DeKalb grad Tony Tate’s latest stop in chasing NFL dream? The CFL

After standout season in Europe, Western Illinois grad heading to Edmonton

Former Western Illinois University and DeKalb High School receiver Tony Tate makes a catch Wednesday, March 30, 2022, during pro day in the Chessick Practice Center at NIU. Several NFL teams had scouts on hand to evaluate the players ahead of the upcoming draft.

In 2022, Tony Tate was acting as his own quarterback, making his own videos, trying to catch on somewhere to keep his dream of playing in the NFL alive.

A whirlwind 18 months later and the DeKalb graduate is a lot closer to that goal, getting set to play in the Canadian Football League later this year.

“Do you choose to let your situation stop you from pursuing your dream or do you make it happen? That’s something I’ve done every step of the way. I’ve made it happen.”

—  Tony Tate, DeKalb graduate

“If you stay ready, you never have to get ready,” Tate said. “All of 2022, I was working by myself. I went to a few showcases as well. It was definitely tough being in a space where I had to do everything on my own. I was working alone, and I even had videos of me throwing the ball to myself because I didn’t have a quarterback out here I knew I could work with.

“Do you choose to let your situation stop you from pursuing your dream or do you make it happen? That’s something I’ve done every step of the way. I’ve made it happen.”

Back in November 2023, Tate signed with the Edmonton Elks. He’ll report to camp in early May ahead of the opener June 8. But the path to Canada was a long and winding one for the speedy former Barbs’ track standout after graduating in 2016. He’s gone from Ohio to Illinois to South Dakota to Poland.

In March 2022, he went to NIU’s pro day and worked out for scouts after finishing his college career at Western Illinois. But as the NFL Draft came and went, he didn’t get any opportunities to play at any level. So he kept working out, kept going to showcases.

About a year later he ended up with the Sioux Falls Storm in the Indoor Football League. He decided that indoor football wasn’t for him.

“This is no disrespect to the guys that make a living out of playing that game, respect to everyone that has a craft, but me personally, I like 11 on 11, outdoor football,” Tate said. “That’s what I grew up playing. Being on a smaller field with the walls and stuff, and it’s 8 on 8 on a surface that’s really, really hard, me personally, I did not like that. That’s not why I play football.”

Before heading to South Dakota, he had contact with the Wroclaw Panthers of the European Football League. But he listened to the advice of his agent at the time and went into the indoor league. After four games, he decided to quit.

The day he decided to leave, the Panthers reached back out. By May of 2023, he was in training camp in Poland.

He ended up among the league leaders with 39 receptions, 895 yards and 16 touchdowns in 10 games. He was a first-team all-star for the Panthers as well. He said the five months in Poland was a huge adjustment.

“Living in Poland as an African-American man was a huge, huge adjustment,” Tate said. “There was no one that looked like me. I saw maybe around, maybe 25 black people in the city I was living in the entire time I was living there. That’s an estimate, but the majority of the people I saw did not look like me.

“It’s a cliche, but I stuck out like a sore thumb.”

He said there was a huge culture shock, and the racial element was just one part of it. He said overall the experience was awesome and he made a lot of relationships because he decided to learn the language.

“There was a racism factor there, but there’s a racism factor in America as well,” Tate said. “So I had some racial experiences too, but I learned that there are some people that were uncomfortable just because they did not like speaking English. And that was something that challenged me: How can I create the best experience I can for myself being in a foreign country? So I had to learn Polish.

“So being someone looking the way I look and learning their language and integrating into their culture, earning their respect that way, that was all I could do.”

When the season ended, he came back to the United States and IFL teams were trying to bring him back into the league. One of those teams was the Vegas Knight Hawks, coached by Mike Davis.

Tate said although he never met Davis, in their phone conversations he mentioned his desire to play outdoors as opposed to indoor football. Even though he wanted Tate in the IFL, Davis still used his CFL connections to recommend Tate to the Elks, and he ended up signing in November.

“I’d rather play real football outdoors where I can be myself and press myself the way I want to then to take a lot of money to play indoor football, which is something I don’t really like,” Tate said. “He ended up recommending me still to the team he had connections with, and I never even played for him. So my contract came from another coach who was trying to sign more for another league, and he said my name in a positive light. That’s something that really hasn’t happened from any coaching experience I’ve had up until that point.”

Before he heads to Canada in early May, Tate is a substitute teacher in his former school district. He said he’ll spend two weeks this month in Arizona with his trainer, then finish the regimen on his own.

Tate said he’s always improved at every stop he’s ever made. He was a zero-star recruit out of DeKalb, went to NCAA Division II Walsh, then after a year had a full scholarship at WIU. He made an instant impact in Europe, and he said he expects to keep that up in Edmonton.

“I’ve elevated on every stage I’ve been on,” Tate said. “It’s not going to stop here. The same thing I’ve been doing, I’m going to keep doing. I’m going to the CFL, going to make an amazing impact, build amazing relationships and progress on and go to the NFL like I always said I would.”