By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Eight years ago, Stephen Ugbah was beginning to make Canada his new home, and had never played a down of football in his life. Fast forward to present day, and the fifth-year senior is a valuable member of the Bisons receiving corps with a legitimate shot at a CFL career.
Ugbah grew up in Nigeria, before moving to Elmwood high school in Winnipeg for grade 10. Soccer was his first love, where he was an effective forward on the pitch. He actually had an opportunity to go to the states to play, but didn’t want to leave his family, as he was still adjusting to a new country and moving again would have been quite stressful.
“I was set on playing soccer professionally,” he says. “I was really good back [in Nigeria], so when I got [to Canada], I started playing club. The moment I quit was when I found out the U of M didn’t have a [men’s] soccer team.”
Turning a negative into a positive, Ugbah opted to strap on the pads for the final few years of his high school career, after being convinced by one of his friends. He was entrusted as a receiver, but admitted that learning the position — and the game itself — wasn’t easy.
“I didn’t have good hands when I started, because how do you even catch an oval-shaped looking ball,” he says. “I also had to learn how to run with the pads. I was skinnier back then, and wasn’t used to wearing the helmet either. It was a year of transition just for that.”
After a few years learning the game, Ugbah began to thrive in his senior season with Elmwood. He was named a Winnipeg High School Football League (WHSFL) All-Star, and was also a captain for the senior bowl.
“My body just started naturally getting bigger,” he says. “I was working out a lot more, and would actually go out and work on football stuff in the summertime, so by the time grade 12 hit, I was super comfortable.”
Ugbah wasn’t originally planning on playing football after high school in 2013 but after some encouragement from his former head coach, he decided to test out the junior football route with the Winnipeg Rifles.
“I went [to Rifles camp] and I loved it,” he says.
“I looked at all the players from the other divisions that were higher than [division three school Elmwood], and I was better than them, or at least I could compete with them. It wasn’t like I was totally unmatched.” I went there, and was like, dang, I don’t know why I talked down on myself.”
Ugbah made the Rifles roster for the 2013 season as a redshirt, noting that being able to train at Elite Performance in the summer had a big effect on his development.
“Even though it was 30 minutes away, I loved going [to Elite],” he says. “That’s where I met [current Winnipeg Blue Bomber] Andrew Harris for the first time too. It was just promoting confidence when you’re around all of those types of people.”
Ugbah impressed enough during his time on the Rifles roster that he was granted a spot with Manitoba for the following year.
He admitted that he still struggled a bit with his confidence during his first year with the team in 2014, but that all changed the following winter when he began going to workouts with local training program Recruit Ready.
Led by Bison alumni Brad Black and Blaire Atkinson, the program had a strong track record of bringing out the best in many football players, current and former Bisons included.
“I compared myself to all of the Bisons receivers that were there. [Current Blue Bomber] Nic Demski was always there, [current Toronto Argonaut] Anthony Coombs was always there, [fellow Blue Bomber] Kienan LaFrance was always there, so I was just like dang, I’m not far off from these guys,” he says.
“Maybe I’m not where they’re at yet, but that’s somewhere that I could definitely be, because they were older than me at that point. That’s when I was like, maybe I could do this for a career one day.”
The six-foot-two, 200 pound receiver’s best statistical season came last year, after spending the prior two years learning under seasoned veterans like Alex Vitt and Bryden Bone, as well as overcoming a meniscus injury.
His 13.7 yards per reception average, and gifted athleticism were enough to earn him an invite to the 2018 CFL Western Regional Combine, where he impressed with his burst, and ability to separate from defenders during the one-on-one session.
Despite not getting an invite to the national combine, Ugbah opened the eyes of certain scouts, one of which was from the Ottawa Redblacks. He was informed that his name might get called on draft day, and to stay ready.
Despite the former not occuring, Ugbah was still given a CFL opportunity. Roughly a week before the season started, he got a call from the Ottawa scout, telling him the club was bringing him out that night for the final week of pre-season play.
“[The scout] was like, ‘I can get you on a flight at 7:30 p.m., does that work?’ I was like, yeah that works. I had two jobs at the time, and I thought about whether or not I should go, but I was like yeah, I should go. I called my family, and my mom was kind of confused, she was like ‘isn’t it three weeks past when they’re supposed to take you?’ I was like yeah, I know but they asked me to come now.”
Ugbah was with Ottawa for a week, with the first two days spent solely on learning the playbook. He wasn’t able to line up at receiver for the team’s final pre-season game, but did see time in the game.
“Guys had been there for three weeks and were competing for jobs, so I guess it wouldn’t have been fair to get me in there [at receiver], because they were going no huddle, but I got in on special teams, which was a really good experience for me,” he says.
Ugbah was released the next day, but received positive feedback from the coaching staff. Now entering his final year of U SPORTS eligibility, he’s setting his sights on finishing his university career off on a high note, and ideally getting signed by a CFL team some time afterwards.
“I’m very confident with the guys we have around here,” he says.
“We’re going to be a team to watch out for for sure, because I know the guys here want it bad. There’s a bunch of guys in their fourth and fifth years and we want that Vanier ring. We’re not here to waste time, we know it’s one shot that we’ve got, and we’re going to go out and show out.”