Maple Ridge’s Rashaun Simonise (right) is in the running for a roster spot with the Cincinnati Bengals as a big and mobile wide receiver.

Maple Ridge’s Rashaun Simonise (right) is in the running for a roster spot with the Cincinnati Bengals as a big and mobile wide receiver.

Maple Ridge football player in bid for NFL career

British Columbians who have played in the National Football League – that’s a brief conversation.

British Columbians who have played in the National Football League – that’s a brief conversation.

But there is a lot of talk about Maple Ridge’s own Rashaun Simonise, who is in training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. And the discussion is that he has the size and speed to make it as an NFL wide receiver, if he can learn the pro game fast enough.

“It’s been hectic trying to adapt to everything, but it’s been so much fun out here,” he said from Cincinnati.

The former Meadow Ridge Knight, Pitt Meadows Marauder and University of Calgary Dino is in the middle of a serious bid to make the incredible leap from Canadian football in the CIS to the NFL.

At 6’5’’ and with blazing speed, he looks the part of a pro football player. But football pundits south of the border say he’s still raw, with lots to learn about the finer points of the game.

The team will announce its 53-man roster next week.

“I’m just going out every day and trying to get better,” he said.

He needs to put on weight, getting from the 205-210 range up to 215-220. He also needs to play special teams, and to prove that he can beat man-to-man coverage.

Simonise said the coaching staff encourages him.

“They say I’m getting better every day. They’re noticing the hustle.”

Everybody is a great athlete, and adapting to the speed of the game is a challenge, but Simonise is not feeling like he’s in over his head.

“I can definitely play with them.”

The football culture in Cincinnati is awesome to a young Canadian who grew up in a hockey culture.

“A big difference is their love and passion for the game of football. At age four and five, the kids are playing, and they work at the same position, and work on their stuff,” he said.

“The facilities are out of this world – they put everything into football out here.”

Matt Todd was the bench boss with the Pitt Meadows Marauders who coached Simonise through his grades 10 and 11 seasons. By Grade 12, he transferred to Vancouver College.

“He was the fastest player in the league by far when he played for us,” remembers Todd. “But he was a just your typical kid who loved laying football.”

“Playing at Pitt was a blast – it was just going out with your boys and having fun,” said Simonise.

Any connection between a B.C. football player and the NFL is as rare as a solar eclipse. Todd said big, athletic lineman types will get a look, but rarely a receiver.

Simonise was tall and thin through his high school years, but when he went to the University of Calgary, he started to shine.

“He was the best receiver in the whole league in his rookie year,” remembers Todd, who has been following Simonise’s career.

In his final year, the Dinos went 8-0, and he had 1,079 receiving yards, and led Canada West with 11 touchdown receptions.

There were several NFL teams interested, but the Bengals signed him as a free agent. They brought several young and inexperienced players to training camp to compete for roster spots.

Todd is among the many local people who are rooting for him, as are Mike and Angie Gagnon. Their grandson Anthony was one of Simonise’s best friends, until he passed away after a head injury while out with his friends, just before his 18th birthday in 2014.

Angie said Simonise has a tattoo memorializing Anthony on his arm, and speaks about him often. Angie and Simonise still text each other.

“He kind of keeps him alive for us,” she said.

“He was like my brother – it was more than just a friendship,” said Simonise.

They played football, basketball and other sports together, and were inseparable off the field.

He has Anthony’s name, dates, a cross and “In loving memory” tattooed on his left upper arm.

The Gagnons watched him run out a 47-yard catch and run in an NFL pre-season game.

“He is going to go far,” predicts Angie. “Everything about him is amazing – he’s an outstanding young man.”

Young players who don’t make an NFL roster can still be named to the team’s practice squad – 10 players who continue to work out with the team, with an eye to developing into roster players.

It’s lucrative – the rate was $6,600 per week in 2015. But Simonise has his eyes on the bigger prize.

“At the end of the day, my goal is to make the 53-man roster.”