He’s appreciative of the nomination, but Jon Cornish won’t lose sleep wondering if he’ll be named to the CFL’s all-decade team.
The crowning achievement of Cornish’s pro football career came last year when the 35-year-old native of New Westminster, B.C., was a first-ballot inductee into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. While the all-decade nod would be nice for the former Calgary Stampeders star running back, it would pale in comparison to the ‘19 honour.
“At the end of the day, there’s only 20 first-ballot Hall of Famers and there’s only one other running back and his name is not Mike Pringle (CFL career rushing leader),” Cornish said during a telephone interview. “I think it (voting for all-decade team) is fun for the fans but in my mind these are settled issues.”
Saskatchewan Roughriders legend George Reed (1979) was the only other running back to be inducted in his first year of eligibility (three years following retirement). Pringle, who ran for a CFL-leading 16,425 career yards, was enshrined in 2008, four years after retiring.
Voting for the all-decade squad (2010-19) is being conducted through September by media and fans. The CFL expects to unveil the first- and second-team selections later this fall.
The six-foot, 217-pound Cornish enjoyed a stellar nine-year CFL career with the Stampeders. A two-time Grey Cup champion (2008, ‘14), Cornish was the league’s top Canadian three times (2012-14) and its outstanding player in 2013, the same year he captured the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete.
Cornish ran for a career-best 1,813 yards on 258 carries (seven-yard average) and 12 TDs in 2013. He had the same number of rushing attempts the previous season, finishing with a league-leading 1,457 yards to break Normie Kwong’s single-season record for a Canadian-born player.
But it’s the 2014 season that stands out for Cornish, and for good reason. A Stampeders team captain, he ran for a CFL-high 1,082 yards on 139 carries (7.8-yard average) despite playing just nine of Calgary’s 18 regular-season games due to injuries.
Calgary capped that season with a 20-16 Grey Cup win over Hamilton.
“That season I was a team captain and my entire goal was to elevate the people around me,” Cornish said. “If you’re working to help people out and make them better football players, things just generally work out.
“That was the year I was just, ‘You know guys, I know you don’t often have to block for me 10, 15 yards down the field but we’re going to break some long plays. It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,’ and these guys believed it. There are pictures of (receivers) Eric Rogers and Nik Lewis running 40, 50 yards downfield to make a block and it breaks a 70-yard play. We had a joint belief in what was possible that season.”
After receiving the Lou Marsh Trophy the year before, Cornish admits he had lofty expectations that season.
“I had big ambitions to break 2,000 (rushing yards) that year and it didn’t happen,” he said. “However leading the league in rushing in half a season hasn’t been done before and probably won’t happen again.
“And on top of that, leading your team to a Grey Cup as a captain. That year, for me, really capsulated what I was about: When I did show up, you got my best.”
Injuries — notably concussions — forced Cornish to retire after the 2015 season. He finished his career as Calgary’s fourth-leading rusher (6,844 yards), averaging a stellar 6.7 yards per carry with 44 TDs.
Calgary selected Cornish in the second round, No. 13 overall, in the 2006 CFL draft after he rushed for a school-record 1,457 yards in his final season at Kansas.
Cornish was the CFL’s second-leading rusher from 2010-19 with 6,455 yards over six seasons yet his 6.6-yard average is tops among the 12 running backs nominated. What’s more, the league’s top rushers over that span are all Canadian, which is noteworthy given Americans usually play that position.
Winnipeg’s Andrew Harris is first overall, having run for 9,038 yards with Toronto native Jerome Messam third at 5,689 yards. Harris and Messam both played nine seasons, registering 1,673 and 1,087 carries, respectively, over that span.
“When people talk about us three, it’s been a long journey,” Cornish said. “I know all of us were told, ‘Hey, it’s an American position. You might not get the chance to play.’
“And then finally getting on the field and getting that chance to show our stuff. I think it’s definitely changed the position.”
Harris was the CFL’s rushing leader last season with 1,373 yards for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers despite serving a two-game suspension for a positive drug test. The 33-year-old ended the ‘19 campaign emphatically, capturing top Canadian and player honours after leading the Bombers to a 33-12 Grey Cup win over Hamilton, the franchise’s first title in 29 years.
Also nominated for the all-decade team is John Hufnagel, the Stampeders’ president/GM who’d served as the franchise’s head coach. Hufnagel compiled a stellar 79-29 regular-season record (.731 win percentage) over six seasons, having recorded the most wins of 12 head coaches nominated.
Hufnagel guided Calgary to a pair of Grey Cup appearances, winning once. He also helped groom former Stampeders quarterback Dave Dickenson as a coach before promoting him to the head job in 2016.
“Coach Hufnagel is going to tell you what he needs from you for you to become the best player to fit the team,” Cornish said. “I know I had growth during Hufnagel’s (tenure), (veteran receiver) Nik Lewis, (quarterback) Bo Levi Mitchell, all of the stars that were on the team became better because coach Hufnagel was there.
“Coach Dickenson having had the opportunity to develop from an assistant coach all the way up to a head coach, that’s the reason why the Stamps were so good. We gave guys the opportunity to develop … and that’s why we had success throughout every season.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press