Defensive tackle Kent Hicks is an intelligent, strategic thinker, and it’s shown in his football journey.
For example, up until grade 10, his high school in Abbotsford, B.C. didn’t have a football program. In order to compensate, he played both community football and rugby – the latter of which helped with athleticism as well as toughness.
Hicks had thoughts of continuing with rugby after high school, but ultimately decided he’d be able to go further and gain an education through football.
Coming out of high school in 2013, he had offers from a few different teams but chose Manitoba. His decision came down to a few different factors, with one being the chance to get playing time immediately.
“[Defensive tackle] Shahpour [Birjandian] had torn his biceps that spring camp and that spot as the third man in the rotation was up for grabs,” Hicks says. “I really felt that I had the chance and could do it.”
U SPORTS adjustment
When Hicks first came to Manitoba’s training camp, the shift in the level of play was noticeable.
“I was like a child playing against men,” he says.
“I definitely didn’t know my body at all. So coming into main camp and getting thrown in right away, the play-calling and the speed and strength of the game was an adjustment.”
Hicks credits fellow defensive lineman Evan Gill – a first round pick of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2014 – with helping him adjust to the level of play in U SPORTS. Gill’s advice paid off, as Hicks dressed and played in every game as a true freshman.
“Evan just kind of took me under his wing and showed me some tricks of the trade,” Hicks says. “I can’t thank him enough for what he did, because that ultimately set me up for the rest of my football career.”
The following season was memorable for its immense peaks and valleys. The lowest point came in week three against Calgary, when Gill went down with a torn ACL and was gone for the year.
Aside from being an emotional leader, Gill was also an invaluable anchor at defensive tackle on a strong front four that also featured current Saints defensive lineman David Onyemata. With Gill injured, Hicks was forced to step in against Calgary’s future CFLers Sean McEwen and Sukh Chungh.
“Normally you had guys on the field like Dave who would beat [the opposing offensive line] down on the field and then I would come in when they were tired and still be able to manage, because yeah I might be a little bit slower, but they’re tired so I can keep up. But now it’s full-boar and we’re going.”
While Hicks was nervous, he also treated the injury as his chance to “get going.” He was a mainstay on the line for the duration of the season, which culminated in a Hardy Cup victory and trip to the national semi-final against the eventual Vanier Cup champion Montreal Carabins.
Injury and return home
If 2014 was a career highlight for Hicks, then the following year was surely a lowlight. He tore his meniscus in spring camp, and ended up having to get surgery, putting him out for the entire season. During this process, he also began to have second thoughts about wanting to be in school.
“I definitely hit a low. To me, I’d never had an injury like that, and I think it got to my mind a lot,” he says.
“The 2015 season came around and it was just hard. It was hard not being able to play and still having to be at all the football functions. It definitely took a state on my mind and I just didn’t want to do school anymore, I just sick of it. Football was starting to not become fun anymore and I needed to get away, get back home and refocus.”
Hicks wasn’t alone in his struggles. Fellow Bison Jamel Lyles was also at a personal crossroads and had suggested to him that playing junior football back in his home province of B.C. might be a good option. Not long afterwards, both players were members of the Westshore Rebels in the British Columbia Football Conference. Christian Krause and Lerenzo Ihanza, both former Bisons, also made the decision to join the Rebels, along with numerous other players from different U SPORTS programs across the country.
“[Westshore] stuck out more because of the guys that were going there, and I thought wow, we’re going to make a powerhouse at this place,” Hicks says.
He wasn’t wrong. The Rebels went from 2-8 in 2015 to 8-1-1 in 2016 and a trip to the national championship. The following season they went 9-1. Hicks was also named a conference all-star in both of his seasons with the team.
“I became that vocal leader on the team, but that’s just who I am,” he says. “It was so much easier to be able to do that, because I had guys like Jamel out there and guys like [Christian] CK [Krause]. They already knew who I was. I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself in order for people to listen to me.”
Re-commitment to Manitoba
Immediately following the 2017 season, Hicks had doubts as to whether his football career was going to continue, due to both his body as well as a lack of interest from university programs.
“Teams weren’t really talking to me after that second season,” he says. “I didn’t know if they were wondering if I was going to be going back to Manitoba or if I was done playing football.”
Around three weeks later, the calls started to come in though. It came down to Regina or Manitoba, but ultimately Hicks chose to return to the place that he was already familiar with, along with former teammates such as Lyles – who had re-joined the Bisons the year prior – as well as quarterback Scott Borden Jr, who committed in mid-December.
“All my friends from Westshore, this brotherhood that we had built, if we can move something like this into the young, talented team at Manitoba, the Canada West is definitely in for a surprise,” he says.
“No doubt about it, if we can get the recruits that we’re still trying to work on from my team, Manitoba will definitely be dangerous.”
While Hicks is stoked to be returning to the university ranks, he also has his sights set on the CFL. He was a participant in the 2017 Western Regional Combine, and was able to gauge where he needed to be at physically in order to reach the pros.
“I realize that I have the potential to play at the next level and last year was definitely a learning curve to see where I needed to be,” he says.
“I’m going to play football for these two years at the University of Manitoba to get a CFL career out of it. I’ve worked so hard my whole life to have that opportunity and Manitoba is a place where I can do that.”