UBC football player becomes first Thunderbird ever selected in NFL Draft

A second T-Bird also joined the professional ranks, and seven players were chosen in the CFL draft.

Giovanni Manu has made history as the first UBC Thunderbird ever selected in the NFL Draft, taken in the fourth round by the Detroit Lions on April 27, 2024.

The defending NFC North champions traded up to grab the 6-foot-8, 352-pound left tackle, sending their third round pick in 2025 to the New York Jets to take Manu with the 126th overall selection.

"My phone started ringing — it was a Detroit area code and I just picked up and it was head coach Dan Campbell on the phone," Manu said of the moment he found out he was headed to Motor City. "I had my whole family beside me and the first thing he said when I picked up the phone, he yelled through: 'Are you ready to be a Lion?' I was just so ecstatic — all the emotions were running through me. I told him 110 per cent I'm ready to be a Lion and represent the great city of Detroit!"

A two-time All-Canadian, Manu started every game for the Thunderbirds since his rookie season in 2019, becoming a huge component of 2023's Canada West leading offence and a critical component in UBC's Hardy Cup and Mitchell Bowl titles.



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In addition to becoming the first T-Bird to be selected in the NFL Draft, the Pitt Meadows Secondary graduate also became the 15th U SPORTS player to ever hear their name called and the first to be selected directly from a Canadian university since 2016. He is also the highest selected U SPORTS player since the University of Western Ontario defensive lineman Vaughn Martin was taken 113th overall by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2009.

Born in Tonga, Manu moved to BC prior to high school to live with his aunt and to pursue more readily available academic and athletic opportunities. That life-changing decision and sacrifice seems to have now paid off in spades.

"I'm just super proud of myself and the people who got me here, everyone at UBC," Manu stated. He explained that what made April 27 even more exceptional was the ability to share the moment with his family including his parents who flew in. "Just to have them up here for that moment was really special. I started crying. All these emotions started going through me, thinking about all the sacrifices my family made to get me here to a wonderful city like Vancouver, here in Canada. All those memories, all their sacrifices came rushing back, and it was great to see them really proud. My dad jumped off the couch and started clapping and I've never seen him act like that. It felt like they won the lottery. They're just super ecstatic and happy for me and I couldn't be happier seeing them like that."



Manu will now have the opportunity to become the fourth UBC Thunderbird to appear in an NFL game joining former New York Giants offensive lineman Bill Crawford, former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Brant Bengen, and current Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Dakoda Shepley.

"Giovanni Manu — him and I had a terrific chemistry," said UBC head coach Blake Nill. "Gio has mentioned a number of times how the Detroit culture and UBC culture are really similar. I think the Lions felt that too after speaking with him and realized this is a kid who can fit with them and who understands the game and the expectations of him. Everyone was impressed with him but then you analyze the fit and they have to have felt that in order to draft him as a fourth rounder, and to trade up to secure him."

Touted as one of this year's biggest sleeper picks, Manu burst onto the international scene following an outstanding Pro Day when he ran a 5.03 40-yard dash. He tied for tenth fastest among offensive lineman at the NFL Combine while being the second heaviest in the position.

Football player on field without helmet, with crowd in background
Theo Benedet

As the third Canadian taken in this year's NFL Draft, Manu kicked off what was expected to be a historic week for the UBC program. Shortly after the NFL Draft concluded, UBC Thunderbirds offensive tackle Theo Benedet signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound offensive lineman became the second T-Bird to step into the professional arena.

A graduate of Handsworth Secondary and a two-time First Team All-Canadian, Benedet now has the opportunity to attend Chicago's rookie camp and eventually earn a roster spot. He joins the likes of former T-bird Shepley who began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent when he signed with the New York Jets in 2018.

"Really the first thing that comes to mind is just being grateful for all the people that helped me get to this point," Benedet said shortly after signing his first professional contract. "Ultimately, the goal was to get drafted and that was disappointing. But, there are definitely advantages in being on the open market and finding a situation you think fits you best as a player."



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The North Vancouver native became the first offensive player in U SPORTS history to win a second JP Metras Trophy as the country's top lineman. He was the only Canadian to participate in the 2023 Shrine Bowl, North America's premiere collegiate all-star showcase.

"Theo Benedet is arguably the best player that I've ever had the opportunity to coach," Nill said. "He had a lot of attention in the last two years and made an unselfish decision to come back to UBC when he didn't have to and showed what kind of teammate he was and how important UBC Football was to him."



In addition, the UBC Thunderbirds had a banner night on April 30 when seven players were selected in the 2024 Canadian Football League Draft.

Leading the Canada West and tied with Université Laval for the most selections from any school, the T-Birds had three players taken in the second round alone, led by Benedet who went 15th overall to the BC Lions.

Tight end Brad Hladik heard his name called by the Edmonton Elks with the 18th overall pick. Defensive lineman Kyle Samson was chosen by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with the final pick of the second round, 20th overall.

Defensive back Jerrell Cummings (fifth round, Toronto Argonauts), linebacker Ryan Baker (fifth round, Hamilton Tiger-Cats), the aforementioned Manu (fifth round, Winnipeg Blue Bombers), and linebacker Mitchell Townsend (eighth round, Hamilton Tiger-Cats) were also selected.

The seven total selections in the 2024 CFL Draft now brings the grand total to 35 under Nill's nine seasons with the T-Birds and 190 in the history of UBC Football since the first such pick in 1956.