South African rugby player Nico Leonard has sights set on CFL in pursuit of pro football dream

In South Africa, no sport is bigger than rugby and nowhere in the country is rugby more important than at Paul Roos Gymnasium.

For the last 155 years, the all-boys public school located in Stellenbosch in the country’s Western Cape province has garnered a reputation for one thing in particular. Forget that its alumni includes three former South African prime ministers, the Gymnasium’s crowning achievement is producing a record 54 players for the Springboks national rugby team, fitting for a school named after the team’s very first captain.

Despite that illustrious history, the record holder for most career tries in school boy rugby at Paul Roos Gymnasium is not among the list of former Springboks greats. That distinction is held by Nico Leonard.

“Basically, if you convert it to American football it’s like scoring 52 touchdowns in two years,” the 23-year old winger explains.

Touchdowns are exactly the stat that Leonard is hoping to start recording this year.

After five years of professional rugby with the Western Province’s DHL Stormers, the 5’11, 210-pound speedster has turned his attention to chasing down a new dream: gridiron football. When the Canadian Football League announced their official invite list to the virtual 2021 Global Combine late last month, Leonard stood out as the only African national and sole rugby convert invited to try out.

In a full draft pool of almost 300, there are other rugby players available but each is auditioning based on their kicking prowess. Leonard has instead decided to follow in the footsteps of players like Jarryd Haynes, Valentine Holmes and current Buffalo Bill Christian Wade by becoming a running back, hoping to fulfill a professional football fantasy he’s had since childhood.

“When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I discovered it here in South Africa just by playing Madden on PlayStation,” Leonard recalls. “That’s basically what started my love for the game and how I learned most of the rules, as well as the players.”

Unlike many other global countries in which the CFL has made forays, American football is not played at a high level in South Africa, but for youngsters the language of video games has become a universal recruitment tool. Leonard was not alone in his peer group in dreaming of the NFL and when a former classmate at Paul Roos Dieter Eiselen signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears last year after an outstanding career along the offensive line at Yale, Leonard began to re-evaluate his own ambitions.

“It’s nice to see that people that come from a country like South Africa that go to America can actually make it in American football. That intrigues you to chase something different,” Leonard says.

“Rugby has always been my dream and to represent your country is every guy’s dream in South Africa, but sometimes dreams change and you go in a different direction.”

That direction became clear in August of 2020, when a local newspaper article caught Leonard’s eye. An organization called World Wide Scholarships was on the hunt for South Africans who might have American football aspirations and Leonard didn’t hesitate.

“I told my mom, listen this is what I’ve been wanting to do and this is my chance,” he says with a smile.

His rugby agent Bart Schoeman made the connection and Leonard was one of more than 70 young South Africans who made their way to Pretoria in December for a full slate of combine tests in front of American scouts, including former NFL third round pick Rich Gardner. Leonard impressed.

“Out of the 70, there was nine guys chosen to take their careers further. Rich came to me and personally told me that he wanted to take me under his wing and train me. He took me on, we started training and that’s basically how it all started for me,” he explains.

The plan originally was for the raw young athlete to earn a spot on a German Football League team, where Gardner had once played for the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes, and use it as stepping stone to bigger opportunities, but that timeline has now been bumped up significantly. A conversation with South African kicking coach Wihan Van Der Riet helped put his tape in the hands of former CFL Director of Global Scouting Greg Quick. It seemed a long shot, but a month later came a surprising email: Congratulations, you’ve been invited to the Combine. Show us what you’ve got.

A young Nico Leonard – 2015 Photo: Thys Lombard

Leonard is ecstatic about the opportunity, though he admits he had little understanding of any league outside of the NFL until his chance to go pro arose.

“I always knew there was football in Canada, because I saw The Rock played in the CFL and all that, I just didn’t know it was that big,” he acknowledges.

“Lately, I’ve watched a bunch as I’ve been training. I’ve also been doing a lot of research and just watching the CFL. It’s pretty insane to see how big it is.”

While the league might be bigger than he imagined, the opportunity is limited. When the Global Draft takes place on April 15th, only 36 players will be selected and all will have more football experience than Leonard. If chosen, he knows that adjusting to blocking schemes and memorizing massive playbooks will be a challenge, but on the field he thinks he has what it takes.

“When it comes to just having the ball in your hands, it’s pretty much the same as in rugby. You have to be quick, you have to be agile, you have to have good vision,” Leonard insists.

Though technically raw, he certainly merits a look as an athletic project. While the numbers are still pending verification by the CFL, Leonard reportedly ran a 4.59 forty yard dash in his combine work out, put up an exceptional 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and posted a 10’2 broad jump.

Those numbers will be near the top among Global players and Leonard hopes they are enough to get him on a roster, even if it’s with the last pick. He knows he may need time to season on the practice roster before seeing the field, but Leonard doesn’t mind in the slightest.

“I just need someone to take a chance on me. Any team, I don’t mind. Someone that will back me, take a chance and see where I can go, because I believe I can add massive value to any team in this game,” he says.

This football dream isn’t some passing fancy. Nico Leonard is in it for the long haul.

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.