It is fair to say that just a few seasons ago, local Winnipeg receiver Shai Ross was not on the radar of many coaches. As a matter of fact, there was a time when he considered hanging up his cleats entirely.
“I was at Dakota [Collegiate] and then at [the St. Vital] Mustangs [major junior football team], and I was going to call it quits after that,” Ross began. “At that point, I was actually not even set on making anything of football anything further than just playing a few years and having fun with it.”
All things considered, Ross’s lukewarm attitude towards the sport at the time made sense. After all, he didn’t start playing football until his senior year with Dakota, and he also wasn’t super interested in going back to school, which put university ball out of the equation.
But in 2014, after an all-star selection with the Mustangs, his mindset began to shift.
“When I started to realize that I was starting to get pretty good at [football] and starting to get some looks from different coaches and stuff like that, it just influenced me to take it further.”
The first, and arguably most important step that Ross took to get better, was registering to train with Recruit Ready — a premier football training program in the city that just so happened to have Bison alumni and current coaches Blaire Atkinson and Will Sheils as part of its staff.
“Recruit Ready was everything for me,” Ross said. “Once I started training specifically for the sport, that’s when I’d say my game stepped up.”
Ross’s hard work with Recruit Ready didn’t go unnoticed, with Atkinson giving him a nod to the Bisons spring camp in 2015.
Despite being a standout during training sessions with the program, Bison football head coach Brian Dobie wasn’t completely sold on Ross, and needed to see for himself what his fellow coaches had been raving about. It didn’t take long for Dobie to become convinced that Ross could be a playmaker.
“He was somewhat under the radar, and when he came out with us [to spring camp], we were shocked,” Dobie said. “The Recruit Ready guys were all over us about him. And they were right.”
Ross earned himself a place on the team with his performance at spring camp, but chose to spend the 2015 season with the British Columbia Football Conference’s Okanagan Sun instead.
“I just didn’t see the position for myself to go and dress right away and start, and I just kind of wanted to develop my game a little bit before I jumped to the college level of football, so I made the move to go to BC to develop my game,” he added.
The year went well. Okanagan finished 12-0, won the conference title, and advanced all the way to the Canadian Junior Football League’s national title game. Individually, Ross had a reception in every contest and also doubled as one of the team’s kick returners.
But arguably the biggest moment of the 2015 season came when Ross’s daughter was born. Funny enough, the team was in the middle of preparing for the national title game when his girlfriend went into labour.
“As soon as I got the call, I actually flew back on the spot. As soon as I got to the hospital, an hour later, my daughter was born, so that was pretty special,” he said with a smile.
“I got to spend probably three-to-four days with her, and I didn’t leave her side the whole time. Then I had to go back to BC and finish and play in the national championship.”
Once the season with Okanagan came to a close, Ross knew what his next step was going to be: returning home to hopefully make an impact with the Herd.
“The whole time I was going there [with Okanagan], I was still set on the Bisons,” he reflected. “I wouldn’t have gone and played for any other team. This is my hometown, I love playing in front of my friends and family.”
Ross’s hard work in B.C. paid off, as he made the Bisons 2016 roster. But the team had recruited a handful of other junior football talent, and he wasn’t expected to be a game changer by any means. Yet again, Ross let his play do the talking, finishing as Manitoba’s second leading receiver while also earning a conference all-star nod as a kick returner.
“He was the biggest surprise on our team last year,” Dobie said emphatically. “There’s no surprise this year, we know who he is now, and he’s a big part of our offence and our team.”
Entering the 2017 season, Ross’s work ethic is just as strong as when he got his first look from Manitoba. And despite having to balance life with a young child as well as university classes — the latter of which he considers “the tough part” of his collegiate experience — he continues to take it all in stride.
“The way I look at it is, you’ve got lots of young men on university teams, and some of them had to get here in a more difficult way than others, Dobie said of Ross’s background.
“And those ones, who really feel they have to continually prove themselves, and they have to fight through a lot of adversity […] those guys, you really respect, and you want them to hit the jackpot. He is a jackpot winner with us, and we expect a big season from him.”