Kirby Fabien is getting much more than he bargained for.
When the six-foot-six, 295-pound offensive tackle opted to return to the University of Calgary for a fifth and final year, it was to get his economics degree and keep a promise he made to his family. But that decision could also end up boosting his football career.
The 22-year-old Calgary native and McMaster Marauders tackle Matt Sewell will both take part in the 2013 East-West Shrine game Nov. 19 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. For Fabien, it's finally a chance to compete against top-notch U.S. college football prospects.
"It's a huge opportunity," Fabien said Friday. "It's a premiere all-star game and Matt and I both have a great chance to go to the United States and show what we can do and be considered elite athletes.
"I think if we can go there and play at their level and compete it shows that people in Canada can play football and the top CIS players are able to compete in the U.S. It's a big thing to represent our league."
Fabien was a first-round pick of the B.C. Lions in last year's CFL draft but surprised many afterwards by returning to school. Some interpreted Fabien's decision as a slight against the Lions or of a potential rift between the player and club, but Fabien said that was never the case.
"I came back to school so I could graduate," he said. "I know some people had their own thoughts about it, they thought it was about finances or other things.
"But that's not the truth."
In fact, Fabien would welcome playing in the CFL but understands a solid showing at the East-West Shrine game could provide other pro opportunities. Former NFL head coaches Leeman Bennett and Jerry Glanville will head up the respective coaching staffs and the daily practices will be conducted under the watchful eyes of CFL and NFL scouts.
"It's going to be great coaching and I'm going to try to take in as much as I can and improve as much as I can," Fabien said. "Obviously, it's the highest level I've ever played so I'll try to apply all the stuff I learn at whatever level I end up at."
Fabien was a first-team all-Canadian for a second straight year and Calgary's nominee for the J.P. Metras award as Canadian university football's top lineman. He was also a conference all-star for the third time in four years.
Calgary head coach Blake Nill, a former CFL player, feels Kirby and Sewell have the physical tools to play professionally on either side of the border. However, Nill said in Florida both players will not have to shake off some rust — neither has played since November — but also adjust to having defensive lineman lining up in front of them and not a yard off the ball.
"There are no excuses," Nill said. "They just need to be out there and perform.
"These two individuals going down there could easily fit into someone's plans on an NFL roster."
Nill said Fabien won't look out of place physically when he arrives in Florida but added what often separates the good players from the great ones is what happens above the shoulders. And with so many NFL scouts looking on, Nill said players like Fabien have a glorious opportunity to make a favourable first impression.
"One of the things I've talked to Kirby about is understanding just how good he is and making sure the first impression he makes isn't of a soft-spoken young guy with a grin on his face," Nill said. "It's making sure when he's in a drill one-on-one that he's extending his hand under a guy's chin because he definitely has the physical capabilities to be what he is, which is an intense player.
"It's just off the field he's a little quiet. The message I want to make sure Kirby understands is he needs to be confident and go there and realize most of the guys he's going to be competing against are of the same physical skillset. He has to make sure his mindset is where it needs to be."
Still, Nill believes Fabien will turn more than a few heads once practices begin.
"Once they see his movement skills I think they're going to be impressed," Nill said. "Over the last year and a half, I've taken numerous calls from NFL teams who know of Kirby already and I think they're going to get a really good chance to see what kind of athlete this kid is."
The jump from college to pro is huge and precious few players make it successfully and enjoy long, productive careers. But Fabien understands how important it is for a professional athlete to be accountable, on and off the field.
"You have to be there all the time, physically and mentally," he said. "It's about playing at a high intensity all the time, knowing your plays, not taking plays off and always being a pro and not being late for meetings, being diligent in your workouts and staying healthy.
"Professional football is a business and if you're not healthy, if you miss meetings or screw up on your plays there's always another guy waiting to play. In high school and sometimes in college players can just be athletes and get by but in the pros it's different and I understand that."