Benjamin St-Juste tried to decipher what he was hearing.
He’d just finished his first D1 football camp. The long-limbed defensive back had done his best to separate himself amid the roughly 1,400 attendees.
His English wasn’t great. He often had to watch other campers run through a drill before he understood exactly what to do.
But now, the head coach was speaking only to him.
“The first big camp I ever did was at Michigan. I had zero ideas about four-stars, five-stars, offers — all that stuff. Coach (Jim) Harbaugh said, ‘Yeah, I’m offering you a full scholarship to come play here.’ I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ I didn’t speak proper English, so some of the words and sentences didn’t resonate with me,” St-Juste recalls.
“I didn’t even know what I had at first … (But) that kind of sparked the whole thing. I was like, ‘Oh, I can really make this happen.’”
Once he understood the magnitude of Harbaugh’s offer, St-Juste quickly gave a verbal commitment to Michigan. He also realized football was no longer just a hobby, triggering a journey that’s led him to become one of the top defensive back prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Growing up as kid in Montreal, St-Juste believed a D1 or NFL career was beyond outlandish. Few kids made it to the big time out of Quebec in any sport but hockey.
Indeed, St-Juste started his athletic career with a stick in his hand and skates on his feet.
But football was in his blood. His dad, Wilbert, had played the sport and once received an invite to training camp with the Miami Hurricanes.
When Benjamin began playing football at age eight, he knew he’d discovered his true passion.
“I was just gifted. I was smooth out there on the field. And I liked the team bond, I liked being around my friends,” St-Juste says.
“Where I’m from, everybody was playing hockey. Everybody wanted to make it to the NHL. I wanted to be that kid that was different.”
But his dreams were limited. He envisioned a standout high school career and then, perhaps, a playing career at a university in Canada.
“Going to play D1 football and going to the NFL is a far, far dream where I’m from. So as a young kid, you were kind of humbled all the time. People around you would say, ‘It’s too hard. You’re not going to make it.’ And I kind of listened to that when I was younger. I just played football for fun (and) to kill some time,” says St-Juste.
“When I was 16, my parents said, ‘You watch all these Nike camps and Rival camps on Youtube. But you never sign up for one. Why don’t you sign up for one?’ My parents saw the potential in me … So I said, ‘Alright, I’ll sign up.’”
Soon enough, he and his parents were making the ten-hour drive from Montreal to Ann Arbor, Michigan. He left with a full-ride offer to one of the most prestigious programs in college football.
Then things got serious.
St-Juste joined the track team and began lifting weights. He went to the practice field every day to work on his drops, plants and ball skills. He started watching movies in English rather than his native French, determined to become fluent so he could hold meaningful conversations with future coaches and teammates.
He also continued to test himself against American athletes by signing up for more camps.
St-Juste soon found every coach wasn’t willing to gamble on a raw defensive back out of Quebec. Many questioned his level of competition and feared the potential backlash of offering him a scholarship over a “safer” American recruit.
Yet St-Juste also possessed freakish talent.
At 6-foot-3, he was gargantuan for a defensive back. Long arms helped him suffocate receivers and compensate for any lack of polish. St-Juste’s hockey background had also gifted him superhuman agility and loose, fluid hips.
And though some coaches doubted the caliber of his competition, the rules of Canadian football put defensive backs at a distinct disadvantage.
The field is wider, defenders must play at least one yard off the line of scrimmage, and the rules around offensive motion are far less prohibitive. In Canada, offenses can send multiple players buzzing in motion at any time, and legal forward motion means receivers can build a full head of steam prior to the snap.
“The fact the receiver can run with a 10 or 15-yard head start means you’ve really got to have your feet activated and be quick. Imagine Julio Jones coming in with a 15-yard head start against a corner. That’s just crazy. So playing (Canadian rules) definitely made me a little bit better,” says St-Juste.
“Also, all the motion helps prepare you to understand what’s going to happen pre-snap.”
Back in Canada, St-Juste also often played against athletes three or four years older than himself.
Quebec’s distinct education system allowed him to graduate high school early before enrolling in a “collège d’enseignement général et professionnel,” or CEGEP.
The concept, unique to Quebec, is similar to a junior college but with little or no tuition fee. St-Juste enrolled at Cegep du Vieux Montreal at age 16. This allowed him to earn college credits and play football against older competition.
Every time St-Juste resurfaced at another American camp, he looked sharper and more refined. The legend of the towering, lockdown defensive back with a French-Canadian accent continued to grow.
St-Juste decided to sign up for The Opening Regionals in New Jersey as a way to both test and prove himself. He knew the top performers would receive an invite to the most high-profile recruiting event in America — The Opening Finals.
“My recruiting process was so quick nobody knew me,” St-Juste told MLive in 2016.
“I was a kid from Canada who committed to Michigan and all that. (People wonder), ‘Is he good, is Michigan doing a good thing of keeping this guy?’ I need to go to these camps and clear all the doubts”.
At the New Jersey Regionals, St-Juste tied for the fourth-highest composite athletic rating of any attendee and popped during competitive drills. He received an invitation to The Opening Finals just a few days later.
“I was super hype. I’d been watching those camps for (the past) three years. I really wanted to make it, and being the first one ever out of Montreal and Quebec to do it was great,” St-Juste says.
“There was a lot of doubt. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, can you compete with us?’ I knew I could and I tried to show it. So being on that big stage and being an all-star selection at the end of the tournament proved I was one of the top defensive backs.”
Still, St-Juste felt disrespected. While he’d earned a four-star rating from 247Sports, he’d received offers from just three schools — Michigan, Virginia Tech and Rutgers. Most American four-star defensive backs boasted 20 or 30 different offers.
St-Juste’s commitment to Michigan ultimately held. He enrolled early and quickly proved the talent he displayed on the camp circuit was no illusion.
“He’s 6-foot-3, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s fast,” Don Brown, UM’s defensive coordinator at the time, said of St-Juste early in his college career. “I’m very confident as to where he’ll end up.”
St-Juste went on to appear in 12 games as true freshman and earned his first varsity letter.
However, a hamstring injury suffered shortly thereafter would prove problematic. Rehab wasn’t immediately effective and St-Juste was sidelined for the entire 2018 season. Disagreements about the extent of the injury and its impact on St-Juste’s athletic future led him to ultimately seek a transfer.
St-Juste thanked Michigan and officially announced he was entering the transfer portal on May 7th, 2019.
Joe Rossi, the defensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota, messaged him almost immediately.
Within 14 days, St-Juste was officially a Golden Gopher.
“I met coach (P.J.) Fleck, who’s a young, energetic, super-honest coach. He said, ‘I’ve got one scholarship. I need a corner right now. I need you to come in and be a starter and be a captain. Can you do that for me?,’” St-Juste recalls.
“I liked that straightforward approach. I said, ‘Okay, let’s roll with it.’”
It didn’t take long for Fleck, Rossi and the rest of the Gophers staff to realize they pulled off a recruiting coup.
“We heard nothing but good things about (Benjamin) at Michigan … He’s incredibly long, incredibly athletic. His flexibility for his size is uncanny. And then he’s a smart kid who cares with great character,” Rossi told The Minnesota Daily midway through the 2019 season.
St-Juste started nine games that year, recording 45 tackles and and 10 pass break-ups (tied for the team lead) on his way to All-Big Ten Honorable Mention status. He helped the Gophers go 11-2. It was their most wins in a season since 1904.
Minnesota anoints game captains rather than season captains, and it wasn’t long before St-Juste found himself wearing the C on his chest.
“I’m one of those guys who’s pretty quiet. I’d talk when I needed to talk, but when I didn’t need to talk, I wasn’t talking. I led by example because I was giving everything I had in practice, in the weight room, and on game day. When you do that on a consistent basis and you’re on top of things and you’re trustworthy, people see that more than the people who talk,” St-Juste says.
The Big Ten played a shortened schedule in 2020 due to Covid-19. St-Juste appeared in five games, making 14 tackles and breaking up three passes.
He then faced a decision.
While he had a season of eligibility left at Minnesota, NFL teams had token note of his special skillset.
For the past two years, St-Juste had gone head-to-head with Rashod Bateman, a potential first round talent, during practice. He knew he could guard elite receivers.
St-Juste had also already obtained both his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees in sports management thanks to years of hard work.
And he believed NFL evaluators would only think more of him after seeing him up close during the pre-draft process.
St-Juste declared for the 2021 NFL Draft on December 20th, 2020.
Talent evaluators got a first-hand look at St-Juste at the Senior Bowl.
His measurements alone (a tick over 6-foot-3 in height with a sprawling wingspan over 80 inches) were enough to generate buzz.
On the field, St-juste used his rare size to consistently spoil would-be receptions and proved he was nimble enough to shadow smaller, shiftier receivers.
But it was his performance at Minnesota’s Pro Day that proved he was a true football unicorn.
St-Juste clocked a blazing 4.00 in the 20-Yard Shuttle and an astonishing 6.63 in the 3-Cone Drill.
NFL Combine data gives context to St-Juste’s outlier status. Dating back to the year 2000, just 17 cornerbacks matched or beat his times at the NFL Combine.
Among those 17, just four measured 6-foot-1 or above. And none were taller than St-Juste.
St-Juste points to his hockey-playing roots as a key contributor to his freakish agility.
“The fact I was able to grow up playing multiple sports, especially hockey, gave me those great results. That’s really unique about me. Being a 6-foot-3, 200-something-pound defensive back, (people) expect me to be stiff and to not be able to move,” St-Juste says.
“My agility going side to side and being able to bend and move I got from playing hockey. My ability to high point the ball and jump over people I got from playing basketball. Running track helped me understand my running motion and my stride and how to use my speed.”
St-Juste’s 4.51 40-Yard Dash was also impressive for his size and his physique passed the eye test with flying colors. He didn’t bench or squat much during high school, so committing to a legit weight training program in college helped him back on 20 pounds of muscle.
St-Juste quickly admits he’s not a finished product. He only played about 15 games at cornerback in college. There’s speculation he may eventually transition to safety.
His motto is to simply get 1% better each day and let the rest take care of itself.
“I’ve just got to be a new Benjamin, a better Benjamin, every day,” says St-Juste.
“I have potential to be great, to be legendary, in what I do on and off the field. I fear missing that opportunity or being a shoulda-coulda-woulda type of person. I don’t want to be that person.”
While St-Juste may still have a world of potential to unlock, he’s already pretty darn good. Bateman said his Minnesota teammate was “definitely, by far, the best DB” he’d faced in his career — no small feat when you consider Bateman went up against teams like Auburn, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State in college.
St-Juste also envisions an NFL impact beyond the box score. He wants to utilize his platform to stand up for social justice issues and hopes to prove to kids in Quebec that football can take them farther than they might think. He aims to establish a camp in Montreal and bring in fellow pros to help out as counselors.
He also wants to help the next generation of athletes realize that dreams are meaningless without action; that aspirations ring hollow without sacrifice.
“My advice is consistency and motivation. The dream is free but the hustle is sold separately. My dream of going D1 and going to the NFL? That’s fine. But I had to put in a lot of work and sacrifice to be where I am. So you might have to sacrifice going out, going to parties, the girlfriends, the other friends that maybe don’t play football who want you to do some of that stuff. Sacrifice a lot so you can focus on your dream and take advantage of anything,” St-Juste says.
“I reached the NFL, but in the process, I was able to graduate with a 3.0 from Michigan and get a master’s from Minnesota with a 3.7. Maximize your opportunities. Football isn’t going to be there that long, and you’ve got to be somebody after that. So maximize your opportunities and create your identity.”
Photo Credit: AP Newsroom, Scout.com, Student Sports, Minnesota Athletics