John Santiago and Brady Oliveira arrived in Grand Forks in the summer of 2015 to prepare for their freshman football seasons. Santiago had been a record-breaking running back at St. Francis High School in the Twin Cities suburbs. Oliveira had been a record-breaking running back at Oak Park High School in Winnipeg.
Santiago’s father, Ramon, came from Ponce, a baseball mecca in Puerto Rico. Oliveira’s father, Adail, was a semipro soccer player in Brazil. The sons of these immigrants to the U.S. and Canada both turned to football, even though they stand side-by-side at 5-foot-9.
That is where a contrast arrives. Santiago was able to raise his weight from 160 pounds at St. Francis to 185 pounds, after four seasons at North Dakota and then several postgraduate weeks of workouts at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa.
“I’d guess he’s 225 right now, maybe 230,” said Malcolm Agnew, North Dakota’s running backs coach, Friday. “He’s a powerful young man. And he was excited as could be yesterday.”
The CFL’s draft of what are referred to as non-import players — basically, the draft of Canadians — took place Thursday. Oliveira was taken in the second round (14th overall) by his hometown Blue Bombers. And that means, with 20 non-imports required on all CFL rosters, Oliveira will have a lock on a pro football job when CFL rookie camps open May 15.
Santiago was in a rookie camp Friday, and facing much longer odds for survival. There were 65 players on the roster for the start of the Vikings’ rookie minicamp: 22 draft choices and undrafted free agents, seven signed players of limited experience, and Santiago’s group — 36 players for a weekend tryout that can end quickly.
“I might be the smallest guy out there,” Santiago said. “I’m used to that.”
Santiago’s fantastic displays of elusiveness were legendary at St. Francis, yet it took a lobbying effort by a St. Francis assistant to get him an invite to North Dakota’s summer camp in 2014 to earn him a first FCS offer.
The numbers were phenomenal in Santiago’s freshman season: 1,459 yards rushing (6.5 per carry), 2,159 all-purpose awards, 16 touchdowns and second team as an All-America. Oliveira was a part-time player that season.
The duty was equally split in 2016, as Oliveira had 168 carries for 897 yards and Santiago had 183 carries for 983 yards. North Dakota — in its fifth season in the Big Sky — went 8-0 in the conference, 9-2 overall, and then lost to Richmond 27-24 in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
“That one still haunts me,” Santiago said. “We controlled the first half. We had the game in our hands, and they came back.”
North Dakota went backward in 2017, 3-8 overall, although Santiago was the first-team All-America as the all-purpose player, with 980 yards in punt and kick returns. Santiago and Oliveira both missed three games because of injuries as seniors. That took care of any chance for Santiago to get an undrafted free agent deal with an NFL team. Oliveira had that powerful frame and Canadian birth going for him in the search for football employment. Santiago could only hope to catch someone’s eye and become one of the three or four tryout players to stick around for full-roster camp.
The best news Friday for Santiago might have been the chance to handle a few kicks. That’s the talent — punt returns — that could earn him a second look from the Vikings (or another NFL team).
Agnew is the son of Ray, an 11-year NFL defensive lineman, drafted in the first round by New England. Agnew also had an NFL tryout, but was waylaid by a neck injury. He was the position coach for Santiago and Oliveira the past two seasons.
“A scouting report on John Santiago? It starts with a big heart,” Agnew said. “He’s a tougher runner than you’d think with his size. He also has a sneaky great stiff arm, too. But when he gets you in space, that’s when he’s special. His cuts are so sudden …
“I’m convinced John is going to play pro football. If not the NFL, maybe it will be the CFL, up there with his friend Oliveira, or maybe somewhere else. But I don’t believe John’s done playing football.”
Agnew paused and said: “This is a great story, you know — Santiago and Oliveira. Both first generation born in their countries, both the first in their families with college degrees, both earned in 3½ years, and never a bad word or a bad look when the other was getting the carries, scoring the touchdowns.
“I’m just hoping someone gives John the same chance that Brady is going to get in Winnipeg.”