Stefan Charles' football career will come full circle this Sunday when he returns to Toronto as a member of the Buffalo Bills.
After spending some nomadic years through Canada keeping his hopes of playing professional football alive, it will be a day he won't soon forget.
Charles has played in each of Buffalo's last three games as a reserve lineman, making three tackles. He could have a larger role against the Atlanta Falcons with starting DT Kyle Williams (back) questionable. Charles will have plenty of friends and family at the Rogers Centre.
"Everybody, man, everybody," Charles says with a laugh. He plans on soaking it all in when he takes to the Rogers Centre field for the first time.
He's come a long way from his days with various junior and minor league Canadian teams.
"I don't know if anybody knows my story, but I worked my (butt) off to get here," Charles said.
Charles officially made it to the NFL on Oct. 11 when the Bills signed the 6-foot-5, 302-pound defensive tackle off Tennessee's practice squad. But his journey to the big leagues began long before that.
Charles excelled in high school at the Eastdale Collegiate & Vocational Institute in Oshawa, Ontario, but didn't receive any offers to play college football. He joined up with the Metro Toronto Wildcats of the Ontario Varsity Football League and the Surrey (now Langley) Rams, a Canadian junior football team.
It was in Surrey, British Columbia, while spending his days working in a tire factory, where Charles met Dave Benefield, a former NFL and CFL player. Benefield helped Charles take a step up in competition by passing along his name to the coaches at the University of Regina.
It didn't matter that Regina is more than 1,600 miles from Toronto. Charles was willing to do whatever it took to try and make it.
"I just wanted to do it," Charles said. "I put so much time into football I didn't want to watch it go through my hands. ... I knew if I kept fighting something had to give."
It was anything but smooth sailing once Charles made it to Regina. He worked as a janitor his first year, and was forced to sleep on the floor due to financial constraints his first 1 1-2 years at college.
"You look at all the great people that have had success, you get successful by taking risks and sacrifice," Charles said. "You can't just hope for things to happen."
On the field, he made rapid progress. As a junior, he had 36 tackles, 10 1-2 tackles for loss and 4 1-2 sacks, and was voted first-team All-Canadian. After his senior season, he was ranked as the second-best overall prospect in the CFL draft by the CFL Scouting Bureau.
Charles was chosen 10th overall by the Edmonton Eskimos, but his preference was to play in the NFL. He went undrafted by the NFL but signed with Tennessee as a free agent. Charles spent eight weeks on the Titans practice squad before getting that long-awaited phone call from the Bills in mid-October.
"They told me they were looking to bring me up there if I wanted to come," Charles said. "I had talked to the Oakland Raiders, too, that same day, and I was like, 'Man, this is perfect.' It's right close to home, my family, I had been away from my family for so long — five years."
True to form, he plans on using the experience as motivation.
"I'm blessed and I'm happy and I couldn't ask for anything more. I'm just going to keep working," Charles said. "That's the one thing I've learned since I got here, it's all good when you get here, but you work just as hard to stay. So that's really the one thing I got from this experience: keep running, keep working and never be content.
"I just know now more than anything that nothing's impossible if you just put your effort and your time into what you really want, sacrifice, and just do what you need to do to get what you need to get."
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