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Toronto Argonauts defensive back Byron Parker, left, seen chasing down Hamilton running back Jesse Lumsden in a July 3 CFL game, has been traded to to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (J.P. Moczulski/CP)
Toronto Argonauts defensive back Byron Parker, left, seen chasing down Hamilton running back Jesse Lumsden in a July 3 CFL game, has been traded to to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (J.P. Moczulski/CP)


Jesse Lumsden was all about tantalizing glimpses Add to ...

From the first time a kickoff sailed into his hands and Jesse Lumsden turned up field, it was obvious that here was something special.

That was at McMaster University in Hamilton, and that was then a tall, slender kid fresh out of high school with crazy straight-line speed and tremendous instincts for the game.

He would become, by the end of his college career, arguably the greatest running back in CIS history. There were others who might have been as fast, and others who might have carried the ball with the same power and determination (among the latter, Lumsden's father, Neil, and his college and later Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach, Greg Marshall), but in Canadian university ball, there's been no one else with his full skill set.

After winning a Hec Crichton Trophy as the most outstanding college player in Canada, he went on to the East-West Shrine Game, to a brief crack at the NFL, and to a cruelly-abbreviated CFL career.

Now, forced into premature retirement at 28, Lumsden leaves behind a whole bunch of unanswered questions.

Just how good was he? How good could he have been? How did he stack up against the greatest Canadian running backs ever to play the game?

Is it possible we've seen the last of someone who could have been one of the greatest Canadian-born players of all time?

Lumsden announced Tuesday he is giving up football, opting instead to concentrate on the non-tackling sport - bobsleigh - which took him to the Olympics in 2010 as a brakeman, and in which he could punch a ticket for Sochi in 2014, this time as a driver. The final straw was a knee injury suffered after he joined the Calgary Stampeders last fall, which has yet to completely heal.

Before that, there was the year-ending shoulder injury suffered in the first game of the 2009 season with the Edmonton Eskimos - a moment which confirmed for most that he would never be fully football-fit again. And before that, there were the myriad hurts which ruined his chances of becoming a true hometown hero with the Ticats, who drafted him in 2005.

Lumsden always resisted the notion that he was injury-prone, but it was either that or a remarkable run of bad luck which cost him large parts of his six-year CFL career, as well as any real chance to make the Seattle Seahawks in 2004.

He certainly had the physical tools and body type to play in that league, but in NFL training camps, undrafted free agents have only a very short time to make a great first impression, and a banged up Lumsden couldn't make the cut. (By the time he got his second and final NFL shot, with the Washington Redskins in 2006, he was even less somebody's bright idea and even more of a prohibitive long shot.)

So all that's left now are the memories, and the numbers - 1,842 yards on 291 carries during his career (a 6.3-yard average), and especially 743 yards rushing on 98 carries in 2007 with Hamilton, for a remarkable 7.6-yard average. That season, when he was fit, he dominated - dominated in a way that few running backs of any nationality have in what is a pass-happy game.

The list of truly great Canadian running backs is a short one, at least when restricting the conversation to the past half-century.

Rueben Mayes is right at the top, a star at Washington State University, a third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints, who played in two Pro Bowls. Ron Stewart, from Queen's University, was Russ Jackson's backfield mate with the old Ottawa Rough Riders, and merited an honourable mention when TSN named the top 50 players in league history. Tshimanga Biakabutuka was a first-round pick out of Michigan who scored 14 rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Kerry Carter and Dahrran Diedrick were big-time U.S. college players at Stanford and Nebraska, respectively, though neither have done much as pros. Orville Lee led the CFL in rushing in his rookie year of 1988 - only the second Canadian to do so, after Normie Kwong, who was 34th on the TSN list - and Jon Cornish and Calvin McCarty are significant CFL players now.

Based on the numbers alone, Jesse Lumsden barely squeaks into the conversation. There just isn't enough available evidence to do more.

But anyone who saw him during those brief shining moments when he was fully healthy and running to daylight understands that they caught a glimpse of what might have been - and what might have been was remarkable.

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