Jovan Olafioye was rewarded Wednesday for proving his doubters wrong.
The B.C. Lions offensive tackle was named the West Division’s nominee for the CFL’s outstanding lineman award after he played all 18 regular-season games — despite failing a medical exam with the NFL’s St. Louis Rams in the off-season.
“It really means a lot,” Olafioye said. “Dealing with the irregular circumstances that I did this off-season, one of my goals coming into the season — besides winning the Grey Cup — was to be the best offensive lineman in my third year here.”
The 25-year-old from Detroit is the West’s top-lineman nominee for the second consecutive season. He lost out in 2011 to Montreal’s Josh Bourke, who is the East Division’s nominee again this year.
Olafioye, who has never missed a game in three CFL seasons, was among a trio of Lions nominated for annual trophies. Defensive end Jabar Westerman was named the West’s top rookie, while kick and punt returner Tim Brown took home the division’s top special teams honours.
The Lions thought they had lost Olafioye after capturing the 2011 Grey Cup. With several NFL teams showing interest in him, it was considered just a matter of time before he left for greener financial pastures.
It did not take him long to sign with St. Louis, but the Rams unexpectedly let him go in February, and his CFL rights reverted to the Lions.
Olafioye has suffered from an irregular heartbeat and blamed the failed physical on his neglect to take regular medication.
“My dad’s a doctor, and he felt really comfortable about the situation I’m in,” Olafioye said. “So I didn’t really have no bad feelings about just coming back here and playing football.”
The product of little known North Carolina Central University helped the Lions record a league-low 30 sacks against. Olafioye was a mainstay on an offensive line that has battled injuries since the first day of training camp in Kamloops, B.C.
“I’m very proud,” he said of his accomplishment. “Even though some people might not be able to jump back from a situation like that, I feel like I’m very strong-minded.”
Lions head coach Mike Benevides called Olafioye one of the “rocks” of the offensive line along with centre Angus Reid and left tackle Ben Archibald.
Benevides said Olafioye, who played primarily as a defensive lineman before he joined the Lions and tried all offensive-line positions except centre, was the best choice for the honour.
Benevides also heaped heavy praise on Westerman, who excelled after the Lions made a trade with the Edmonton Eskimos to move up and select him second overall in the Canadian college draft.
The 23-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who played at Eastern Michigan, recorded 14 tackles and four sacks for a Lions defence that led the league in 18 of 25 statistical categories. He helped the Lions record a league-leading 47 sacks.
The Lions coveted Westerman after veteran defensive end Brent Johnson’s retirement in the off-season created a critical need for a Canadian defensive lineman who could help fill a big hole and help the team balance its import ratio.
Benevides said Westerman has lived up to expectations after the draft-day deal.
“We expected a lot out of him, and we’re tremendously pleased that he’s produced,” said Benevides.
However, Westerman attributed his success largely to good fortune. Despite his rookie status, he received ample playing time — often as a starter — as part of a six-man rotation on the defensive line. After not knowing if he would even make the team, Westerman found himself in more demand due to injuries to Khalif Mitchell, Eric Taylor and Khreem Smith.
Mitchell’s suspensions for disciplinary infractions on and off the field also opened doors for the newcomer.
“I’ve been lucky,” said Westerman. “I had great opportunities to come in and show that I could play.”
Brown earned the West nod on special teams for finishing second in all-purpose return yards, with 2,687, to Toronto’s Chad Owens, the East nominee. Although Brown had two returns for touchdowns compared to five for Owens, Benevides felt his player is a strong candidate because he constantly put his club’s offence in strong field position.
Other Lions weren’t so lucky in the award balloting conducted by members of the Football Reporters of Canada and coaches. There will be a new CFL most outstanding player named after B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay, the 2011 recipient, did not gain the West nomination.
He lost out to Calgary running back Jon Cornish, who ran for a league-best 1,457 yards and not only became the first Canadian to lead the CFL in rushing since 1988 but also broke Normie Kwong’s 56-year-old record for most rushing yards in a season by a Canuck of 1,437.
B.C. running back Andrew Harris, a potential top-Canadian candidate, was also bypassed after he gained a record 1,830 yards from scrimmage — breaking the record held since 1967 by Terry Evanshen. Lions middle linebacker Adam Bighill was also snubbed for top defensive honours after he finished the regular season with 104 tackles, nine sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and 16 special-teams tackles.
Bighill lost out to Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt, who posted a league-record 130 tackles this season along with three sacks and five interceptions.
Admitting some bias, Benevides felt Bighill was most deserving of the honour, but stressed that Sherritt’s tackles record had to be taken into account.
“There’s no doubt that I’m disappointed for the guys who didn’t get recognized,” said Benevides.
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