain of the UBC Okanagan men’s basketball team and world Tae Kwon Do gold medalist, while his dad, Dan, is a Tae Kwon Do master and runs a martial arts school in Kelowna.
Zaleski has also become a bit of groundbreaker for KSS football, the first graduate (2007) from the Owls’ program to sign a pro contract since football returned to the school nine years ago.
Owls assistant coach Alex Blanchard isn’t the least bit surprised Zaleski’s talent, drive and persistence have resulted in a bona fide shot at a pro career.
“He’s had that goal and the dream, and he’s found a specialized area that gives him a great opportunity,” said Blanchard. “I think his experience at university helped him a lot, he ran into some roadblocks there, and it was tough. He was used to being the best at everything until he got there. But Jerod worked through it all, and this is his reward.”
Zaleski leaves for Montreal May 29 to take part in the CFL team’s rookie camp. The Alouettes main camp begins June 3.