Las Rozas Black Demons’ Chris Merchant hopes Spain will help overcome Canadian QB stigma

Spain has always been high on Chris Merchant’s list of dream destination, but when he landed in Madrid earlier this month, it wasn’t quite the scenery he imagined.

“It was the worst snowstorm they’ve had in 50 years and it happened the day I flew in,” Merchant laughs about the about the three feet of snow that awaited him in the Spanish capital. “I must have brought it from Canada or something.”

The record breaking blizzard wreaked major havoc on the LNFA season, postponing two of the four second round games until a later date and delaying Merchant’s highly anticipated debut for the Las Rozas Black Demons by at least two weeks. It seems even in Spain, Canadian quarterbacks have extra obstacles to overcome.

For football fans north of the 49th parallel, the plight of the homegrown quarterback is an almost constant topic of conversation. Whether it was coming out of high school or trying to break into the professional ranks, Merchant is more than familiar with the hurdles. The Calgary, Alberta native knew from a young age that only with the best exposure would he be able to make his football dreams a reality. In search of college scholarships, he moved 3,265 kilometers down the Trans-Canada highway to St. Andrew’s College boarding school at just 16. When the time came, he had just two opportunities: pay his way to Brown University in the non-scholarship Ivy League or take a full ride to Buffalo. Merchant chose the Bulls, becoming one of just a handful of Canadian passers who have made it onto NCAA rosters in the last few years.

Chris Merchant attending CFL Draft Combine Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

After an initial culture shock, Merchant settled in nicely south of the border but turmoil in the program made his stay short lived. A year in, the staff that recruited him were fired and Merchant felt himself fall out of favor with new coaches who wanted their own recruits playing the position. The writing was on the wall, so Merchant headed back north. He found a home with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs and while some might expect the transition from Division One to Canadian university football to be a steep drop, the competitive mentality Merchant found at Western differed very little from what he was used to.

“I was fortunate enough to come into a Western program that had a lot of players that took things very seriously and treated it like a Division One program,” he recalls.

The new quarterback was the finishing touch on a Mustang’s roster loaded with future Canadian Football League talent. In just his second year at the helm, Merchant led the team to their first national championship in 23 years, dismantling national powerhouse Laval in the Vanier Cup game to cap a perfect season. That 2017 Western team is considered one of the most dominant in Canadian history, a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that looked like the predestined champion from the outset.

“It was one of those years where you knew right from the get-go,” Merchant smiles. “We had that mindset but we didn’t really know how far we could take it.”

The following year, Western returned to the Vanier Cup but lost in a rematch with Laval. The loss stung, but Merchant hoped a career year and back-to-back title appearances would help see his name called in the 2019 CFL Draft. It wasn’t to be. Like most Canadian quarterbacks, Merchant went undrafted. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes for training camp and expected to compete for a roster spot. The opportunity afforded to him was much different than expected.

“I’m super grateful that they gave me the opportunity and that I was able to learn from some great quarterbacks, but I didn’t get a fair opportunity there in my opinion,” Merchant says, choosing his words with caution. “I barely practiced. They didn’t use me. They knew they were sending me back from the get-go.”

Chris Merchant enjoyed an outstanding career at the University of Western Ontario

For fans of the CFL, that claim is hardly shocking. While the league protects and fosters national talent at other positions, quarterbacks were long exempt from the ratio and it’s no secret that teams are often loath to spend time developing a local passer when under the constant pressure to win now. Times are slowly changing with a handful of Canadian quarterbacks breaking the barrier in recent years, but the progress isn’t fast enough for Merchant. After experiencing three CFL training camps, one in Montreal and one each in Calgary and Hamilton as part of the league’s U Sport Quarterback Internship program designed to address this very issue, he knows some coaches still doubt the ability of home-grown pivots.

“I definitely think there is still a stigma,” Merchant says. “There were things said at the training camps I went to that made it obvious there is a stigma.”

Cut by the Alouettes, Merchant returned to Western for his fifth year of eligibility, capping his career by winning the Hec Crighton trophy as the nation’s best collegiate player, but only after a devastating foot injury forced him out of his final Yates Cup appearance. That injury, coupled with a regime change in Montreal, seemed to close the door on another CFL shot and one of the best Canadian players in recent memory began to look overseas. An initial deal with the Wasa Royals of Finland fell through when the pandemic hit and Merchant now finds himself in Madrid, looking to help the Las Rozas Black Demons take the next step as a franchise.

“What drew me to the Black Demons is that even though they understand that they aren’t the best in Europe, they want to be,” Merchant says. “They are investing in who they need to invest in right now to get them to that level.”

That’s a mentality that he shares. Despite the lack of opportunities, Merchant still believes he has the talent to play at the professional level and Europe is to be his stepping stone.

“I still wake up every day knowing I’m good enough to play at that level,” he says assuredly.

Sporting a mandatory mask, Chris Merchant avoids the rush during Las Rozas Black Demons practice Photo: Lola Morales

Now, he views his role in Spain as much as an educator as player, hoping to help his Spanish teammates grow with lessons he’s learned from the stops on his young career. Their success will come from opportunities, something he wishes Canadian quarterbacks got more of.

“It’s just a matter of giving guys an opportunity and not just throwing them in one game with very little preparation. Not throwing them to the wolves to see what they can do,” Merchant says of the future he wants to see for Canadian passers. “No quarterback, American or Canadian, will play very well in that situation.”

Merchant hopes he gets another chance to crack a CFL lineup but in the meantime, he’ll be an ambassador for his country in Europe. A natural leader and bona fide winner, Merchant could shake up the balance of power in Spain just as he once did in U Sports.

“We have the highest expectations. This team has invested in the kinds of players that can take you to the top and it’s my job to make that a reality,” he says. “I’m excited to get out on the field and prove that despite what people may think of Spanish football, we can still play.”

After all, proving he could still play despite national origins is what he’s been doing his whole life.

Photos in Spain: Lola Morales

JC Abbott
J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.
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