Pete Cender was running a 40-yard dash when he feared his dream of playing professional football ended.
Cender, looking to impress scouts at the Canadian Football League’s Ontario Regional Combine in March, pulled a hamstring during his second attempt at the 40. The injury left him unable to complete two other events at the combine.
It’s one thing if a star, can’t-miss prospect pulls up lame; those players always have an opportunity waiting for them. It’s quite another when a player like Cender, who performed a non-glamorous role as a blocking tight end for Grand Valley State University, can’t fully showcase himself for scouts and coaches.
“Right when I did that, I started crying,” Cender said. “I thought my opportunity was squandered right there.”
Experiencing that disappointment, combined with other setbacks throughout his football career dating back to his senior year at Howell, made it that much sweeter for Cender when he was selected by the Edmonton Eskimos in the fourth round of the CFL draft Thursday night.
Cender was playing euchre with family and friends at the home of Bart Williams, GVSU’s record-setting quarterback, when he received a call from Edmonton coach Jason Maas.
“I got emotional after everything sank in, because I thought this opportunity was gone,” Cender said. “I put so much work and so many years into this. To think it was gone like that really hurt. Luckily, it ended up working out and I’m with a great team. I’m excited to start my professional career there.”
Cender wasn’t ready to stop playing football after his senior year at GVSU. He was a longshot to get a tryout with a National Football League team, but he was hopeful of landing a spot in the CFL.
It helped that he has Canadian citizenship, having been born in Cobourg, Ontario, during a period when his American parents, Rudy and Cathy, were living in Canada. The family moved to Michigan a year later.
Only Canadians can be chosen in the CFL draft. The league requires teams to have at least 21 Canadians on their 44-man game rosters.
“I knew I wouldn’t have gotten drafted in the NFL,” Cender said. “Maybe I would’ve signed to a team or gotten a tryout. I knew I had a really good chance of getting drafted to the CFL. That’s what I focused most of my energy on. I just thought it was a super cool opportunity to rediscover Canada for myself.”
Before the combine, Cender visited Cobourg for the first time since moving to Michigan.
“It was really cool to see the place that gave me Canadian citizenship and guess what life would’ve been like if mom and dad would’ve stayed there,” Cender said.
Cender was used almost exclusively in a blocking role at tight end in college, making 11 receptions for 93 yards and three touchdowns in 35 games over three seasons. He is listed as a fullback on the CFL draft list.
“Tight end is not a formal position in the CFL,” Cender said. “There are teams that run tight end sets, but a fullback is the official title. In college, I was doing a lot of off-the-tackle lining up, motioning, inserting on D-ends and linebackers. I’ll be doing a lot of that in the CFL. It’s definitely something I’m comfortable with.”
In high school, Cender was a starting tight end as a sophomore on a 2010 Howell team that lost by four points to Rockford in the third round of the state playoffs. He played well enough as a junior to receive an offer from Air Force, which provided a sense of security when he missed his senior season with a knee injury.
He also played basketball and set the school record in the discus, placing sixth in the state as a junior and eighth as a senior.
“A definite word of advice I’d give is to involve yourself with as many sports as possible,” Cender said. “If you have a goal of going to the next level, there are certain things you can learn from basketball that you can’t get from football; they translate over perfectly. It helps you become a better athlete.”
Cender was honorably discharged from the Air Force during his sophomore year after “I got into some trouble that I let the Eskimos know about. That’s something for my friends and family. It wasn’t anything too serious. I made a mistake. It was definitely a hard part of my life.” He never played for Air Force, tearing a pectoral muscle as a sophomore.
Cender’s second chance came at GVSU where he worked on the scout team while red-shirting in 2015.
“I was in the scout team locker room,” said Cender, who earned academic All-GLIAC and was a first-team selection in 2018 despite minimal statistics. “It allowed me to gain respect amongst a lot of my teammates and create a close relationship I wouldn’t have had if I came in and played right away.
“It also taught me a lot about being tough and put me in a mindset of being a hard-nosed blocker. It taught me how to grind. It was big in formulating the football player I am today. At the time, it was hard to rationalize why Air Force didn’t work out, why I ended up red-shirting. It all led to the position I’m in now. It’s crazy how that worked out.”
Cender will report to Edmonton’s training camp on May 15. The Eskimos’ first exhibition game is May 26. The regular season begins June 14.