The Canadian Football League has become fertile recruitment ground for the Canadian bobsled team.
Following the lead of former CFL running back Jesse Lumsden, current Hamilton Tiger-Cats wide receiver Sam Giguere and former Toronto Argonaut linebacker Jean-Nicolas Carriere are on Canadian crews this winter.
Another half-dozen athletes on the national and development teams come from university or junior football.
“I think Jesse woke the beast,” says Nathan Cicoria, high-performance director of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
“We’re ecstatic. Jesse is the highest-profile football athlete that we’ve had. He’s done wonders for promoting us in football circles.”
While the bobsled team also draws athletes from track and field and rugby backgrounds, there’s elements of football that smooth the transition from gridiron to sled. Speed and power are the common denominators, but there are other transferable traits.
Unlike track and field athletes, football players come to bobsled accustomed to the internal competition for jobs, but also to operating within a team. They’re also used to training and performing in cold, snow and rain.
The banging their bodies absorb in a bobsled, and the occasional crash, is similar to contact on the football field.
“I think football players are used to being hit all the time and all those impacts, it kind of gets you prepared for being in the bobsled,” Giguere points out.
“You’re on the road for some time. For somebody that’s not used to the long grind of a long season, it might be hard and I think football prepares you for that.”
Lumsden says time away from the bobsled track spent in meetings, watching video and working out in the weight room is similar to what a football player does off the field.
“It’s very similar except we’re doing it in Altenberg, Germany, or Igls, Austria,” he says.
Giguere’s Tiger-Cats didn’t make the CFL playoffs, so their season ended Nov. 1. The Sherbrooke, Que., athlete is preparing to move to Calgary and race on the Europa Cup, which is a developmental racing circuit.
Giguere says there’s no clause in his football contract with Hamilton that prohibits him from pursuing other sports in the off-season.
Edmonton’s Lumsden and Carriere of Rockland, Ont., are on Canada’s World Cup team. The season opens Friday in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Lumsden was a brakeman for Pierre Lueders at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. They were fifth in both the two-man and four-man races.
Lumsden retired from the CFL in 2011 after four seasons with the Tiger-Cats and stints with the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders that were cut short due to shoulder and knee injuries.
“The biggest sell you’re going to get to a football player is, if you’re passionate about your country, you’re going to get the opportunity to represent your country in sport which you’ll never get to do in football on an international level,” Lumsden says.
“That was one of the biggest draws for me. Walking into the opening ceremonies and competing at the Vancouver Olympics surpasses any amount of rushing yards in a game that I’ve got, any of the touchdowns that I scored. It trumps everything.”
Giguere, 27, contacted Lumsden prior to attending a Calgary talent identification camp in March to discuss the prospect of combining a CFL career football and bobsled.
“I didn’t want to waste anybody’s time,” Giguere says. “My football career is not over. I want to be playing for the next 10 years if I can.
“I wanted to make sure a guy who had been there before and who had been through it like Jesse could tell me ‘yeah, you can do both.’ He thought it was possible.”
A shoulder injury ended Carriere’s CFL career in 2010 after two seasons with the Argos. He discovered the body he built for football was the same body he’d need for bobsled.
“The realization for me was indirectly I’d been training for bobsled for seven or eight years,” Carriere said. “It’s so similar. Football requires you to master Olympic lifts like snatch and clean. Those are some of the most utilized lifts in bobsled. It makes for a natural progression.
“You just have to learn to hit a sled and run alongside it.”
The 27-year-old has the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, as his goal.
“I told my mom ‘I’m going to the Olympics. That’s my plan for the next two years,“’ Carriere said. “Making the team this year is a first step towards that process.”
Not all positions on the football field lend themselves to bobsleigh. Neither Lumsden nor Giguere can see a 300-pound lineman wedging himself into the back of a sled on the run.
“It’s kind of a tight squeeze in there,” Giguere says.
There’s also weight restrictions. A four-man crew, plus sled and gear can’t weight more than 630 kilograms (1,389 pounds).
“I think a punter might be useless at the back of a sled unless he’s a real fast runner,” adds Lumsden.
A football player won’t automatically take to the sport either.
“Some people get it quickly or they don’t get it at all,” Cicoria says.
“It’s more the culture of the sport that we have to indoctrinate them to, preparing the sleds, doing the runners and doing the pre-race prep. We have to educate them in the way of the sport.”
“Pushing on turf is different from pushing on ice. Foot placement and loading the sled is a very sport-specific thing they have to learn. It takes some run volume.”