Jon Cornish can now set his sights on Mike Pringle’s single-season rushing record.
The Calgary Stampeders running back was the big winner at the CFL awards banquet Thursday night, receiving the league’s outstanding player and top Canadian awards. It’s the second straight year Cornish was honoured as the league’s top Canuck but he’s the first homebrew to capture outstanding player honours in 35 years.
And with the two individual honours under his belt, Cornish said he can focus on Pringle’s single-season rushing mark of 2,065 yards.
“I think I can focus a little bit on more numerical goals, which I don’t really like focusing on because I think they’re reasonably selfish but I need something to focus on,” Cornish said. “People have aspired to get that record as recently as this year but I think it’s sufficiently far away that in terms of total yardage if I didn’t get there and I tried to get there I’d still have a pretty good season.”
The last Canadian to be named outstanding player was Ottawa tight end Tony Gabriel in ‘78. Cornish joins Gabriel and legendary Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson as the only Canadian winners of the CFL’s top individual honour.
Jackson, 77, of Hamilton, was a three-time winner (1963, ‘66, ’69) and both he and Gabriel, 64, of Burlington, Ont., are Canadian Football Hall of Fame members.
Cornish hopes by being named the CFL’s outstanding player he can inspire young Canadians to strive to excel in football.
“I didn’t know this was the situation in the CFL that a Canadian hadn’t won in a long time,” Cornish said. “I’m happy I could do it because I think it will really inspire kids in all different sports to try your best and see what you can do.
“You never know what you’re capable of.”
Other Calgary winners included kicker Rene Paredes (special-teams) and centre Brett Jones (rookie). Brendon LaBatte of the Saskatchewan Roughriders was named top lineman while Montreal Alouettes linebacker Chip Cox received the top defensive player award.
Voting was conducted by 42 members of Football Reporters of Canada and the eight CFL head coaches.
Other winners included Montreal linebackers Shea Emry (Jack Gaudaur Veterans Trophy) and Kyries Herbert (Tom Pate Memorial Award, outstanding community service) and longtime Edmonton Eskimos equipment manager Dwayne Mandrusiak (Commissioners Award for outstanding contribution), who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
The six-foot, 217-pound Cornish received 46 votes for MOP after running for a CFL-high 1,813 yards, the most in a season by a Canadian. The 29-year-old native of New Westminster, B.C., also led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,157) and TDs (14) and helped Calgary (14-4) finish atop the West Division.
Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray was the finalist. The 34-year-old had a CFL-record 77.2 per cent completion average this season with just two interceptions in 303 pass attempts to become the first player to have an interception percentage under 1.0 (0.7).
However, Ray only appeared in 10 regular-season games, missing seven starts due to injury and being a healthy scratch in Toronto’s regular-season finale.
Cornish received 48 votes as top Canadian, with Winnipeg linebacker Henoc Muamba the finalist. The six-foot, 230-pound Muamba, taken first overall in 2011, was a bright spot for the Blue Bombers (3-15), finishing second overall in tackles (106) and adding 18 special-teams tackles, a sack and interception.
Muamba, 24, was born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) but grew up in Mississauga, Ont. He also was Winnipeg’s outstanding player and top defensive player nominees.
Cox, 30, of Columbus, Ohio, received 42 votes for anchoring a Montreal defence that allowed a CFL-low 314.3 yards per game. The five-foot-nine, 185-pound Cox led the league in tackles (club-record 115), had a team-high 12 sacks and four interceptions in his eighth season with the club.
In Cox’s mind, the award was a long time coming.
“I’ve always felt I’ve been the best the defensive player since probably 2009, 2010,” Cox said. “This year, finally everyone else agrees with me.
“But it’s never about me and that’s why I never speak on it or even say anything about it . . . because it’s about our team. I wish it was 2009 or 2010 (years Montreal won Grey Cups) and I wasn’t up for the award because I’d still be playing for one of these (Grey Cup rings) and that’s the most important thing.”
The six-foot-one, 244-pound Hughes registered a league-high 18 sacks. The 29-year-old native of Saginaw, Mich., anchored a Calgary defence that led the league in sacks (63) and was second in fewest points allowed (22.9 points per game).
Paredes received 47 votes after leading the league in scoring with 213 points and making 54-of-57 field goals (league-record 94.7 per cent). The Venezuela native, who grew up in Pierrefonds, Que., was an undrafted free agent who also hit a league-record 39 straight field goals this year.
“Playing at Concordia I knew I wanted to play in this league,” Paredes said. “So many teams passed on me and all I could do was use it as motivation.
“I’m happy the Calgary Stampeders took a chance and I’m pretty sure they’re happy now.”
The six-foot-one, 198-pound Beswick posted a league-leading 24 special-teams tackles and was an East Division all-star this year. The 30-year-old Vancouver native has led Hamilton in special-teams tackles the last four seasons.
The six-foot-four, 323-pound LaBatte garnered 37 ballots in top lineman voting. The 27-year-old native of Weyburn, Sask., led an offensive line that paved the way for Kory Sheets, the CFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,598 yards, and allowed 57 sacks, third-fewest overall.
But LaBatte’s priority is helping the Riders beat Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup game Sunday at Mosaic Stadium.
“The personal recognition is something you look back on when your playing days are done,” he said. “But unless you’ve got the championship, I don’t think your career is really solidified the way it should be.”
The six-foot-five, 291-pound Keeping, 31, of Uxbridge, Ont., centred a Toronto line that not only protected Ray but helped Toronto lead the CFL in passing (300.3 yards per game).
The rookie vote was a close one with Jones, a ‘13 second-round pick, receiving 26 votes to become the first centre to win it. The six-foot-two, 319-pound Weyburn native cracked Calgary’s starting lineup and was its only offensive lineman to dress for every game.
Jones, 22, started on a Stampeders offence that led the CFL in net offensive yards (383.4 per game), TDs (51), scoring (30.5 points per game) and rushing (141.5 yards per game). But he had a special request when pulling out his acceptance speech, asking, “Hang on, my pants are kind of tight.”
Jones credited his family and Regina Rams coaches for his success but said when he arrived in Calgary he wanted to justify the team’s faith in him.
“I didn’t want to let my teammates down or myself,” he said. “Calgary took a chance on me, I’m so happy to be there.
“I had a high expectation if I had the opportunity to play.”
Gable led the East Division in rushing (782 yards) and averaged a solid six yards per carry while running for seven TDs. The former USC star added 55 catches for 600 yards and five touchdowns and was fourth in yards from scrimmage (1,382) and eighth in all-purpose yards (1,630).
The CFL awards are sponsored by Gibson’s Finest.