IN DEPTH: Covering a contentious lobster fishery
Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Continuing coverage: Mass shooting in Nova Scotia
What you need to know about COVID-19 today
The Heroes of 2020
Daily forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish walks to the dressing room after taking a hit against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Nov. 1, 2014.
Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish rushes for a touchdown against the Edmonton Eskimos during the CFL’s Western Final at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Nov. 23, 2014.
Stampeders running back Jon Cornish was named CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 2013.
Jon Cornish has some fun as the Grey Cup was paraded down Stephen Avenue mall to the Olympic Plaza to kick off the 107th Grey Cup festivities in Calgary on Nov. 19, 2019.
As 2020 winds to a close, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson profiles Calgary’s sporting icons of the 2000s…
He could captivate a crowd as a record-setting running back.
These days, Jon Cornish does the same as an advocate, mentor and proud co-founder of the Calgary Black Chambers.
Earlier this fall, in a virtual presentation to a group of local high schoolers, Cornish showed off a special keepsake from his gridiron glory days — the Lou Marsh Trophy.
“I was speaking to students in our soft-skills course, and I was talking about designing your life,” said Cornish, referring to a Calgary Black Chambers mentorship program that connects professionals with teenagers at Father Lacombe High School. “I remember all the way back when I was a little kid, I saw Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and importantly Donovan Bailey, and all of these guys had won Canada’s top athlete — the Lou Marsh Trophy. So I set that out as a goal for myself.
“I was born in 1984, so I came up with Gretzky and Lemieux. I remember watching them. I was a big hockey fan. But then, when Donovan Bailey won it (in 1996), that’s when I thought I could win it. Why? Because he was a person of colour. For me, that was a game-changer. Everybody had called me Black growing up. I was relegated to the achievements of a Black man in Canada. So he was my inspiration. Probably, when I was younger, it wasn’t racialized at that point. I just saw somebody that looked like me get this trophy and so … ‘Hey, I could do that.’ ”
He did, achieving the feat in 2013 thanks to his best of several remarkable seasons with the Calgary Stampeders.
On this day, he shared the proof. “A quiet flex,” as he put it.
“On top of being a star athlete, he’s very charismatic. So he has an ability to really inspire the youth and he’s able to engage them, I think, in a way that many cannot,” said Norman Hounjet, a social studies teacher at Father Lacombe — located in the southeast community of Radisson Heights — and liaison for the mentorship initiative that Cornish has helped to spearhead. “So I think, right away, students connect with him and right away they respect him. They are willing to listen to what he has to say, not only because of the athlete he was but also because of the man that he clearly is.”
According to Hounjet, 44 students have signed up for the program in its inaugural year. Each has been paired with a one-on-one mentor in a field of interest, whether that’s law, medicine, sciences, software engineering, etc.
Cornish, now running an investment advisory practice with his wife Kiran, shared an impactful message during the virtual kickoff.
“He was talking about how it’s important as a young person to think about your future and think about what kind of goals you want to accomplish,” Hounjet said. “So he gave the kids an opportunity to reflect on that and think about, ‘What is success for me? What do I care about?’
“And he said when he was young, what he really wanted to do was to win that trophy. And then it was really cool how he then pulled it out and said, ‘And I was able to accomplish that goal.’ It was cool for the kids to see that and say, ‘This is someone who knows what it means to set a goal and accomplish it.’ I think, for them, that’s very valuable.”
Cornish, a standout for the NCAA’s Kansas Jayhawks before passing up the potential of NFL offers to immediately join the Stampeders, inspired countless kids-in-cleats across Canada to set sky-high goals as they dreamed of football fame.
In nine campaigns with the horse on his helmet, he established himself as one of the CFL’s homegrown greats, erasing Normie Kwong’s longstanding record for most rushing yards by a Canadian running back in a single season in 2012.
The next summer/fall, the B.C.-raised ball-carrier shattered his own mark, rumbling for a career-best 1,813 yards in the ground game. Nobody has topped 1,400 since. Cornish was feted that year with the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award — the first Canuck since 1978 to be so honoured — and with the Lou Marsh Trophy, edging the likes of Kaillie Humphries, Milos Raonic and Jonathan Toews in that vote.
“Jon is one of those guys that he does want history involved,” said Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson, who was calling the plays as Calgary’s offensive coordinator when Cornish was taking an eraser to the league history book. “Everything he does, he researches it … He wants to understand what happened before and he wants to try to put his mark or stamp on the future. I think he respected, obviously, the accomplishments of Normie. But in his mind, I always feel like he came back to Canada right away (after college) because he felt like he could get a real look and he could make an impact.
“I think that he knew he could do it, but I think he also knew he had to put the time and put the work in — and it worked out for him. And when he started having success and reeling in Normie on those records, I definitely know that Jon knew the numbers and it was important to him.
“And when something is important to Jon and he puts his mind to it, he’s going to accomplish it.”
What’s especially important, these days, to a 36-year-old Cornish is his work as president and board chairperson for the Calgary Black Chambers, a not-for-profit society that provides fellowship and networking opportunities for professionals and mentorship and scholarships to the next generation. Their wide-ranging goals are best summarized by this statement from their website: “We believe we can make Calgary the best place for Black people to live and work in Canada.”
Cornish isn’t the only CFL alum on the leadership roster. His former Stampeders teammate Akwasi Antwi and fellow rusher Chucks Okafor are also board members.
Antwi, a linebacker-turned-investment-adviser, paid Cornish a huge compliment, mentioning him in the same breath as NBA icon LeBron James as a star athlete who is determined to use his profile and platform to address social issues.
“Anybody that plays football has passion for the game,” Antwi said. “The good thing about having that drive and that passion is Jon is sort of directing that into a different area, which is trying to help that next generation of Black professionals in Calgary. He’s very passionate about it, and he lets it be known that he’s passionate about it.”
Indeed, this is where the retired running back wants the focus to be.
“Since George Floyd’s passing, it hasn’t been football talk. It’s been how can we be better allies and how can we create diversity and inclusivity?” Cornish said. “It has actually been incredibly refreshing to not be called ‘former football player Jon Cornish,’ and to be called ‘Jon Cornish, president of Calgary Black Chambers and investment adviser, RBC Dominion Securities.’
“I like to think that I’ve come into my own as a person independent of football,” he added. “Certainly, football has allowed me a lot of privilege and a lot of opportunity to get where I am today. But it’s nice to change the conversation a little bit.”
Cornish’s on-field exploits are now detailed in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
He scored 53 career touchdowns and was the CFL’s leading rusher for three straight seasons, completing that hat-trick despite being limited to just nine games in 2014.
Before he was starting on offence, he proved to be a terror on kickoff coverage. (“It’s one of those things that we make a point of showing people — ‘This was the MVP of the league, and this was when he was on special teams,’ ” Dickenson said.)
Although the action was cancelled this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornish has remained a fixture at McMahon Stadium as the Stampeders’ game-day ambassador.
The two-time Grey Cup champion can still captivate a crowd. He isn’t done making a difference.
“I think the ultimate goal is to be known as a philanthropist and an advocate, a person that spoke for those that didn’t otherwise have a voice and helped those with less,” Cornish said. “That is fundamentally what I would like to leave behind.”
Remember me for …
Americans had long topped the rushing charts in the CFL, but Cornish changed that. In 2012, as the Stampeders’ feature running back, he erased Normie Kwong’s single-season record for the most yards by a Canadian ball-carrier. He bettered his total in 2013, a benchmark that still stands.
Oh and another thing …
The B.C.-raised Cornish is one of only three Canadians to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
Staggering stat …
2,157 — With 1,813 yards on the ground and 344 more in the receiving game in 2013, Cornish broke Willie Burden’s franchise-best for most combined yards from scrimmage in one campaign.
These days …
Cornish works as an investment adviser and is a community difference-maker as president of the Calgary Black Chambers.
He said it …
“One thing I do want to get across is the level of gratitude I have for how great the city of Calgary is. The Stampeders are the premier CFL team. But I think more importantly, the way they run their program, they develop people.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020