Drew Desjarlais has only been a professional football player since 2019, but already, he has packed more accomplishments into his three seasons than many do in their entire career.
A product of U SPORTS’ Windsor Lancers, Desjarlais was taken by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with the fourth-overall pick in the 2019 CFL Draft, setting the foundation for quick growth. It took time for him to gain traction, but with a strong combine, where he turned in 25 reps on the bench and a shuttle run time rivalling that of running back and defensive backs, his stock rose.
As his stock rose, so did the expectations surrounding him.
“I was expected to be a good player in this league before I even fathomed that myself,” Desjarlais, reflecting on how scouts and General Managers around the league felt about him at the draft, said.
Growing up in Belle River, Ontario, a town with fewer than 5,000 residents, and playing at Windsor, one of the smaller programs in the OUA, Desjarlais was about to venture into an entirely new world. He was about as green as they come, knowing very little about the landscape of professional sports.
When he arrived in Winnipeg, it was a shocking difference.
“I didn’t even know rookie mini-camps existed,” Desjarlais admitted, recalling his first taste of pro ball. “It just seemed out of this world for an offensive lineman from Windsor. It was a cool experience.”
The difference off the field was huge. Winnipeg, although far from the biggest city in Canada, has a population 150 times greater than Belle River, and plays in a stadium with a capacity 165 times larger than the Lancers. Everything was bigger, but it was only the start.
On the field, Desjarlais quickly realized that it was a whole different ball game compared to U SPORTS. Although cliche, the “bigger, faster, stronger” motto rings true. He went from facing university opposition to guys like Charleston Hughes, and Ja’Gared Davis, not to mention, going up against Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat every day in practice.
“Things speed up very quickly,” Desjarlais said. “The learning curve was huge. I didn’t get my first start until [midway through the season], but I think a big part of playing offensive line is getting that game experience, and without it, it’s going to be tough to improve.”
When Desjarlais did get that chance to start, he took his opportunity and ran with it. He found comfort with the Bombers, adapting quickly to his new surroundings, and in his first season, he helped the Bombers take home their first Grey Cup in 29 years.
After missing a season due to COVID-19, Desjarlais once again played a big role in one of the most dominant offensive line groups in recent memory, earning the nod as a CFL West All-Star for the first time. His accolades weren’t finished there, as the Blue Bombers went back-to-back, once again taking a sip from the Grey Cup.
In the middle of the 2021 season, Desjarlais’ agent informed him there might be some NFL interest, and when the season came to a close, he turned the page to the next chapter.
“It was surreal,” Desjarlais said. “We won the Grey Cup, and a week later, I did eight workouts [with NFL teams]. It was crazy cool.”
The guard signed with the New England Patriots, getting the chance to learn from legendary coach, Bill Belichick. His stint with the Pats was shorter than he would have liked, however, and quickly, he needed a new squad. On two separate occasions, Desjarlais inked a deal with the New Orleans Saints, but never saw game action.
Used to being a key contributor for whichever team he was playing for, riding the pine on the practice roster wasn’t something Desjarlais was too fond of. He found himself longing to get back on the field, ushering his decision to return to the CFL for 2023.
“The feeling is unmatched, you know, the excitement on gameday, even at practice, the involvement is huge,” Desjarlais said. “I love being out there on gameday, that’s the best part of football, just being out there and letting loose. I missed that a tonne the last year.”
Once the choice to return to Canada was made, REDBLACKS’ General Manager Shawn Burke made it clear that he wanted to see Desjarlais in the nation’s capital.
“Shawn Burke has always reached out to me, even since I first signed with New England,” Desjarlais said. “I always felt the love from him specifically, and my agent told me that I was on their radar if I ever did come back to the CFL.”
With the REDBLACKS, Desjarlais will add his name to Ottawa’s All-Star roster at the offensive line spot. Anchored by veterans Jacob Ruby and Hunter Steward, the line now features a wealth of experience, along with room for growth.
On the cusp of turning 26 at the end of April, development is something Desjarlais is still chasing in his CFL return.
“Getting better every snap is important,” Desjarlais said. “I still feel like I can do so, I’m only turning 26, so I have plenty of football left in the tank.”
Struggling for success in the past four calendar years, the REDBLACKS are hoping that Desjarlais can be one of the team’s tone-setters this season.
“A huge part of what makes playing football so great is winning games,” Desjarlais said. “I just want to get into that offensive line room and take pride in what we’re putting on tape. How an offensive line can change the course of a game makes me extremely excited to be able to [help out].”