Davis Sanchez played football like few other Canadians.
In fact, he was the only Canadian to start at cornerback, a position dominated by imports, during his 11-season CFL career. The Delta, B.C., native officially hung up his cleats Monday, retiring after he spent the last two campaigns with the B.C. Lions.
“I didn’t see it any differently,” said Sanchez, 37. “I was always the cornerback. Whether I was a Canadian or wherever I was from, it didn’t make any difference, because that’s all I’ve ever been.”
Drafted by Montreal sixth overall in 1999, he played 155 career games with the Alouettes, Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos. He recorded 28 interceptions and three fumbles, returning four of his takeaways for touchdowns.
Along the way, he earned three Grey Cups, with Edmonton in 2005, Montreal in 2009 and the Lions last year. He was a three-time East Division all-star as well as league all-star one season.
Sanchez hopes he has opened CFL talent-seekers’ eyes to Canadians’ abilities to play the so-called skilled positions usually reserved for Americans. But he acknowledged that teams will be slow to adopt change.
“There’s not going to be all Canadian corners,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
The University of Oregon alumnus also played in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers in 2001, recording 19 tackles over 16 games, and again briefly in 2002.
“I’ll miss the game and I’m going to miss my teammates,” said Sanchez, whose 2011 season was cut short by an elbow injury that limited him to five games. “It’s been such a big part of my life.”
Lions general manager Wally Buono and coach Mike Benevides hope a permanent replacement for Sanchez will emerge at rookie camp, which begins later this month, or when main camp opens in early June. Buono praised Sanchez for providing leadership, even though he could not play, as the Lions completed their improbable march to a Grey Cup victory following a 0-5 start.
“I’ve always liked Davis and I’ve always liked the fact that he’s been a good mentor to the young guys,” said Buono. “He’s been a good example to the young guys as far as work ethic and what it takes to be a pro.”
Sanchez said he could not have displayed the same patience earlier in his career. But it was still difficult to have to watch the miraculous comeback following the disastrous start.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” he said of the Grey Cup triumph.
As for the other championships, he will appreciate them more when he looks back on his career five or 10 years from now. He will now work full-time on a football academy that he operates across the B.C. Lower Mainland.
“I don’t think people give him enough credit, because he’s a man with a Canadian passport that played a position that not many Canadians did,” said Benevides. “He was a professional. He was a guy that was always able to make plays.”
Benevides said he did not know what to expect from Sanchez after he signed as a free agent with the Lions before the 2010 season. But the cornerback “blazed the course for other non-imports” while dominating at his position.
“He was a guy that did everything that was asked of him,” said Benevides. “He had an outstanding career.”
Meanwhile, the Lions announced the signing of quarterback Thomas DeMarco, 23, who threw for 5,732 yards and 51 touchdowns on 471 completions during three seasons at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The Palm Desert, Calif., native helped his school post a 9-2 record in 2009 after it fielded a football team after 68-year absence from the gridiron. DeMarco earned a contract after impressing at a free agent camp in Atlanta this spring and a private workout a day later under bad weather conditions in Virginia.
“He has a very strong strong arm,” said Buono during a season-preview conference call with reporters from across Canada. “(He is) a very sharp kid, and you can just sense that he has that leadership about him. He just handled himself like a real pro.”
Listed at five-foot-11 and 200 pounds, he reminded Buono of former Lions and Calgary Stampeders star signal-caller Dave Dickenson in terms of his stature and smarts. In addition to sporting a 132.2 completion percentage, DeMarco holds the Old Dominion record for most rushing yards in a game with 245.
“He’s not a 4.4 (second 40-yard sprint) kind of guy, but he is elusive,” said Buono.
DeMarco’s signing gives the Lions four quarterback along with 2011 CFL most valuable player Travis Lulay, Mike Reilly, and Corey Leonard. In an interview following the conference call at the team’s training facility, Buono said it’s possible the club will sign another quarterback after evaluating a shortlist of free-agent camp hopefuls.
But the Lions will only go with four during the season with one ticketed for the practice roster.
The Lions have most of their starters on both sides of the football returning. While shaping up well on the field, the Lions are also looking good off the field. Club president Dennis Skulsky said season ticket sales are on par with last year
“For us, that’s a very solid number on the basis that, traditionally, any city and team that host the Grey Cup would get a nice spike in season tickets,” said Skulsky on the conference call. “This year, we’ve been able to preserve that spike as we head into our 2012 season.”
He said the rise is approximately 10 per cent. Continuing a practice started last year, the Lions will sell season tickets throughout the campaign with the cost pro-rated based on the number of games left. Single-game tickets start Tuesday, much earlier than in seasons past.
Corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales are at record levels, said Skulsky, who declined to disclose actual numbers. He attributed the strong financials to solid ownership under David Braley, the Grey Cup victory, strong player nucleus, and Buono remaining with the team after stepping down as coach after last season.
“I call tell you that it’s been a very busy off-season — and one we all feel very good about,” Skulsky said.