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The Edmonton Eskimos’ Damaso Munoz, left, tackles the Calgary Stampeders’ Jon Cornish during 2013’s Labour Day Classic. The Stamps and Esks are gearing up for this year’s Labour Day showdown: Both teams are atop the West and going into the game with 7-1 records. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Edmonton Eskimos’ Damaso Munoz, left, tackles the Calgary Stampeders’ Jon Cornish during 2013’s Labour Day Classic. The Stamps and Esks are gearing up for this year’s Labour Day showdown: Both teams are atop the West and going into the game with 7-1 records. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Stampeders Jon Cornish offers fresh legs, good marketing for Labour Day Classic Add to ...

For most of the past two months, Jon Cornish was visible to Calgary Stampeders fans only when they entered their local Co-op grocery stores. There, generally just inside the front door, would be large display of product featuring Cornish’s familiar No. 9 jersey, ball tucked under his left shoulder, plowing determinedly ahead for some of the 2,157 yards he accumulated from scrimmage last year to become only the third Canadian to win most outstanding player honours in CFL history.

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In the midst of the barbecue season, there were always Cornish “RB-Q” chips available. Later, there was a breakfast cereal: Corn flakes that were branded as Cornish Flakes, a cute pun and one that harked back to a nickname he enjoyed as a boy growing up in New Westminster, B.C. To get his name and face on a box of cereal in the grand Wheaties tradition was a stop-and-pause reflective moment for the 29-year-old who has, over time, evolved into one of the league’s most marketable faces.

The association with the grocery chain was all part of a fundraiser for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and here Cornish credits the Stampeders’ relatively new association with the Calgary Flames for setting it in motion. It is the second time in the conversation that Cornish talks about the Flames. The first came up moments earlier in discussing why he will participate in Sunday’s local Pride parade. The Flames’ president of hockey operations, Brian Burke, has participated in it for years, ever since his son Brendan came out. Cornish’s mother, Rev. Margaret Cornish, has a same-sex partner.

“With Brian Burke and the Flames organization, they are very progressive in their whole approach to this,” Cornish said, “so it means a lot to participate.

“I won’t really be doing much,” he added. “I’ll be sitting on a float. But I think it’s a good event for people to truly be themselves – not really care about what other people think about them, but truly be themselves, and that’s what I want to support.”

A day later, Cornish promises to be a little more active – playing the Labour Day Classic against the Edmonton Eskimos, the first in a series of back-to-back games featuring the Alberta provincial rivals that could go a long way in determining the Western Division’s regular-season champion.

The Stamps and Esks are both 7-1 going into the game. Compared with the 48 previous times they’ve met on Labour Day Monday, these are statistically the best the two teams have ever been, in terms of their cumulative winning percentages (.875).

For Cornish, it will be his second game back after missing six in a row recovering from a concussion that he suffered in the season opener against the Montreal Alouettes, the result of a forearm shiver delivered by Als linebacker Kyries Hebert.

Cornish returned to the lineup last weekend for a 32-7 victory over the Ottawa RedBlacks and had a thoroughly respectable game – 74 yards on 16 carries – but said immediately afterward that it was a mere tuneup for him and the real test would be provided by the Esks.

Because of the oddball nature of the CFL this year, where the last-place team in the West has a winning record and the first-place team in the East is a disaster, even a 7-1 team cannot take anything for granted, something Cornish is acutely aware of.

“I think Edmonton, they’ve been a good team and we’ve lost Labour Day Classics to them while I’ve played,” Cornish said. “They’ve never been a team we’ve taken lightly. We’ve always had respect for both the team and the organization and I think this year, they’re finally getting back to the Edmonton of old, and very dominant. So I’m looking forward to competing against them.”

The fact that the Stamps have managed to stay so competitive even without Cornish speaks volumes about the organization that coach John Hufnagel has assembled. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the Stampeders are a better team with Cornish than they are without him.

According to Stampeders defensive end Shawn Lemon, a former Eskimo, Cornish’s return should have a “huge impact” on the team in the second half and may eventually turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It’s unfortunate he had a concussion, but he’s had a chance to rest his legs and be there for the ending part of the season, which is kind of the most important part of the CFL,” Lemon said. “So with the MOP just coming back with fresh legs, with the 10-game stretch coming up, that’ll be big for us.”

Cornish won the past two CFL rushing titles, and last season ran for 1,813 yards, the fourth highest total in league history. It also bettered his own record for most rushing yards by a Canadian, which he originally set two years ago, a mark previously held by the legendary Norman Kwong and that had stood for 56 years.

In his time away from the game, the cerebral Cornish found time to meditate frequently and otherwise keep his mind off the fact that recovery from a concussion requires patience from the patient.

“I think a lot of people, when they’re away from the game, they get depressed,” Cornish said. “They get down. That’s not what I’m trying to do. That’s not part of my MO. For me, being on the sidelines, I just found the positives and did what I could.

“I found things to keep me occupied.”

The Stampeders’ only loss of the season came against the 5-4 B.C. Lions three weeks ago. Edmonton’s sole defeat was by a 26-22 score at home to the Stampeders. Ultimately, if the teams end up tied in the standing, the first tie-breaker will be their head-to-head record, making the results of Monday’s game and Saturday’s rematch potentially ultrasignificant when playoff spots are decided.

“It’s very rare that you get to have two 7-1 teams play against each other,” Cornish said. “For that reason, the fans are going to be ready for a huge game.”

As for all those food products that currently bear his likeness, Cornish said the approach came along largely because the Flames have brought the Stampeders organization “to a new level of sponsorship in dealing with different corporations. Through them, we were able to set up this deal with Co-op and from there Co-op developed the different food products. I’m proud to stand beside each one of the products because they taste great.

“The idea of corn flakes, Cornish Flakes – since I was a little kid, people have been joking about that, so for me to actually see it in reality, a few years down the line, it is definitely something you can look back on fondly.”

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