Benjamin St-Juste has a purpose in leaving direct messages open on his Twitter profile. It’s not considered intrusive or a faux pas if someone reaches out, especially if you’re a young Canadian football player.
The Montreal native lived through the challenges inherent in a Canadian getting an opportunity to play in Division I college football in the U.S., and he wants to help out.
When asked by Canadian players, he shares advice, insights and encouragement on how it can be done because, well, he’s doing it. The Minnesota Golden Gophers’ starting cornerback in 2019-20 is expected to be a middle-round pick in the NFL Draft later this week.
The young players in St-Juste’s DMs sometimes are just showing love for a Canadian on the verge of getting to the NFL, or they ask advice on what recruiting camps they should attend in the U.S. Or sometimes, they just need a little motivation, so St-Juste dishes it out.
He counts the amount of interactions in the thousands.
“Just to let them know I never had it all figured out since I was a kid,” St-Juste said. “I was struggling and I had my ups and downs. I wasn’t the best player and all that stuff, so them knowing that gives them more motivation and inspires them to (say): ‘OK, he was just like me, so I can make it.’ ”
The NFL had 14 Canadian-born players among the roughly 1,700 on active rosters in 2020, according to NFL.com. There’s a handful of other Canadians in this draft class, including Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and Iowa offensive tackle Alaric Jackson.
To reach this stage, St-Juste had to overcome some fundamental challenges. From French-speaking Quebec, he had to first learn how to speak English, which is vital in building relationships with college coaches. He had to figure out how to take the SAT and ACT and be eligible with the NCAA clearinghouse.
St-Juste also didn’t have a platform of detailed national recruiting web sites to be given star ratings or post highlight tapes. He had to seek out recruiting camps to just get on the radars of college programs.
“We don’t have none of that,” St-Juste said. “If you really want it, everything has got to come out of pocket, and you have to do it. You have to put in the work and do the research to find out the stuff. You have to drive 10 or 11 hours to find the nearest camp available. Those are just some of the hurdles.”
Naturally, St-Juste started playing hockey at age 5, but wanted to be different from his peers, some of whom, he said, are in the NHL. He also wanted to be like his dad, Wilbert, a football and basketball player.
Wilbert loves football and shared with his son how he viewed it is the ultimate team game. Benjamin then started playing football at age 9.
Before Benjamin was born, Wilbert was on the Miami Hurricanes roster as a safety in 1989, but broke his leg in preseason camp. Wilbert also had to overcome eligibility hurdles 30-some years ago, Benjamin said.
St-Juste traveled to camps in the U.S., including one in Ann Arbor, Mich., where Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh offered his a scholarship. He played for Michigan in 2017, redshirted in 2018, then announced his plan to transfer.
In May 2019, U assistant Danny Collins was closely watching the transfer market for a cornerback prospect. When St-Juste announced, Collins texted Joe Rossi. Driving down a highway when he got Collins’ text, the Gophers defensive coordinator quickly pulled over to DM St-Juste on Twitter.
“Right there — boom — we were on it,” Rossi said in 2019.
“They were the first school to offer me, the first school to really recruit me,” St-Juste said. “When I took a visit and came here with my dad and met with coach Fleck. … P.J. was very straight forward.”
During his official visit to the U, St-Juste recalled Fleck saying: “ ‘I’m giving you a scholarship right now. You are coming in to be a leader, be a captain, and I want you to be a starter. Can you do that?’ ”
St-Juste played in all 13 games in 2019, moving into the starting lineup during Big Ten play. He had 45 tackles and tied with Coney Durr for a team-high 10 pass breakups. He was named All-Big Ten honorable mention on a team that finished 11-2.
“He has everything; I think that is what makes him really special,” Fleck said at the Gophers Pro Day.
At 6-foot-3, St-Juste had just dispelled questions about how’s size might affect his agility, getting times in various drills that would have ranked him first at his position at the 2020 scouting combine.
“He has been able to develop not just as an athlete, but within the scheme, too,” Fleck continued. “He understands football and can play multiple (positions) — you can put him inside and you can put him outside. He has the ability to do that. But he has grown tremendously.”
St-Juste said he was “really raw and playing off my athletic ability” in 2019. In 2020, he said he improved with the help of Gophers cornerback coach Paul Haynes.
“He really broke it down for me to make me a smarter defensive player,” St-Juste said. “I actually understood how to read offenses, to know what my defense is doing. It really slowed down the game because I got smarter and became a student of the game.”
The pandemic-shortened and interrupted season in 2020 included St-Juste missing two games for his own positive diagnosis. (He did not suffer major symptoms.) He finished the season with 14 tackles and three pass-breakups in five games.
Boosted by his standout performances in the week of practices for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January, St-Juste has seen his draft stock rise. That week, he also played some reps at safety, which could portend a position change at the next level.
Some mock drafts have St-Juste going within the first 100 picks, meaning Rounds 2 or 3 on Friday. Others have him coming off the board in Round 4 or later on Saturday.
St-Juste will watch the draft in Atlanta with his girlfriend Julia Hall, a track athlete at Georgia, and other friends. And while he hasn’t seen his family in Canada since the pandemic began, his roots and helping the next Canadian players won’t be far from his mind when his name is called.
“It feels better to give than receive — and especially with this platform as an athlete,” St-Juste said. “You want to be remembered for more than being an athlete. You want to give back and be remembered for something.”