Former NLS football player: Now an Eskimo who won't take no for an answer
For 59 years, the Canadian Football League has been a big deal to this country's neighbors to the north, but all Minnesota football fans might know about the CFL is its larger field, wide-open style, Bud Grant and Warren Moon.
Spicer native Brandon Zylstra is changing that.
Zylstra begins his first full CFL season as an Edmonton Eskimos regular at wide receiver tonight when the team opens the regular season against the BC Lions in Vancouver.
After signing with the Eskimos last spring, he spent the first 13 games of the season on the practice squad, meaning he practiced but didn't dress for games or travel. Because of injuries, he found his way onto the roster and made an immediate impact, catching 40 passes for 621 yards and three touchdowns in eight games. The Eskimos were 6-2 after he became a regular and advanced to the Eastern Conference final before losing to eventual Grey Cup champion Ottawa.
"I was getting ready to spend the offseason in San Diego and I was in Minnesota packing up some stuff," Zylstra said. "People I didn't even know would come up to me. I was at the gas station and a guy stopped me. 'Oh, you're Zylstra, you play in the CFL, we watched you, we're pulling for you.' That was super-cool and something I didn't expect. It's crazy."
Zylstra, 24, has been turning heads ever since his high school days at New London-Spicer.
He was a star receiver at NCAA Division III Concordia-Moorhead and he also was a record-setting Cobbers track athlete.
Despite the small-college pedigree, Zylstra was invited to work out at current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz' pro day in Fargo last spring.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Zylstra didn't catch on with an NFL team but eventually did snare four CFL tryouts. The Eskimos liked him enough to put him on their negotiation list, meaning the other three CFL teams, which made him offers, couldn't talk contract with him.
But signing with Edmonton didn't guarantee Zylstra anything more than a shot on the Eskimos' practice squad.
"It's a long process," Zylstra said. "You have to tell yourself to be patient. Good things come if you keep working hard."
Zylstra cracked the starting lineup in Week 14 and caught four passes for 48 yards in a win over BC. He was asked to take on a receiver position he wasn't familiar with but didn't balk.
"I told the coaches, 'Cool, I'm not going to let you down,' " Zylstra said. "The rest is history. I went in, did what they told me to do and it worked out."
His big game came in Week 20, with nine catches for 186 yards and two TDs in a 41-17 win over Toronto that put the Eskimos in the playoffs. In two playoff games, Zylstra caught six passes for 113 yards.
"I was happy with my production but, as an athlete, you always think you can do more," Zylstra said. "They were my first game since (college) and at a high level, coming from D-III. It was a lot faster and more advanced. It was cool to get the numbers I did, but I'm looking for bigger and better things this year."
The Eskimos' coaching staff and players believe Zylstra's got it in him.
"I feel very confident in Brandon's abilities," Eskimos head coach Jason Maas told the Forum after the season. "You only feel like he's going to get better."
The man targeting Zylstra, quarterback Mike Reilly, echoed those sentiments.
"He's going to be huge," Reilly told the Forum. "He certainly showed what he's capable of and he's going to be able to be a huge weapon for us."
In addition to the speed and size of defenses, Zylstra has had to adapt to other CFL rules and regulations. NFL fields are 100 yards long, about 53 yards wide and end zones are 10 yards. CFL fields are 110 yards long, 65 yards wide and end zones are 20 yards. CFL rules also allow pro-offense techniques such as the "waggle," which means receivers can be in forward motion before the snap.
Zylstra's been perfecting his "waggle" timing and he's growing in his appreciation for the CFL's style of play.
"I've told many people that sometimes I almost wonder if this is more fun than the ball I'm used to down south," Zylstra said. "There's a lot of love for skill players, a lot of passing, a lot more action. It's a lot more fun for skill players."
Zylstra's also getting accustomed to the professional lifestyle. He spent the offseason in San Diego with Eskimos teammate Bryant Mitchell, working out with the likes of Johnny Manziel, Oakland quarterback Connor Cook and Seattle quarterback Trevone Boykin. He's learned to eat better, how to care for his body, how to absorb the playbook and video.
To deal with it all, Zylstra reverted to a life he knows well.
"I told one of my roommates last year that, honestly, I feel like I'm in college still, just minus the classes," Zylstra said with a laugh. "You're studying constantly, going out to football practice. I just feel like I'm still in college, I'm just getting paid to do it now."
Making an NFL roster is still a goal but it's one Zylstra has tucked away. Right now, he said his goal is playing well enough to help the Eskimos improve on a 10-8 regular season record and compete for a Grey Cup title.
He also enjoys being part of a fraternity of small-college players who are playing pro football, such as the Minnesota Vikings' Adam Thielen (Minnesota State-Mankato) and C.J. Ham (Augustana).
"It just goes to show it doesn't matter where you come from, it matters where you're going," Zylstra said. "They are guys who are focused, know what they want and aren't going to let anyone stop them. I feel like I'm in the same boat. This is where I want to go and I'm not going to let anyone tell me no."