Matt Norman’s standout rookie season with the B.C. Lions is coming to a premature close, but it’s ending on his terms.
The offensive guard is slated to play the final game of the season Friday in Montreal against the Alouettes before heading back to the University of Western Ontario to study for his teaching certificate.
“It’s just so that I can be productive in the off-season,” Norman said after practice Tuesday.
Norman, in his first pro season following his university career with the Western Mustangs, has started seven of B.C.’s eight games.
He plans to return to the Lions next season after completing the necessary qualifications to teach high school history and geography. Western’s teaching program is currently a one-year program, but it will be extended to two years starting in the 2013-14 academic year.
“Without getting too complicated, if I don’t do this now, I won’t be able to teaching in the off-season and get some experience for teaching down the road,” he said.
Norman, a 24-year-old Chateauguay, Que., native who was the Lions’ third-round choice (22nd overall) in this year’s CFL draft, wants to be ready for the time when his playing days are done for good. In addition to teaching full-time, he hopes to coach.
“I don’t know how long my career in the CFL is going to last,” he said. “Next year? The year after that? Five years down the road? Who knows? But I want to be able to step into a career as soon as I’m done instead of having to go through school again.”
Norman was schooled in his first pro regular-season game against Winnipeg, when he was pulled from his starting post at half-time, but has excelled since then. With his help, B.C. has allowed a league-low 10 sacks. The West Division-leading Lions (6-2) have also racked up four straight wins heading into the game against East Division-leading Als (5-3.)
Lions coach Mike Benevides said Norman has done everything that has been required of him while growing as a player and developing his skills.
“When you look at what he had to do as a rookie offensive lineman, right off the bat, he performed at a high level that enabled our offence to run the ball extremely well and (the team) to be extremely effective — and find a way to win six games,” Benevides said. “He’s been very impressive. He’s got a real bright future in our league.”
Quarterback Travis Lulay called Norman’s first season “a pretty good story.” He praised the rookie for being able to jump in as a starter right away and bounce back from his difficult first game.
“He’s been a special player for us to this point,” said Lulay. “(His departure) will be disappointing, just because he’s a guy who’s been doing a great job in front of me.”
Defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell, who will return Friday after serving a two-game suspension for twisting Edmonton lineman Simeon Rottier’s arm, praised the rookie for his clean play.
“He’s very legitimate,” said Mitchell, who has battled against Norman in practice. “When I just kept trying to beat the hell out of him and tried to beat him down, he never came at me or lashed at me. He took it with respect.”
Norman earned the respect of coaches and players by helping to fill a void on the offensive line after three veterans — Jon Hameister-Ries, Dean Valli and Jesse Newman — were all sidelined early in training camp with knee injuries. Hameister-Ries and Valli have since returned, but Newman remains on the nine-game injured list and has one more to sit out before he can return.
Meanwhile, Hameister-Ries has missed action due to ongoing knee and back troubles. Although Norman’s departure, expected for months, will pose challenges, he will go with the blessing of coach Benevides and general manager Wally Buono.
“What matters really, when you take a look at it, is what the man wants,” said Benevides. “It’s what the individual wants.”
Such talk is not what one would expect from coaches, who usually stress the needs of the team above everything else. But Benevides said it is important to support Norman’s decision and let him go, because he is doing something that he really believes in “for the right reasons.”
“He’s one of us,” said Benevides. “He’s part of our family, and we’ll bring him back when he’s done what he has to do.”
Norman said it won’t be easy to leave, because he has had “amazing” experiences, progressed as a player and built strong relationships with his teammates. He hates the idea of having to sit and watch his former Western Ontario team, which he plans to help coach, as well as the Lions, but still believes it’s time to go.
After he plays one more CFL game.
“Honestly, I’m not really approaching it in any different way,” he said. “Mentally, it’s the same and the same as anything I do in life. I take it one day at a time. So I’ll focus on football this week and then, when football’s over, I just have to go on to the next thing.”
Notes: Friday’s game is the first of back-to-back contests between the Lions and Alouettes. The clubs will meet again Sept. 8 at B.C. Place. ... Lions centre Angus Reid returned to practice after sitting out Monday with a foot injury suffered in Saturday’s win over Winnipeg. He is expected to play against the Als. ... Lions defensive lineman Maurice Evans, who replaced Mitchell against the Blue Bombers, will remain on the roster rather than being returned to the practice roster, but he could be scratched, said Benevides. ... Former Lions middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian returned to Vancouver after being released by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings on the weekend. He is currently within a 10-day window for other NFL clubs to sign him before the option year of his Lions contract kicks in.