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April 24, 2019

“HE TRANSCENDED THE POSITION”

While sitting for preparatory photos and consulting on the image he preferred portrayed on his Hall of Fame bust, Jon Cornish found himself facing a choice.

“I went for the bald head/no facial hair look,’’ recalls the Calgary Stampeders’ former star tailback. “I consulted my wife on it.

“She really hasn’t known me with a goatee. I know I played a long time with the goatee, people remember it, but decided against it for this.

“Some of the best-looking guys, clean shaven, bald head. Makes me look like a guy like Milt Stegall. Now he looks good as a bust.

“That’s the look I wanted to capture.”

Capturing a look being far easier than capturing Cornish over nine seasons in which he elevated the possibilities not only for Canadian running backs, but CFL home-brews across the board:
The 6,844 yards, a 6.7 yards-per-tote average and 44 touchdowns, amassed largely over only three full seasons as feature tailback at McMahon; those three Most Outstanding Canadian awards; the 2013 nods as both CFL Most Outstanding Player and Lou Marsh Trophy as the country’s top athlete, male or female, pro or amateur; to go along with a 2014 Grey Cup ring.

“You play your entire career just being the best you can be in the moment, on a per-game basis,’’ says Cornish, who’ll be officially enshrined Aug. 9 in Hamilton.

“I had the opportunity to have a proper press conference to retire, thank all my people and then you just sort of go on your way. Football’s done for you. You’re gone but the game keeps going.

“And then that phone call comes and for me, having it come so quickly, a first ballot selection, is definitely a surprise.

“I was not even thinking about the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.”

Recently retired linebacker J.C. Sherritt, entering his first season as a part of Calgary’s coaching staff, certainly saw his share of No. 9 during those always-percolating Eskimo-Stampeder battles of a few seasons back.

“He always had very good vision and he knew to set up defenders because once he stuck his foot in the ground and got downhill, arm tackles weren’t going to bring him down,’’ lauds Sherritt.

“He did such a good job of being patient when he needed to be and then when he hit it, it was with a full head of steam.

“And he had great consistency throughout his career, day in and day out, able to perform at a very high level.”

Asked to select a moment that best encapsulated Jon Cornish at his peak, the man himself doesn’t hesitate in reply.

“I always sought,’’ Cornish says, “what I would call a perfect play. As a running back, that’s a play where you engage with every player on the opposing team that has a chance to tackle you and none of them are able to.

“That, to me, is a perfect play.

“In 2014, the Western final versus Edmonton, I caught a pass-and-run for a 78-yard touchdown and was able to make everyone miss.

“At that point, I felt confident in retiring at the end of the next season. Hey, I’d done what I always wanted to: I’d accomplished, in my mind, the perfect play.”

No need to pull up a on YouTube reminder for Sherritt, stationed at the heart of the Eskie defence that afternoon.

“Oh,’’ he laughs, “I remember it. It ended the game, basically. The nail in the coffin for us. A heckuva play. It’s tough for me to dish out too many compliments because, well, you know …

“But that was him. That was Jon. A big-time play in a big-time game.”

The now-retired Obby Khan spent only a half-season helping pave the way for Cornish, but he certainly caught the spirit of the man’s versatility and impact.

“There are certain backs,’’ noted the nine-year O-lineman during his brief Stampeder stay in 2012, “that stay strictly within the rules. Guys who, when they’re supposed to hit the 4-hole, hit the 4-hole. Without fail. Like clockwork.

“There are guys … well, when I blocked for Charlie Roberts we had absolutely no idea where he was going. I mean, none. Zero. The play would be called left and Charlie’d run right. But he’d make 30 yards out of it, so you really couldn’t complain too loudly. He was just a different kind of species, all his own.

“And then you get the guys who are just straight downhill physical runners.

“I think Jon is a combination of all three of those guys.”

What also set Cornish apart, of course, was his ability to excel at a glamour position traditionally dominated by U.S. imports. A kid from New Westminster, B.C., not only among the best carrying the ball, but THE best player, any position, anywhere to be found across the land?

Now that, west coasters to maritimers, is something to celebrate.

“If I’m a Canadian kid, you’ve got to put him up there as one of your biggest role models,’’ agrees the Truckee, California-born Sherritt. “He transcended the position.

“You look at Andrew Harris and him, they’ll go down as two of the best running backs, regardless of their nationality. Jon certainly will be.”

The Hall of Fame honour, those who played for or against him will tell you, is thoroughly, richly deserved.

“I’ve always asked: Were you the best at your position and did teams scheme to stop you?’’ reckons Stampeder head coach and soon-to-be fellow Hall of Famer Dave Dickenson. “When Jon was at the top of his game was there anyone better? No, there wasn’t. Jon could catch, too. Had good hands. He was the best all-around back in the league.

“To me, when you’re the best at what you did, for multiple years – better than anybody else – you dominated, that’s Hall of Fame worthy.

“I’m happy for him, too, because I know history means something to him.”

On Aug. 9, Jon Cornish passes through the gates of three-down Olympus and into the HOF in the process finally getting to see if his bust matches up to that preferred Milt Stegall look he chose.

“Well, all I know is that I wanted to try and go with one from when I played,’’ teased Dickenson of his 2015 induction. “I wanted hair.

“Didn’t happen.”