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This First Nation Player is a player

Believed to be first athlete from 'Toba reserve picked in CFL Draft

Offensive lineman Tchissakid Player (#79) is eager to make the most of his opportunity after being drafted by the B.C. Lions.

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Offensive lineman Tchissakid Player (#79) is eager to make the most of his opportunity after being drafted by the B.C. Lions. (NORTHWESTERN STATE ATHLETICS PHOTO)

He's a 22-year-old with a 6-6 frame, a weighty name and a standout few seasons playing on the offensive line for the NCAA's Northwestern State Demons in Natchitoches, La.

Now, Tschissakid Player is believed to be the first First Nation athlete from Manitoba chosen in the CFL Draft.

The B.C. Lions plucked the 305-pound Northwestern grad from the second round of Tuesday's draft, 12th overall. Player was at home in Louisiana when the call came, watching the draft unfold online.

"It got kind of nerve-racking," said Player.

So he pulled himself away.

"Soon after, I got a call from B.C. and they told me I'd been drafted. I was happy, really just ecstatic because B.C. has a really good program and I know they're hungry for another Grey Cup."

So it's back to Canada for Player, who was born in Winnipeg and grew up watching the Bombers play at Canad Inns Stadium. His father, Paul Player, was an Oklahoman and former Wesmen basketball standout, while his mother, Corinne Fontaine-Player, was an Anishinaabe woman from Sagkeeng First Nation. They named their son Tschissakid in tribute to that heritage -- it means "soothsayer" -- though he usually goes by just T-Dre.

When Player was about nine years old, the family moved to Dallas, Texas, searching for more sport opportunities for their athletic young son. But every couple of summers they'd come back to visit family that still live in Winnipeg and Sagkeeng, a First Nation of about 3,300 people along the eastern edge of Lake Winnipeg, where Player is a member.

The community left an impression on the growing athlete.

"The kids there, they really like sports," he said. "If they had the opportunity, had more financial support or a better environment, then perhaps some of those kids could grow up and be stars, too. I'm not the only athlete from that area. There are plenty that are there, they just don't have the opportunity to get out, or come to the States."

Player had the opportunity and became a college star. After struggling through his early high school football career at Cedar Hill High School -- he had flat feet and had to wear corrective shoes to build his ankle strength -- he burst out in his senior year, both athletically and academically. That district all-star performance earned him a scholarship to Northwestern, where he earned a starting tackle job in his sophomore season.

He did all of this, bear in mind, while juggling a demanding honours pre-law program, recently serving as secretary of the school's pre-law fraternity chapter.

"There are some things about the courtroom that I can see the mirror to the football field," Player said, though he noted the program's demands -- including a full undergraduate thesis, which he aced -- were gruelling. "There's been so few football players endure that honours program and come out graduating."

A pre-law degree is a mighty nice thing for an athlete to have in his back pocket. But for now, Player's focus is fully on cracking the Lions' roster.

"When the CFL's done, I'll probably end up going to law school," he said. "Or if something else comes my way, then I'll take that opportunity. If you get all the cards in your favour, after that you can roll with it."

He's also prepared to roll with being a role model. Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine believes Player is the first First Nations athlete from Manitoba to become a CFL draft pick.

That's a "great honour," Player said.

One he doesn't plan to take lightly.

"I'll definitely do whatever I can as far as helping out in the community, to really show that I am a human being, that it's OK to make mistakes and to pursue your goals at the same time."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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