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March 13, 2019

THE CORNISH AWARD

The campus was 137 years old when Jon Cornish first set foot on it back in 2002, its landmarks – Fraser Hall and Lipinscott Hall, Watson Library, the Chi Omega Fountain and Spencer Museum of Art – as instantly familiar to the citizens of Lawrence, Kan., as the names of their own children.

Counted among the University of Kansas alumni are Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, poets, state senators, business titans, astronauts, Silver Star and Purple Heart military heroes, FBI directors, along with hardwood legends such as Wilt Chamberlain and even Bill Farmer, the voice of Disney’s Goofy.

A rich tapestry. A large canvas.

A long history.

A daunting challenge.

“Back then, I was the only Canadian and was asked times, many times that first day, whether or not I spoke French,” Cornish, the retired Stampeders’ generational tailback, is reminiscing. “In football, they did everything possible to get you down there and then it’s very definitely not a walk in the park.

“So I had my share of hurdles, for sure.

“Everything was so different than what I was accustomed to. I’d never lacked for confidence, so I started acting the way I had around my high-school friends back in Vancouver.

“And quickly, very quickly, this isn’t working for me.

“These guys are much more serious. They came to university to play football, to be No. 1, so instantly there’s competition, right off the bat, with other running backs in my class.

“Definitely different expectations of what was expected of me, both on the football field and in the classroom.

“That first year I just tried to find where it was that I fit.”

Beginning in his junior season for the Jayhawks, the New Westminster-born Cornish would fit in quite nicely, thank you, joining an ultra-elite group of KU backs that included Gale Sayers, John Riggins, Curtis McClinton, Kerwin Bell and June Henley.

During his senior year, he toted the rock for 1,457 yards, a single-season school record.

His subsequent CFL exploits out at McMahon Stadium, everyone hereabouts is aware of: the 6,844 yards rushing in only five-and-a-half seasons as the feature back, those 44 TDs and two Grey Cup rings.

Cornish’s prep time down south, at KU, the connection between his U.S. collegiate training and Canuck birth ties, has led to the Jon Cornish Trophy, now being presented annually to the top Canadian-born player in NCAA football by the N8 Group in conjunction with the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum.

Nominees are selected by a panel of former NCAA players with a connection to Canada, scouting staff from CFL teams and selected media who cover college football from a Canadian perspective.
Cornish, says Jim Mullin – project partner from N8 – was an ideal “representation. The embodiment” of what the spirit of the award is all about.

“We were other great examples out there. The other is Reuben Mayes of North Battleford, Sask., who went to down to Washington State and set a record for yards in a game that I think stood for 27 years.

“I think the difference between what Reuben did and what Jon did is that Jon was named only the third Canadian football player to be named our country’s athlete of the year. As well, John’s back here on the ground in Canada, whereas Reuben lives outside Spokane.

The number of Canadian imports to the four-down collegiate game grows by the year.

“There were 139 kids who played stateside last year,’’ Mullin points out. “A ton of top performers down there. That’s not to take away from what’s being done in Canada, with U Sports. U Sports puts players in the CFL and the NFL these days, too.

“But these are top players. To put a spotlight on them is good for the game.”

The inaugural Cornish winner was sophomore Nathan Rourke, quarterback for the University of Ohio hailing from Oakville, Ont., and a nominee again this year in 2019.

Joining him as finalists for Thursday’s announcement at the Canadian football Hall in Hamilton: Chase Claypool of Abbotsford, B.C., a junior wide receiver at Notre Dame; Neville Gallimore of Ottawa, a junior defensive lineman at the University of Oklahoma; Chuba Hubbard of Sherwood Park, a redshirt/junior tailback/returner at Oklahoma State; and Brady Olivera of Winnipeg, a senior running back with the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.

The experience of these young men is naturally different than that of Cornish, given the differing eras. Back then, for instance, there was virtually no internet, no Skype, to say in contact with the familiarity of home.

Still, many of the same challenges, in adaptation and uncertainty, remain.

“I’d say that our strength and conditioning program at my high school was pretty good,” says Cornish. “But there … I found myself at a pretty significant strength disadvantage.

“I remember we’d do exercises at the end of every workout focusing on the core, and if one guy failed at an exercise, everybody would have to do that exercise again.

“Well, I failed. A lot. Early on at KU, I was known as the guy causing everybody to do exercises again.

“I wasn’t too popular my first year, that’s for sure. But that’s the type of thing you have to adjust to if you want to stay, and succeed.”

Individual baubles are nothing new to Cornish. He is, of course, a three-time CFL Most Outstanding Canadian recipient, the 2013 Most Outstanding Player winner, and the 2013 Lou Marsh Award as this country’s top male athlete.

But this, he happily admits, is different.

“For this trophy to come out, have it named after me, is easily the greatest football honour I’ve ever received,” says Cornish, who’ll fly east for Thursday’s selection announcement.

“This is part of my lasting legacy now.

“But I’m more excited for these kids. The most important thing we can do is to bring recognition to kids who are not playing football in their home country; to say: ‘Hey, we’ve got your back. We’ve got our eyes on you’ and here’s this award for the amount of work that you’ve done.”