School's out as B.C. Lions' teacher-in-training Matt Norman returns for CFL playoff run
VANCOUVER — Rookie Matt Norman, the would-be high school geography and history teacher, was on an accelerated learning curve from the first day of B.C. Lions’ training camp back on June 3.
Knee injuries to veteran offensive linemen Dean Valli and Jesse Newman on the very day camp opened forced the draft pick from Western Ontario to take snaps against the Lions’ first-team defence right away.
Quickly, Norman showed that he was not beyond his depth. The 23-year-old native of Chateauguay, Que., underscored the Lions’ belief that finding him still available in the third round of the 2012 CFL draft, 22nd overall, was something of a steal.
“Matt not only had a strong camp, he had the opportunity to play, and he did an outstanding job with it,” said Lions’ head coach Mike Benevides. “It was one of those things where we believed in him, he had a great camp, and he did something with the opportunity given to him. He really capitalized on that opportunity.”
Norman’s playing experience during the summer is a reason why the Lions had little hesitation in reaching out to him this week, even though he left the team after B.C.’s Aug. 31st game in Montreal to attend Althouse College, a teachers’ college on the Western Ontario campus in London, Ont.
With Valli’s knee suspect again, following an injury Nov. 3 against Saskatchewan, and with the playing status of another veteran lineman, Jon Hameister-Ries, uncertain, Norman was added to the 46-man active roster and re-joined the Lions’ for practice on Wednesday.
While there is no plan, at this point to start him, there’s no doubt Norman will dress for the West Division final Sunday at BC Place against the Calgary Stampeders. The Lions are a generous organization, but they’re not paying his airfare, living expenses and salary just to have him stand on the sidelines in civvies for a cultural experience.
“If we don’t make it past Sunday, I’ll go right back to classes next week,” Norman said. “If we do, I’ll have to sit down and see where we go from there. I’m doing this (getting his teaching certificate) for my long-term future. But I intend to play football a long time. I want to keep playing as long as I can, until they tell me to stop.”
Though every lineman in the CFL must possess some level of competency, football IQ is essential to play well in the trenches, where wins and losses are decided by quick decision-making and the protection of the quarterback.
Football IQ has little to do with grade point averages or scholastic aptitude tests, although Norman probably would score high in those areas, too. But football know-how, the ability to learn on the fly and make quick adjustments, is a reason why Norman is advanced and able to play at a level beyond his years.
“You can never have enough of those guys around,” Benevides said. “For me, it was about giving him playoff experience first of all. But he’s also played at a high level for us, and it’s certainly good to have him here.”
Norman is an insurance policy that Valli hopes the Lions won’t have to redeem.
“It (his knee) doesn’t feel fantastic, but that’s never stopped me before,” said Valli, who took part in Wednesday’s unpadded practice at BC Place. “I think I’m good enough to get through the next game or two.”
Since returning to school, Norman has kept in shape and continued to be around a football environment. He has been assisting Chris Bertoia, the offensive line coach, with the Western Ontario Mustangs of the OUA. About 10 days ago, after Western was eliminated in the playoffs by McMaster, and when it appeared the Lions might require his services, Norman started ramping up his game for a possible return to the Lions.
“I was his blocking dummy, holding the bags, tossing the medicine balls, working on his technique, doing the same drills he’d worked on with Dan Dorazio (the Lions offensive line coach) in training camp,” explained Bertoia, who was a Lions’ guest coach in Kamloops. “Matt had an understanding he might be needed. He was able to jump through some hoops to get there. Western has a good football culture, and there’s a lot of support here on the academic side for football. There’s a mutual understanding. His teachers are happy for Matt.”
Though Norman still had a year of CIS football eligibility remaining, Bertoia was told after the Lions’ first preseason game (June 13) that Norman wouldn’t be coming back to play for Western. CIS players are disqualified from college competition once they’ve played a single, regular-season game in the CFL.
“We started getting someone ready at left guard to replace him,” Bertoia said. “After the way Matt performed in (Lions) training camp, we understood he wouldn’t be coming back.”
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