Sitting alone in a room with GMs, coaches and scouts from the eight other CFL teams, Ryder Varga was pressured to answer why he chose the football path instead of starting his career as an engineer.
The linebacker who recently finished his studies at the University of Regina was selected in the third round of the 2022 CFL Draft. Although he didn’t interview with the Lions during the combine, Varga said landing with BC ended up doing him a favour.
“I didn’t really know a ton about the Lions other than Nathan Rourke was up and coming. I think at that moment when I hear my name called, obviously, I was excited. But I didn’t realize how good of a situation I’d be in right now,” Varga recalled.
Because Varga was heading back to finish his university degree for the remainder of the 2022 season, he only spoke briefly on the phone with Rob Ralph, the Lions director of Canadian scouting and CFL Draft coordinator. Varga was expecting to move east rather than becoming one of the four Saskatchewan natives to get selected by the Lions.
“I was honestly predicting Montreal or the Riders because Montreal called me and asked if I wanted to be in Montreal. I was trying to show my personality and what type of person I am because they can see what type of player I am on film,” he recalled.
“A lot of the teams were pressing me about going back to school like, ‘Oh, you want to be an engineer or a football player?’ I got that a lot and, ‘Oh, you’re from Regina, you’re just going to go with the Riders.’ It was just putting yourself out there and being comfortable in a room while 10 people are judging your character.”
Attending the Lions training camp and playing in two preseason games in 2022 has helped Varga tremendously — realizing where he needs to improve and understanding the business side of football.
In a few weeks of moving at a much faster pace, against fierce competitors, the paradigm shift from being a student to experiencing how a professional player handles their day-to-day was a valuable lesson.
“Getting my foot in the door of the CFL on how it operates, seeing what type of coaches there are and what they look for. It’s just like a way different perspective. People are experts in the game of football and that’s their thing every single day. I’ve only been in school and trying to balance that with football,” he recalled.
“There are good players in university football like linebackers, offensive line, defensive line. But I would say the receivers and running backs are some of the best I’ve played against my whole life. So, I have to be on point with the pursuit angles and tackling. That was the biggest adjustment for me.”
The Canada West all-star and Academic All-Canadian went back to the University of Regina and enjoyed a phenomenal season with the Rams. As a middle linebacker, Varga led the team in tackles for three straight seasons (2019, 21, 22). He becomes one of three University of Regina players to earn the Canada West Defensive Player of the Year honours.
On top of earning a hard-fought engineering degree, it’s still one of his aspirations to be able to play in the CFL. Once a leader of the Rams’ defence continues to feed his university teammates advice that could improve their game.
“Younger guys have reached out to me. I did one on one film sessions with them. Almost like picking them apart like how they pick me apart here with the Lions. Some things you don’t even know you’re bad at until someone tells you. Until then, you just don’t see what you’re doing wrong,” Varga added.
He has emerged into this season much more prepared as he shined during the preseason matchup against his hometown Roughriders. When he scored the pick-6 at Mosaic Stadium, Varga said people thought he was just another guy in orange — some even flipped him off.
“I’m not sure a ton of people knew. That’s fine. I don’t need to be a poster on a wall anywhere in Regina. I feel respected as long as my friends and teammates know, that’s all it matters,” he added.
With a room full of Canadian linebackers, Varga capitalizes on the opportunity to learn from fellow teammates like Ben Hladik and pick his brain to become a better position player.
“He does everything right and doesn’t really make mistakes. Like how he approaches a certain play because a lot of football is mentally putting yourself in the right spot,” Varga said of Hladik.
“Ben has been in the league for a couple of years now. He’s still young so we are kind of on the same spectrum mentally. Bo [Lokombo] is a vet, he’s been in the league for so long, everything is second nature to him.”
The young linebacker has recorded seven special teams tackles heading into Week 10 against Calgary this Saturday. Varga admits that being a special teams player isn’t a chore anymore because everyone is competing to lay the opposition out. To be able to charge down at full speed roughly 30 times a game is pure joy for him.
“It’s fun because you’re out there living through it. I’m on the sideline itching to get a punt, punt return, kickoff. Everyone is out there competing, no one is taking a play off or not giving their full effort. I’m enjoying it.”
Updated on Monday, August 14th, 2023: Varga finished the game with two tackles, one each on special teams and defence. Another group effort from the Lions defence that held the Stampeders to just three field goals as the Lions move to 7-2 in a 37-9 victory over Calgary.