(MONTREAL) - Brian Brikowski never thought he’d play pro.
Indeed, he didn’t play a college game after 2009, dismissed as a sophomore from Monmouth University in New Jersey for some off-field extracurricular activity.
Two seasons later, he found his way onto the roster of the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks in Pennsylvania, part of the Indoor Football League. Brikowski and his teammates were paid $125 per game. There was a $50 bonus for each player if the team won. Practices were held in a small and old college gymnasium, while games were played in front of, perhaps, 200 spectators.
“There’s nothing lower. If you won, you got a couple of extra meals. If you lost, you went hungry,” the articulate Brikowski remembers.
Brikowski, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound rookie rush end, will be activated for Friday’s game at Ottawa against the expansion Redblacks after Gabriel Knapton and Aaron Lavarias both sustained injuries to their right knees against Toronto.
Brikowski tried out for Philadelphia of the Arena League before resurfacing with Lehigh Valley. Despite playing less than half the season, he led the Steelhawks in quarterback sacks, coming second in rookie of the year voting.
“If you want to see people who truly love football … they’re the ones who love it the most,” said Brikowski, 25. “They’re trying to hold onto that dream of playing professional football, even below minimum wage.
“But for me, that was my first real opportunity to play pro ball — and I put that in quotes. I guess you could say, if I didn’t have that in place, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m really fortunate that leagues and programs like that do exist.”
His play in the IFL earned him a promotion in 2012 to Cleveland of the AFL. He was named the player who had the biggest impact on the team’s defensive line by ESPN Cleveland, returning to the club the following season. He was traded to Chicago that May, but the team eventually folded. Declared a free agent, he returned to Cleveland and continued playing there through this season.
Brikowski and his agent always were on the lookout for better opportunities. He had NFL workouts with San Diego, Green Bay, the New York Jets and Detroit as recently as last May. He also attended open CFL workouts, before regional U.S.-based scouts, in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and North Carolina.
It was at a CFL Combine in Virginia where Brikowski was spotted by Russ Lande, an Als’ American scout who focuses on the NCAA. Lande liked him enough to invite him to a private workout in Akron, Ohio — two weeks before the start of Montreal’s rookie mini-camp in late May.
Brikowski was invited to Bishop’s University, but arrived a day late due to passport issues. He then had to persuade the coaches to give him a look, the staff believing not enough time remained before the veterans arrived for the start of the main camp.
“I was convinced within myself what I could do,” he said. “Give me just one practice and I’ll show you I can play.”
Brikowski originally attended the University of Akron — one of the few schools to offer him a full scholarship — but transferred to Monmouth because he was 18 and homesick. His college career lasted all of 17 games, including only seven starts. Brikowski knows he defied the odds by making it to the CFL.
“The odds are pretty much against you to make professional football,” said Brikowski, who transferred to East Stroudsburg University, completing a degree in broadcast communications, after his days at Monmouth.
“I thought football was done in 2009,” he added. “Then I found that fire in me and realized football’s what I truly love most. I put my foot to the pedal and didn’t stop working until I started achieving goals. Once I did, my hunger for success just continued to grow.”
Brikowski realizes he has big shoes to fill along the Als’ defensive line. But Brikowski is strong, quick and has displayed a tenacity for making tackles and sacking quarterbacks while playing indoors.
“He doesn’t have the experience and is younger, so he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Sometimes that’s a good thing,” said Als head coach Tom Higgins. “He’s long-armed and plays hard. He knows what he needs to do and plays to his strengths.
“We hope he can fill the gap — and fill it nicely.”