Darrius Bratton at an Edmonton Elks practice. Courtesy of the Elks.
Darrius Bratton at an Edmonton Elks practice. Courtesy of the Elks.

Darrius Bratton is enjoying some new experiences this year – with a Canadian twist.

Born and raised in Roanoke, the rookie defensive back is adapting on and off the field after earning a starting role with the Edmonton Elks of the nine-team Canadian Football League.

Bratton is one of 20 current CFL players who were born in Virginia or played their college ball in the state. As of mid-July, 18 were either on a 45-man active roster or injured list, while two remained hopeful on practice rosters. 

It’s taken some time for the 25-year-old cornerback to get used to the league’s three downs, bigger field and different rules.

Darius Bratton. Courtesy of the Edmonton Elks.
Darrius Bratton. Courtesy of the Edmonton Elks.

“I knew of the CFL, but I didn’t know how different the rules were and the point system and stuff,” Bratton said in a recent Zoom call. 

“I messed up a couple of the rules at first, but at the end of the day it’s still football and it’s still throwing and catching like in the States. It’s fun. I actually enjoy the game.”

What hasn’t been enjoyable for the six-foot, 200-pound newcomer is his team’s results. 

The Elks have opened the 18-game regular season with a 0-5 record and are riding a CFL-record 19 consecutive home losses at Commonwealth Stadium dating back to October 2019. The squad’s next opportunity to end that dubious streak is July 13 when it hosts the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-3). 

“I think it’s just coming in and doing everything to script and being precise with our work and just going and taking it day by day,” said Bratton, who had 13 defensive tackles, two pass knockdowns and one tackle for a loss in five games. 

“I think that’s how we change the narrative of this whole losing aspect.” 

Darius Bratton (No. 24, in the white jersey) in action against the British Columbia Lions. Courtesy of the Elks.
Darrius Bratton (No. 24, in the white jersey) in action against the British Columbia Lions. Courtesy of the Elks.

Off the field, the William Fleming High School and University of Virginia product is having more pleasurable experiences. He’s trying new food such as ketchup-flavored potato chips and Canada’s famous Tim Hortons coffee brand.

Teammates have become friends, and he likes meeting fans in the Alberta province’s capital city, which is home to 1.41 million people (as of the 2021 census).

“I know I’m not back in Virginia around the mountains in Roanoke, so it’s a little bit more flat,” Bratton said. “It’s just a different culture, but I love to travel and I love to experience new things. 

“It’s very diverse and people are very nice here. That’s one thing that me and my teammates that’s not from here say, that people are really nice in Canada.”

Map of Canada. Courtesy of Atlas of Canada.
Edmonton is the northernmost city in the Canadian Football League. Courtesy of Atlas of Canada.

Located north of Montana, Alberta has the Rocky Mountains in the southwestern part of the province near the largest city of Calgary (1.48 million, 2021 census). The Calgary Stampeders are Edmonton’s biggest CFL rival. 

Edmonton is near the middle of the province with more of a prairie landscape. It has the nickname of “Canada’s Festival City” for its dozens of year-round events and features the West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping and entertainment complex. 

The Edmonton skyline. Courtesy of Alice Hunter.
The Edmonton skyline. Courtesy of Alice Hunter.

That’s quite the change from Roanoke, where Bratton and his immediate and extended family have deep roots. 

His dad, Tim, is a tire technician and mom LaRhonda works at a veterans’ hospital. He has two older siblings, brother Marcus and sister Jerika.

It was Marcus, 33, who became Darrius’s biggest mentor. He attended the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and played defensive back and kick returner. That was followed by a pro career in France, Finland, Austria and Germany. He’s still in Germany working and coaching. 

Bratton didn’t follow in his brother’s cleats right away. He played football, basketball and baseball, but baseball was his first love. He was also a natural talent on the diamond. 

“Me and my family thought I was going to go to college to play baseball,” said Bratton, who played pitcher [he could pitch with both arms], catcher and first base, but mainly center field. 

“I was pursuing that, but when I got into high school I knew that my chances of getting a scholarship and being on my way to the next level where I wanted to be at a D-1 school, to get a scholarship in football was the way.

“So I just committed myself, and my brother was there to help me along and guide me because he’d been through the process and he was a really good football player as well.”

After baseball practices, his brother and friends helped him with his gridiron skills.

“Having them is a blessing to show me the way of working hard and also growing a love for football.”

Darius Bratton at an Elks practice. Courtesy of the Elks.
Darrius Bratton at an Elks practice. Courtesy of the Elks.

Bratton played wide receiver, defensive back and returned kicks at William Fleming, but decided defense was the side of the ball he preferred. 

“I just like to go and hit people instead of people hitting me,” he explained with a smile. 

Unfortunately, he was hit with a big challenge in his 2015 senior year at William Fleming. 

Bratton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee three games into the schedule and was done for the season. He recovered and attended Fork Union Military Academy in 2016 as a prep year. He earned a three-star recruit rating by ESPN.com and committed to Virginia.

He appeared in nine of 13 games in his freshman year with the Cavaliers and started five games in 2018.

His 2019 season ended with a bad case of déjà vu. 

Bratton tore the same ACL during a pre-season practice. Once more, he worked his way back onto the field with the support of his family and his faith. 

He also worked hard in the classroom. 

Bratton has a degree in American studies and got a master’s in social foundations, which he explained is a degree in education that can lead to being a counselor or principal. He also received the 2022-23 Ed Armstrong Endowed Football Scholarship. 

“I love to mentor kids and see them reach their next level, but I’m focused on football right now and see where that takes me.”

In five seasons with the Cavaliers, he played 52 games and registered 77 total tackles, one tackle for a loss, a half credit for a quarterback sack and 14 passes defended. 

Then came a moment in the spotlight earlier this year. In front of 30-plus scouts at Virginia’s NFL pro day in March, Bratton recorded 38.5 inches in the vertical jump, a broad jump of 11 feet three inches and a speedy 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds. 

The performances earned him shoutouts on social media and an online brief in Sports Illustrated, but not a selection in April’s NFL Draft. However, he did get an invite to the New Orleans Saints’ rookie minicamp in May. 

“I felt it was a great experience to really show where I’m at right now with other competition,” Bratton said of the camp. “I feel like I’m right there, right along with the same competition that’s in the NFL. The coaches really liked me, but it just comes down with numbers in the NFL and that’s how the game goes.”

It was prior to that camp that he connected with the CFL – or rather, it connected with him. 

Elks head coach and general manager Chris Jones, who saw Bratton’s pro day stats and game film, called him and invited him to Edmonton’s training camp, but Bratton told him he planned to go to the Saints’ camp. 

When nothing came out of the minicamp, Bratton called Jones back and the invite was still open, so he flew to Edmonton for his first trip to Canada. 

Darius Bratton (No. 24) in a game earlier summer against the British Columbia Lions. Courtesy of the Elks.
Darrius Bratton (No. 24) in a game earlier in the summer against the British Columbia Lions. Courtesy of the Elks.

His parents have been watching his games on TV and plan to see him play in person. His dad did call him early on because he was confused about the scoring system – in particular, the league’s unique “rouge” or single point. 

The rouge is a single point a CFL team can score on a field-goal attempt, punt or kickoff. If a kicker misses a field goal and the ball goes out of bounds, or if it’s not touched or run or punted out of the end zone, the kicking team scores a point. The same scenario applies on a punt or kickoff.

One of Bratton’s teammates recently experienced a costly refresher of the rule.

The Elks were on the road playing the Saskatchewan Roughriders on July 6 when the Roughriders tied the game 11-11 with 66 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. Saskatchewan kicked off and the ball went over the head of Edmonton rookie American returner C.J. Sims and bounced into the end zone. Rather than rush back to get the ball and run it out, Sims trotted to it and took a knee like in U.S. college and NFL games to end the play. Unlike those leagues, though, Saskatchewan scored a rouge and went up 12-11. 

Edmonton got possession and started marching down the field to attempt a go-ahead score, but Elks quarterback Taylor Cornelius threw an interception. The clock ran down and the Elks walked off the field with their fifth straight loss. 

The CFL also allows receivers to move toward the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, which is called the “waggle.” Bratton said that’s been the biggest adjustment for him, but staying disciplined and sticking to his fundamentals and technique has helped. 

The Edmonton Elks play in Commonwealth Stadium, the largest open-air stadium in Canada. It seats 56,302. Courtesy of Tewarianuj.
The Edmonton Elks play in Commonwealth Stadium, the largest open-air stadium in Canada. It seats 56,302. Courtesy of Tewarianuj.

While he’s enjoying the new brand of football, he still wants to crack the NFL. 

“That’s still the end goal, but I’m just going to focus on the season right now and try to be the best I can be for the team right now in Edmonton,” Bratton said. 

“I’m just trying to make the best of where I am now, and I feel extremely blessed to be here in the CFL. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”

Judy Owen has been a print journalist for more than 30 years, starting as a Winnipeg Sun newspaper reporter...