Johnson: Gabriel optimistic that Cornish could break drought
Former Ottawa star the last Canadian to win CFL MOP honours
Unlike Mitt Romney, Tony Gabriel had a concession speech all prepared. Unlike Mitt Romney, he didn’t need one.
“It was in my pocket,” says of that at the late November gala evening 34 years ago at the Convention Centre in downtown Toronto. “It’s all I’d written. That’s the truth. I was pitted against Tom Wilkinson, a great, great quarterback, that night.
“I was sure he’d win. I mean, if I’d had a vote, Tom Wilkinson would’ve been my choice.
“I was already completely thrilled that I’d won my fourth Outstanding Canadian Award. So my night was already made. But when they called my name for Most Outstanding Player, too, with my mom being there, I was totally off-the-planet elated.
“Those tears were real.”
That long-ago night the Ottawa Roughriders’ ace pass catcher surprised himself and Wilkinson, Ol’ Groceries, marked the first time in nine years, since the iconic three-time recipient Russ Jackson, that a Canadian-born player had walked off with the Canadian Football League’s highest individual award.
Nobody’s done it since.
In fact, nobody but Jackson and the Burlington-born Gabriel have done it. Ever.
“It would’ve been my hope, sure, many times,” muses Hall of Famer Gabriel, a two-time Grey Cup champion. “You thought Ben Cahoon, as an example, could’ve done it. But then they had (Anthony) Calvillo, who was throwing to everybody.
“Or Andy Fantuz, when he was with Saskatchewan. He was another guy you looked at with a real chance. I don’t know why . . .
“For whatever reason, it just hasn’t happened.”
Maybe until now.
Calgary Stampeders’ tailback Jon Cornish has the chance for a historic double-dip at the 2012 Gibson’s Finest CFL Player Awards.
He’s a lock for top Canadian.
The Most Outstanding Player duel, though, promises to be a close, fascinating one.
Cornish piled up 1,457 yards along the ground to become the first Canadian-born back to lead the league in rushing in nearly a quarter-century and in doing so eclipsed Normie Kwong’s 56-year-old standard for non-imports (albeit in more games). His play in no small part helped the Stamps to a 12-6 record.
Eastern nominee Chad Owens, meanwhile, led the league in return yardage (2,510) and pass receiving (1,328) in breaking the league’s combined yards record, held by a previous Argo icon, Pinball Clemons.
Out in Oakville, Ont., where he’s worked the last decade as a VP and investment adviser for CIBC Wood Gundy, Gabriel, the man responsible for reaching in and ripping an entire province’s heart out of its chest and sticking it on spit at the never-to-be-forgotten finish to Grey Cup ’76, continues to keep a keen eye on goings-on around the CFL and remains a Hamilton Tiger-Cats season-ticket holder.
“I don’t pretend to pledge allegiance to anyone. I’m just very proud of Jon’s accomplishments. Over and above his nationality. I mean, beating Normie Kwong’s record . . . Normie Kwong’s a legend. For anybody do that, it’s a tremendous feat. And to lead the league in rushing is another accomplishment to be very, very proud of.
“Jon had only, what?, three fumbles for the full year? (Five actually).
“That’s extraordinary considering the punishment a running back takes, and the number of touches he gets each and every game. He caught a lot of balls out of the backfield, too.
“Chad Owens, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, had a marvellous year, as well. I met the young man once, in Toronto. I wished him well. His main forte is his versatility, he reminds you of Chris Williams in Hamilton. He’s somewhat diminutive in stature but, again, he’s really durable. And again, to beat a major record, Pinball Clemons’ mark for combined yardage, is a fantastic accomplishment.
“They’re both superlative athletes. The only thing that concerns me on Chad’s side is the number of fumbles. If you were to compare the two individuals, their feats, the only discrepancy — if that’s the proper term — would be the fumbles.”
Unlike Owens, Cornish has courted controversy on occasion this season, calling out his offensive line after a minus-one-yard rushing game against B.C., and then the infamous mooning incident at Mosaic Stadium that forced a public apology.
Gabriel hopes voters aren’t in any way influenced by anything but on-field achievement.
“In fairness to the ‘antics’ that happened in Saskatchewan, well, I used to be a bit of hotdog in my day. In the 1976 Grey Cup, when I caught the touchdown to win 23-30, I had the habit of double-spiking the ball behind my back, which I did after that catch. What a fool!
“Someone’s got that Grey Cup-winning football out there. I should’ve kept the ball as a memento! All I could see was dollar signs: The winners got $6,000, the losers only $3,000.
“Like I said, what a fool.
“We all do things we regret. And he apologized right away.”
The vote, in Gabriel’s mind, is too close to call.
“I think Jon has an equal chance of winning. And I have no bones to pick on either side. When you beat Normie Kwong’s record, how do you equate that against beating Pinball Clemons’ record? I think what should be celebrated is that we’ve got two exceptional candidates here.”
But while his reason may be pulled in different directions, his ticker is leaning a certain way.
“Of course. That’s my Canadian heart talking. If Jon does it, then I’ll be the first person lining up to congratulate him. He’d be fully deserving.”
Thirty-four years ago, Tony Gabriel arrived at the Convention Centre in Toronto fully expecting to surrender the Most Outstanding Player award to Tom Wilkinson, with only a concession speech neatly folded in his pocket.
Jon Cornish, he advises, should be better prepared.
“Imagine,” he marvels, “on the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup to have someone so early in his career and so talented, be named both Outstanding Canadian and Most Outstanding Player in the same year, after so long.
“How great would that be?”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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