The NFL has never drafted a player straight from UBC. Giovanni Manu and Theo Benedet could change that

Growing up in North Vancouver, UBC’s Theo Benedet never aspired to make the NFL.

But as the 2024 draft draws nearer, the dream of playing professional football becomes more of a reality for Benedet and his teammate Giovanni Manu.

“Every day I have to pinch myself,” said Benedet, the fifth-year Thunderbird.

The two offensive linemen have attracted “unprecedented” NFL interest to UBC, drawing in numerous scouts from the US. In 2023, Benedet was the sole U Sports player invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl, a college showcase with alumni like Tom Brady and John Elway. On March 29, 16 NFL teams attended UBC’s pro day, including last season’s Super Bowl competitors, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. The UBC pro day was more successful than some NCAA schools.

Canadian universities are often overlooked in football. Over 103 years and tens of thousands of draft picks, the NFL has drafted 11 players straight out of U Sports, the most recent being the University of Manitoba’s David Onyemata in 2016. Only 39 U Sports athletes — with 3 from UBC — have ever made an NFL roster, most through undrafted free agent signings. This means these athletes were not directly drafted into the NFL, but were brought into the league afterwards. A mere five former U Sports athletes are currently signed to an NFL team, including offensive lineman Dakoda Shepley, who graduated from UBC in 2017.

“It's an additional hurdle, coming from Canada, to go to the NFL,” said Benedet. “The Americans are less familiar, so they're gonna question [the] level of competition and things like that.”

“It’s hard, being a U Sports player, to grab the NFL’s attention because they’re so focused on the NCAA,” said Manu. “It’s amazing, and I think me and Theo are creating history here. I don’t think [any] other U Sports program has ever produced two NFL athletes [in the same year].”

Manu began playing football at age 10, when he entered Pitt Meadows Secondary School.

“I think our team was about 17 to 15 guys,” recalled Manu, “so I pretty much played everything. I played d-line, I played o-line. Believe it or not, I was also a punter.”

"I pretty much played everything. I played d-line, I played o-line. Believe it or not, I was also a punter," said Manu.
"I pretty much played everything. I played d-line, I played o-line. Believe it or not, I was also a punter," said Manu. Isa S. You / The Ubyssey

Manu had just migrated to Canada from Tonga, an island nation with one-third the size of Metro Vancouver.

“Living back home in Tonga, as wonderful as it is — being in the Pacific, being by the beach and the sunshine — it’s a third-world country,” said Manu. “It’s extremely hard to make life opportunities.”

Hoping for a brighter future, Manu’s parents made the difficult choice to separate the family, sending him and his siblings to live with their aunt in BC. He decided to attend UBC after falling in love with the campus.

Benedet, a BC Lions fan, grew up tossing a football around with friends at recess. He wasn’t competing seriously until grade 10 at Handsworth Secondary School, where he mostly played defensive and tight end.

“I still remember at the end of grade 11, when I started getting my first even college interest,” said Benedet. “That was really mind-blowing to me. I’d never even thought like, ‘Oh, I could actually play this in university.’”

For Benedet, whose mom is a UBC law professor, choosing the Thunderbirds came down to a decision between the US and Canada.

“If I stayed in Canada, it was always going to be here,” said Benedet. “It was just a decision, at the end of the day, about how I felt about the American programs and where I felt the programs were truly invested in developing me as a player.”

Despite a rocky start in 2019, with the T-Birds going 2–6, UBC has paid off for both Manu and Benedet. This past season, Manu was named a second-team All-Canadian. Benedet earned his second consecutive J.P. Metras Trophy, becoming the first offensive lineman in U Sports history to receive the honour twice. Both linemen were vital pieces to UBC’s first Hardy Cup win and Vanier Cup appearance since 2015.

“It’s been the best five years of my life, so far,” Benedet said of his time at UBC. “What’s special is the bonds you create with your teammates and the experiences you share with them … I’ll always treasure the memories of winning the Hardy Cup last year.”

Growing up in North Vancouver, Benedet never aspired to make the NFL.
Growing up in North Vancouver, Benedet never aspired to make the NFL. Isa S. You / The Ubyssey

Both linemen are preparing for the NFL Draft from April 25–27.

Manu will spend the draft day with family — his parents flew to Vancouver to be with him. Still living in Tonga, neither has watched Manu play a game in person. He hopes making the NFL will change that.

“It's pretty difficult, to be honest,” said Manu. “I've won many huge games, I’ve accomplished many awards and they haven't been here with me, in person, to celebrate those and feel how I feel … but I just use it as motivation when I'm on the field, so hopefully one day I can bring them out.”

The interest surrounding Manu and Benedet indicates they’ve got a good shot at the NFL, even if they aren’t drafted — many undrafted free agents become successful players in the league. Either way, this year could be historic for UBC and Canadian university football.

“I’m really excited for what’s next,” said Benedet. “To step up to the professional ranks and represent for everybody that’s coming out of Canada.”

“Hopefully I’m successful in the NFL,” said Manu. “I just hope I make my parents proud.”