The dream can end quickly

Mike Labinjo.

Mike Labinjo.

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:49 AM ET

The fairy tale ended too quickly for Mike Labinjo - if it has in fact ended at all.

He was the kid from Toronto, played high school at St. Mike's, went to Michigan State on a football scholarship, went undrafted to the Philadelphia Eagles, went to a Super Bowl as a rookie, started accidentally at middle linebacker on Monday Night Football in his second season.

All in a very short time.

Everything seemed to be going in his direction. But the NFL has this way of stomping on dreams. It isn't personal. It isn't political. It isn't about nationality. It's more about the disposable nature of the league -- and how hard it is to make it, and just how hard it is to stay.

Labinjo has spent three years knocking on NFL doors, in Philadelphia, in Indianapolis, mostly recently in Miami, where his college coach, Nick Saban is in charge. He hasn't played a game for anybody this season.

He doesn't know if he'll ever get to play an NFL game again.

On its website, NFL Canada lists 15 Canadians employed by NFL teams. The list is a moving target. Almost daily the numbers change.

For every Mike Vanderjagt or Israel Idonije and now O.J. Atogwe -- settled players who contribute to competitive teams -- there are all kinds of Labinjos, who make headlines when they make a team, too often fade away without a great deal of notice.

There are now Canadians who star in the NBA and in Major League Baseball. Steve Nash has been an MVP twice. Jamal Magloire has been to the all-star game. Larry Walker won an MVP before he retired and Justin Morneau certainly is a candidate to get votes in the American League.

But mostly in the NFL, there are Canadians who kick and punt, who snap the ball for special teams, just not many who play every down, who become something other than fodder to fill out a roster.

Like Labinjo, O.J. Santiago went to St. Mike's and eventually to the NFL. Like Labinjo, Santiago was in a Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons. Santiago started on and off at tight end for the Falcons, peaked in his second year catching five touchdown passes.

Since then, he only has caught 22 passes in six years, none of them for touchdowns. He hasn't played a game this season, last season, or the season before, even though he was listed with the Oakland Raiders.

He has since been bought out. But before that, he spent a year with the Cleveland Browns and didn't play a game. What was once promising -- how often does a Canadian start in the NFL, let alone make big plays in NFC championship games -- is probably over.

Often players are the last to know they are out of opportunities. They keep knocking even when no one hears them.

Dahrran Diedrick was the first Canadian to play football at Nebraska. He didn't just play at Nebraska. He starred. He was to be the next Ahman Green.

Then he went to the NFL. From team to team. From backfield to backfield. He always looked like he was close. He never did carry the ball in an NFL game: Diedrick, now tired of knocking on doors, is a backup with the Montreal Alouettes.

Kerry Carter is dogged about resuming his career, even if the odds are stacked against him. The running back from Father Henry Carr, via Stanford, was having a decent camp with the Washington Redskins when his knee happened to implode.

There went his opportunity. There went his season. Last year, he was a last cut of the Seattle Seahawks (they went to the Super Bowl without him) , was hurt in training camp, never played a down.

This year the injury was severe: Even if he wanted to, he could not play this season.

Carter now spends much of his time in rehab, much of his time in Seattle working on his Think Big Foundation, putting together social programs for youth in need of them.

The motto of the foundation is: "When you are at the bottom of a mountain looking up, it looks impressive ... but when you are the top of the mountain looking down, you look impressive."

The NFL is that mountain. The climb is relentless.

Steve Simmons' column appears on Page S5 Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday


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