The not-your-ordinary recruiting pipeline has delivered four Canadians to the University of Houston's football team, two all the way to the starting lineup. When the Cougars face visiting UCLA on Saturday afternoon, tight end Scott Regimbald and defensive end Adriano Belli will be in there.
That alone is double the number of Cougars who come from Louisiana, just down the road, and that's before even counting the two reserves, Robin Tremblay and Derrick Boxill.
"Sometimes you feel like an hour from home, 20 minutes from home," Belli said. "And then sometimes you feel really far from home."
The international flavor of Houston, similar to that of Toronto, where Belli calls home, definitely helps. So does having three others nearby who are making the same transition.
The reminders, those are good, too. Regimbald wears a jersey of the Canadian national ice hockey team--No. 21, to match his Houston jersey--when they play street hockey, and he has a big Canadian flag in his room. Belli once put a maple leaf on his helmet, on the back near the neck, but was told the rules of uniformity prohibited that. So he moved the emblem inside. And all four players chose stickers of the Canadian flag over the Stars and Stripes to put on their shoulder pads.
Just like home, eh?
"Sometimes I'll find myself saying 'y'all,' " Belli said. "Then I'll stop that. I've got stop that."
The oddity is not that Canadians are playing major roles at a Division I school, not when Big Ten schools regularly recruit there. Regimbald, in fact, was good enough to stir interest at Michigan, Maryland, Duke and Virginia, and Belli was being pursued by Notre Dame and Penn State before deciding he wanted to experience a faraway land. Jerome Pathon, from Vancouver, starred at Washington last season.
It isn't the distance, either, the 1,600 miles between Houston and Montreal, Regimbald's hometown. U.S. players often go to school that far from home.
It's that it can really be more like a million miles.
The monetary system is similar, although the exchange rate can be unnerving.
Food? No big difference--Houston has countless options and none of the four insist on French.
Language? Change. Texas drawl vs. clipped Canadian accent. There has to be some English in there somewhere.
"[Teammates] make fun of the way we talk sometimes, because we say 'eh' a lot," Belli said. "They'll watch some Canadian movies and make fun of us. But then we start bothering them about being rednecks. So it works both ways."
The weather? The people? Big change.
"The people are a little different," Regimbald said. "The South is a little different from Canada. In the North, people are colder in their greetings. They're more to themselves. In the South, they're very warm and hospitable.
"The biggest thing is probably the heat. That's the first thing everybody talks about. Here, you come out and the heat index is about 114 with 85% humidity. That'll make you want to go home. In the middle of practice you're asking yourself, 'Why the hell am I here?' You know your boys are back home wearing jean jackets."
Said Dan Lounsbury, the recruiting coordinator and the offensive coordinator, "The No. 1 thing everyone is going to talk about from a recruiting standpoint is the climate, coming from the northern areas and how it's going to be really hot. Yes, it's hot. But I'm from New York, so I know what it's like at the end of the season, and I would much rather be here at the end of the season, weather-wise."
Exactly why they are in Houston seems simple enough. Regimbald, who had three catches in the first two games, liked the idea of being able to play right away, something that probably would not have happened at most of the other schools. Then he made his campus visit and liked the surroundings and Coach Kim Helton.
Belli, a 6-foot-5, 275-pounder in the line that has helped limit California and Minnesota to a combined 38 yards rushing, wanted to go far from home and always has been fascinated with the cowboy lifestyle.
"Texas has always had that--what would you say?--mystique about it," said Lounsbury, who was an assistant with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 1993. "The kids always picture themselves here. They've got to at least take a look at it. And we've got a pretty nice campus, great facilities. So once we get you on campus, we've got a real good shot to keep you."
Which is pretty much how it worked with these players. Belli and Regimbald, in fact, committed even before making all of their visits. The pipeline had opened, starting the natural recruiting process, current players trying to draw in the future players, Regimbald working to get Tremblay to come.
Come to Houston. Get an education. Play football. Learn a new language.
A world of opportunities a world away.