Jon Cornish thought Monday was going to be just another day at the office.
Working at his off-season job as a bank rep at TD Canada Trust, the Calgary Stampeders’ star running back had no idea he was about to become the first CFL player in 44 years to win the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete of the year.
A panel of sports journalists voted him the winner over a group of finalists that included tennis player Milos Raonic and bobsled pilot Kaillie Humphries.
Cornish, a 29-year-old from New Westminster, B.C., ran for a league-topping 1,813 yards (and 12 touchdowns) this season for the 14-4 Stamps, breaking his own single-season record for rushing yards by a Canadian. Last month, he became the first homegrown product to be named the CFL most outstanding player since Tony Gabriel in 1978.
“This was an award [Lou Marsh] that was in my mind, absolutely,” Cornish said during a teleconference Monday, while on break at his other job in Calgary. “Did I feel my season was good enough for it? Potentially. It’s a huge honour, to have my name mentioned alongside that of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Steve Nash, Christine Sinclair.
“It was insane to me that I could be selected. I was sort of taken aback by the possibilities that this award kind of creates.”
Cornish also took home the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian award this season, a back-to-back honour for the speedy tailback. In addition, he claimed his second consecutive rushing title and set a new franchise record with 2,157 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for more than 100 yards in nine games, including a career-best 208-yard performance Oct. 5 against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Cornish joins an elite group of CFL players to have won the Lou Marsh Trophy. Russ Jackson won it playing for the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1969, as did Joe Krol of the Toronto Argonauts in 1946.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing that list grow a little bit,” Cornish said. “I think the CFL is more popular now than ever. I think Canadians love the sport of football, and knowing we can be eligible to win this award through football, maybe it will encourage people to push themselves a little harder, and maybe we can get more Canadian football players winning the Lou Marsh.”
The award was established in 1936, and is presented annually to Canada’s top athlete, professional or amateur, in honour of former Toronto Star sports editor Lou Marsh. A panel of journalists from Canada’s leading news organizations gather in Toronto each December to debate candidates and vote for the winner.
Canadian soccer star Christine Sinclair won it last year.
In addition to Cornish, Raonic and Humphries, the shortlist for this year’s Lou Marsh Trophy also included figure skater Patrick Chan (2011 winner), decathlete Damian Warner and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
“An athlete like Milos Raonic established himself individually over the past few years,” Cornish said. “In football, it can be harder to distinguish yourself like that.”
Cornish says he hopes to the award puts the spotlight on the Canadian game.
“In terms of true Canadian superstar athletes playing football, there aren’t many,” he said. “Now that we’re having more Canadian kids going down south to play college football in the States [Cornish attended the University of Kansas from 2003 to 2006] and in the NFL or here in the CFL, I hope the recognition that I get will have others saying, ‘Hey, I could get that recognition.’ And they’ll strive to do the same.”