VANCOUVER - Sometimes pro athletes speak as if they’ve spent too much time with a media coach or spin doctor, their quotes edited and vetted to such a degree that reporters figuratively want to shake them.
What are they really thinking?
No such problem with Jon Cornish, the running back of the Calgary Stampeders who, when he speaks, comes with a warning label: No translation necessary.
Cornish is not only direct in his running style -- he is the first Canadian running back to lead the CFL in rushing in 24 years -- but he requires an inquisitor to be light on the balls of his feet and able to thrust and parry with Cornish’s sometimes off-putting attitude. His plain, unvarnished thoughts can hit you like another whirlwind from Kansas -- John Riggins, a former NFL running back and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose school single-season rushing numbers Cornish surpassed as a senior with the Jayhawks.
“He’s certainly comfortable being himself,” said Nick Quartaro, the former offensive coordinator at Kansas, now assistant head coach at North Texas, who recruited Cornish from St. Thomas More Collegiate in Burnaby. “He’s a little bit different, very intelligent. But he takes some getting used to. He was always a little bit more inquisitive than other players.”
Coach John Hufnagel, whose Stampeders face the Lions in Sunday’s West Division final at BC Place, probably would say the same. Cornish puts it all out there, whether making a damning assessment of his offensive line (“you either have holes
or you don’t”) following a 34-8 loss to the Lions in July, or mooning Roughrider fans at Mosaic Stadium in September. Candour is his strong suit; discreetness not so much.
“I was shocked,” said KC Steele, Cornish’s former high school coach and now the vice-principal at St. Thomas More, remarking on the latter incident in Regina. “He got caught up in the moment, and didn’t have the ability to step back and analyze the impact of his actions. It was a poor decision, but he came back and owned up to it. It was the right thing to do.”
Steele, like Quartaro, remembers Cornish as a high school player who was challenging, but not necessarily in the negative sense of the word. He always wanted to know why.
“‘Why are we doing this drill, why do we need to do that?’” Steele said of Cornish’s days at STM. “I saw an interview where Dave Dickenson (the Stampeders offensive coordinator) said the same thing. Once you get him to buy in, he’s awesome. But Jon needed affirmation. He needed to know the reasons behind a drill or an idea before he could master it.”
A CFL rock star such as Cornish might have elicited more news, both for his on-field performance and his extracurricular petulance, but the football program at STM rival Vancouver College is also getting some outside attention this school year.
Fighting Irish grad and Montreal Alouettes middle linebacker Shea Emry is, like Cornish, a double nominee for the 2012 CFL player awards. The trophies will be handed out during Grey Cup week in Toronto.
Cornish is on deck for two pieces of hardware -- most outstanding player (Toronto’s Chad Owens is the other finalist) and Canadian player of the year (Emry is the East Division nominee). Emry is also a finalist for defensive player of the year (J.C. Sherritt of the Eskimos is the West Division choice).
Not only are St. Thomas More and Vancouver College renowned for their athletic programs, but both are Lower Mainland Catholic high schools run under the auspices of the Christian Brothers. STM, which is co-educational, is just 16 km. to the east of Vancouver College, an all-male school.
“We’re definitely curious to see who wins this year (CFL most outstanding Canadian),” said Todd Bernett, the football coach at Vancouver College. “Football is healthy and strong at both schools. We’ve maintained ourselves, like STM, at the highest level. Our kids see Shea and Jon, and they hope to be the next one.”
While B.C. lacks the overall breadth of participation numbers compared to other provinces nationally, high school teams at the elite end are serious and committed to the sport. With a population of 4.6 million, British Columbia has 70 schools competing in football. Alberta, with a pop. of 3.8 million, has 103.
“In the 70s our numbers were down to, maybe, under 25 (schools),” explained Greg Emry. “It’s come back and it’s pretty strong right now. We’re at the highest (70) we’ve ever been.”
A former football head coach at Vancouver College in the 1970s, Greg is the father of Shea Emry, who was a quarterback at VC before leaving for Eastern Washington, where he was turned into a linebacker and then finished up his college career at UBC.
Two years younger than the 28-year-old Cornish, Shea was a first-round pick by the Alouettes in the 2008 CFL draft. He has developed into that rare animal -- a Canadian playing a key position normally manned by an import, just as Cornish and Andrew Harris of the Lions are doing at running back.
“He always had a real competitive spirit, physical ability and intelligence,” explained Greg Emry. “In his second year with the Alouettes, they started him at middle linebacker. We’ve heard it’s because Marc Trestman (Alouettes’ head coach)
liked his intelligence and intensity.”
Shea got a little too intense in a game last month in Regina when he punched Roughriders’ lineman Brendon Labatte in the groin and drew an instant ejection. He berated an official who escorted him off the field, but later apologized to fans, both teams and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon.
While Labatte appeared to be the aggrieved party, the tactics being used by the Roughriders -- the Alouette accused them of trying to break his leg -- so infuriated Emry that he felt he had to do something for his own protection, legal or otherwise.
“We were disappointed, obviously, to see that,” said Greg Emry. “He got caught up in the moment. These guys are like gladiators out there. The stories that Shea tells us, and he’s told us a number, can’t be repeated. I’m not excusing what he did, but it’s a nasty game. And you’ve got to be as tough as you can out there.”
Knowing that applies to the incurably direct Cornish as well, you can’t put it any plainer than that.
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