Neville Gallimore’s journey to NFL a testament to Canadian football’s growth

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declared the Dallas Cowboys had selected defensive lineman Neville Gallimore in the third round, 82nd overall, of last month’s NFL draft, calls began flooding the Ottawa native’s phone.

First, it was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from his $250-million yacht.

Then, congratulatory messages from friends and family.

To Gallimore’s surprise, he also received a tweet from Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. Like Gallimore, Montana had been the 82nd pick, the fourth quarterback chosen in the 1979 draft.

“Believe me, being the 82nd pick in the draft ain’t so bad,” Montana tweeted. “But, don’t let where you were chosen define you – be a sponge, soak up everything. Work hard and when your chance comes, show ‘em what you can do.”

It’s Gallimore’s work ethic that is the fabric of his football success. The son of immigrant parents from Jamaica, Gallimore’s mother and father preached the importance of hard work and education. Neville’s older brother, Garry, fuelled his athletic desire as a two-time CIS men’s basketball defensive player of the year with the St. Francis Xavier X-Men.

Attending St. Patrick’s High School in Ottawa, Gallimore watched the senior boys football practice as early as Grade 7. When Gallimore entered high school, he was the first to arrive at the team’s first practice of the season.

“He couldn’t wait to get going,” St. Patrick’s coach Tim Baines said. “At a young age, he was physically prepared for the high school game.”

Baines said Gallimore was physically advanced for his age, but it was his mental fortitude and preparation for games that separated him from his teammates. At the first practice as a freshman, Gallimore was excited to play defence but also desired to line up at running back.

Baines tested his versatility.

“One game, we put him in at running back and he scored two touchdowns,” Baines said. “You could have put him anywhere and he could have made a difference.”

By age 14, Gallimore dreamed of playing for the Sooners at the University of Oklahoma. To get into a Division I program, however, Gallimore needed to gain exposure playing against American schools.

To get that type of exposure, many top Canadian football prospects transfer to prep schools in the United States to heighten their recruiting status. Before the Clemson Tigers recruited him, wide receiver Ajou Ajou travelled more than 4,000 kilometres from his hometown of Brooks, Alta., to play at the Clearwater Academy in Florida. Class of 2020 prospect Lamar Goods moved to Oakdale, Conn., from Fort McMurray to play prep football at St. Thomas More School before signing with the Florida Gators.

But Gallimore stayed in Ontario and played at the Canada Prep Academy in Welland. Coached by Geoff McArthur, a former University of California Golden Bears wide receiver, Gallimore competed against American schools with the Canada Prep Academy, showcasing his explosiveness and speed on the defensive line.

Gallimore’s performance earned him the honour of being the first-ever Canadian selected for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in 2015. He was also rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports, and had 30 offers from NCAA Division I programs.

In the end, Gallimore selected the Sooners, and joined Oklahoma when the program was transforming into an offensive juggernaut thanks to head coach Lincoln Riley and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

He was red-shirted as a freshman, and for the next three years the defence struggled – until 2019, Gallimore’s senior year, when Alex Grinch took over as defensive coordinator. Grinch introduced a movement scheme, a hybrid 3-4 base defence, with the objective for defenders like Gallimore to run through the lanes between blockers, going after the ball in the backfield.

“Neville wound up being a team captain in his senior year,” said Calvin Thibodeaux, the Sooners’ defensive line coach. “He’s an energy giver, who’s confident in himself. He will rush the passer and give great effort. That athleticism you can’t buy at Wal-Mart.”

Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (90) plants the Oklahoma flag on the field at AT&T Stadium after a 30-23 overtime victory over Baylor in the Big 12 Conference championship on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (Jeffrey McWhorter/AP)

Gallimore became the first Sooners defensive player in a decade to win first-team All-Big 12 honours. He finished his career at Oklahoma with 148 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, nine sacks, five forced fumbles and three College Football Playoff appearances.

To build on his college experience, Gallimore travelled to Frisco, Texas this past February to participate in a development camp run by Pete Jenkins, a coach at high school, college and professional levels for 54 years. This year’s camp consisted of 21 defensive linemen, a mixture of college and professional players.

Jenkins, who also worked with University of Manitoba alumnus and New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata, saw Gallimore’s athleticism and willingness to improve.

“Both Neville and David are great role models for Canadian kids who hope to make it to the NFL,” said Jenkins, a former defensive coach for the LSU Tigers and the Philadelphia Eagles. “Neville is a fast-learner, a hard-worker who can make that adjustment to the pro level.”

Twenty-five years ago, it was a pipe dream for a Canadian kid from Ottawa to play college football at Oklahoma and get drafted by the Cowboys. Now, with various camps and clinics across the country, along with the technology to send recruiting videos to schools, NCAA programs can more easily discover Canadian prospects.

“I just hope the game evolves in the sense that coaches and scouts are willing to go wherever they have to go to find the talent,” Gallimore said at the combine via The Athletic. “I’m not speaking for Canada; I’m not speaking for Ottawa. I’m speaking for the kids who have a dream and grow up watching football, grow up having that passion and have that talent and the work ethic – that if you have the desire to play, you won’t have to go out of your way to get found, they’ll come find you.”

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