PULLMAN – Johnny Forzani is living the American dream.
Which is sort of funny, considering he’s Canadian.
But his dream revolves around American football, and playing in the NFL.
“If you have the athletic ability and you have the work ethic and you get some good coaches, you can learn,” the Washington State University wide receiver said of the chances of reaching his goal.
“It seems there are way more people who have made the transition to football who’ve played other sports their whole life.”
Forzani is that rarest of Division I collegiate football players, a neophyte trying to learn on the fly.
It’s all because Forzani can fly, running a 4.3-second 40-yard dash by some accounts, and that skill is what propelled him off the basketball courts – he played a year of basketball at Canada’s Douglas College – and onto the field.
“I was just so green,” said Forzani, a mature, funny, self-deprecating 21-year-old of his initial football experience. “I literally knew how to run fast. That’s completely it.”
He spent a season running pass patterns for the practice team of the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL, a league in which his father played in the previous century. It was his dad’s connection to a former teammate, WSU receivers coach Mike Levenseller, that brought the younger Forzani to Pullman.
There he immediately ran into Levenseller’s tough-love approach to turning out fundamentally sound, NFL-ready receivers.
It was a sea change from his time in Calgary.
“I didn’t have Yelly, or Levy, constantly yelling, ripping me,” said Forzani of last year, a Freudian slip of NFL proportions. “As much as I hate to admit that, yes, I need his approach. It’s pretty necessary.”
But don’t get the idea Levenseller is a grouch. He’s just a perfectionist about the art of playing wide receiver. His charges over the years have all come to appreciate the attention to detail.
It’s just with Forzani, instead of the usual high school player who is an unfinished sculpture that needs some rounding at the edges, Levenseller is working with a block of clay.
“High school kids have at least played football,” Levenseller said of Forzani’s lack of experience. “He just hasn’t played any football. Ask Gino (Simone, a freshman receiver). This game’s a lot faster. You have to be precise to get open. He’s learned that. Last year, playing for the Calgary Colts or whoever, that was a big wide field. (Forzani) could just run around and get open.”
Levenseller knows what Forzani is trying to achieve. That makes the coach even more focused on daily improvement.
“He’s getting better and better and better,” said Levenseller, who has been Washington State’s receivers coach for 18 years. “My deal is, I can’t let up on him. I have to keep on him. Otherwise, he gets comfortable.
“He’ll learn. Someday I won’t have to say a word to him. I’ll just look at him and he’ll know what I’m talking about. That’s the day I’m looking forward to.”
“Levy is just such a perfectionist, which is good,” said Forzani, who has caught seven passes for 265 yards, a 37.9 yard-per-catch average. “You have to do everything just right every single time. You’re not allowed to slip.
“So you have to be pretty mentally tough and sometimes I’m not.”
The hard work has shown some dividends recently, with Forzani hooking up with Jeff Tuel on 99- and 68-yard touchdown passes in the last two games. But those highlights are often followed by incorrect routes and missed assignments.
“Obviously, he can get deep,” Levenseller said. “But what we’re trying to do is develop the rest of it. That’s what we’re working on. He’s trying. He’s getting better.”
Forzani’s crash course in American football has been condensed recently, when the school realized his Canadian college experience left him with just two years of eligibility, not the three WSU thought when he enrolled last spring.
Still, Forzani believes he can make enough strides in the time left to reach his goal.
“I know it’s not a long time, but I’ve been playing every day for 15 months, so it’s getting to the stage I can’t really make excuses for some of the things I do anymore,” the 6-foot-1, 197-pounder said. “I’m not at the stage of my life where I can blame that on anything. If I want to do really well in the things I want to achieve, you can’t make excuses.
“You have to learn every day and get better.”