Anticipation mounts for Thursday’s European draft – Valentin Gnahoua can’t wait

By SENIOR WRITER, @OLEARYCHRIS

It’s been almost three weeks since the CFL Combine presented by New Era and time has slowed to a crawl for Valentin Gnahoua.

“Excited, nervous,” the 24-year-old linebacker said from his home in Le Mans, France on Tuesday, where he conducted the majority of his interview through a translator.

“I can’t wait for it to be Thursday.”

After two years with the Berlin Rebels in the German Football League that was preceded by a year spent with the McGill Redmen, Gnahoua is very hopeful that he’ll get another chance to come back to Canada to play football. He’ll get some answers on Thursday, when the CFL holds its first-ever European draft as part of its CFL 2.0 initiative. Nine of the 18 European players that took part in the combine will be chosen in the one-round draft.

GNAHOUA IS ONE OF 18 GLOBAL PLAYERS ELIGIBLE FOR THURSDAY’S ONE-ROUND DRAFT (JOHANY JUTRAS/CFL.CA)

The excitement part of the equation for Gnahoua spiked this week when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, owners of the first pick in the draft, called him up to get to know a little more about him.

“It’s kind of a long way until Thursday but I’m very excited for the process,” he said. “I’m very happy to be in the position that I am today. I will wait now.”

He was mostly happy with his performance at the combine. He tested well against his European peers, with his bench press (24 reps) the second-best number on the day. He was fourth in the 40 (4.84 seconds) and the vertical leap (31.5 inches), third in the three-cone drill (7.31 seconds), fifth in the shuttle (4.47 seconds) and eighth in the broad jump (nine-feet, 0.75 inches).

He injured his hamstring running the 40, which hurt his time in that event and limited him in the one-on-ones. The biggest challenge of his weekend was the interviews with the teams.

“It was kind of stressful because the nine teams were in the same room,” he said. “The questions were very basic, not very personal questions. But it was stressful as a kid coming from overseas and being in front of scouts and GMs like this at the combine.”

He was drawn to football eight years ago, when he saw a NFL game on TV. He found a local club in Le Mans and went on to play for France’s junior national team in 2012 and 2013 and joined the senior national team in 2014. He made his way to Montreal in 2016, getting one season in with the Redmen in U SPORTS, where he had nine unassisted tackles and seven assisted tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss in eight games.

He told Postmedia’s Dan Barnes that a raise in international student fees brought his time at McGill to an abrupt end.

Over the last two years with the Rebels, Gnahoua has had a combined 47 tackles and nine sacks. While he played D-line in Germany, at six-foot-two and 231 pounds, he’d likely line up as a linebacker in the CFL.

“SOME PEOPLE DEFINITELY TOLD ME IT’S KIND OF CRAZY BUT I WORK HARD. I’VE WORKED HARD FOR IT THE LAST EIGHT YEARS, EVERY STEP OF THE WAY. NO MATTER WHERE I WAS OR WHAT TEAM I WAS PLAYING FOR.”

VALENTIN GNAHOUA

ON THE RIGHT, GNAHOUA FIGHTS OFF A BLOCK DURING THE 2019 CFL COMBINE LAST MONTH IN TORONTO (PETER POWER/CFL.CA)

He’s continued to find success on the field, refusing to give up on what some people told him was a crazy dream.

“Some people definitely told me it’s kind of crazy but I work hard,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for it the last eight years, every step of the way. No matter where I was or what team I was playing for.

“I’m ready. It’s still a big dream, it’s still a crazy dream but I feel like I’m ready and I’ve been waiting for the opportunity for a long time.”

Though it might seem like a reach to the average person — a European playing a distinctly North American game, dreaming of finding a pathway to a higher level of competition — Gnahoua said that he’s received nothing but support from his family.

“Definitely happy. Very, very happy for me,” he said. “It’s years and years of hard work and dedication and sacrifices on their part.”

His parents, father Emile and mother Daniele, are separated. He lives with his mother in Le Mans, while his father works in Paris.

“I’m still very close to both of them,” he said. “I still live with my mom so I’m in touch with (both of) them every day.”

His father has been especially helpful over the last few years. He was a member of the Ivory Coast national soccer team and went on to play professionally in France. While the sports are different, the experiences along the way can be very similar.

“Having a father that played professional sports, probably at the highest level possible, it’s amazing because he kind of helped me along the way with how I get ready, how I train,” Gnahoua said. “Of course (there’s also) the good genetics, but still, the little steps that I have to take along the way. Everything as far as my attitude and how I need to interact with people and in my youth growing up, he helped me a lot with this.”

Now all three of them are waiting, counting down the clock until 1 p.m. ET (7 p.m. in France) to see where this journey down a new football path might take him.

He said he likes the way the Tiger-Cats play and thinks he could fit in well with his speed, possibly helping on special teams. He enjoyed talking with Craig Dickenson at the combine and liked the idea of a long-time special teams coach running the show with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And of course, setting foot on the field at McGill again, in a French-speaking city and province, would be a comfort and would help ease his return to Canada.

That’s not to say that he has a preference. He’d be happy to wear any of the nine teams’ colours this spring.

“If I get drafted by any team I’ll prove that they made the right choice drafting me,” he said. “I’ll be as great as possible for them.”

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