IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa football’s pipeline to Winnipeg is rich, historic and … continuing into a new era.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League selected former Iowa DT Faith Ekakitie No. 1 overall Sunday in the CFL draft. As an Ontario native, Ekakitie helps the Blue Bombers meet league’s quota of at least 21 players per roster being non-imports. He also can play some football.
The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Ekakitie was a rotational interior defensive lineman who played starter’s snaps his final two seasons. He competed in 34 games overall and started three late in his senior year. In 2016, Ekakitie finished with 39 tackles, including 2 for loss. He broke up 2 passes and picked up 2 quarterback pressures, as well. He recorded 54 career tackles and earned the squad’s “Finish Strong Award” in the 2016 postseason banquet.
“He’s definitely demonstrated that he’s a pretty good inside player,” TSN draft analyst Duane Forde told the Winnipeg Sun. “Pretty athletic kid and in terms of body type I think he’s a little more suited to the CFL than the NFL.”
Last year, Iowa WR Tevaun Smith — a Toronto native — was selected in the first round by the Edmonton Eskimos. Smith opted for the NFL and signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Former Iowa QB Drew Tate plays for the Ottawa RedBlacks alongside former Iowa OL Nolan MacMillan. Tate has played 10 seasons in Canada and led Calgary to the 2014 Grey Cup title with 2 rushing touchdowns in the title game. Tate has played in 129 regular-season games and 10 playoff games.
The Hawkeyes’ pipeline to Winnipeg began largely with QB Kenny Ploen, who guided Iowa to the 1956 Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory. Ploen, who was named Rose Bowl MVP, was chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL draft but opted for Canada.
“I got drafted by Cleveland down there, but I had a couple of buddies I played with that went up here and played for Winnipeg, and it was a great place to play,” Ploen said in December 2015. “I enjoyed playing in the Canadian game, and they certainly recommended it to me.
“Once I got up here and got settled in, it’s a pretty nice spot.”
Ploen became the CFL West Division’s All-Star quarterback as a rookie. Two years later, he was a divisional all-star as a defensive back after intercepting 10 passes. He was named the league’s top QB in 1965 and played 11 seasons in Winnipeg.
Ploen extended his Iowa success into Canada in helping the Blue Bombers win Grey Cups in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962. His overtime run in the 1961 Grey Cup final was considered “one of the most spectacular plays in Canadian Football League history” according to the Blue Bombers’ website.
He remained in Winnipeg after retiring, and in 2016 Ploen became the second member named to the Blue Bombers’ Ring of Honour. The first was his coach, Bud Grant, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member who led the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowl berths.
“(Grant) was a good one,” Ploen said. “We had some good seasons with Bud. He was a great coach.”
Several former Hawkeyes joined Ploen in Canada, including All-Big Ten lineman and NCAA wrestling champion Sherwyn Thorson (who spurned both the NFL’s L.A. Rams and AFL’s Boston Patriots), tackle Frank Rigney (who was a fourth-round pick of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles) and end Bill Whisler (a San Francisco 49ers draft pick).
In 1975, Ploen was inducted in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. According to the Blue Bombers, he also was inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1987. He was tabbed for the Des Moines Register Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1997. In 1980, Ploen was named the Bombers’ offensive player for the first half century.