Rob Cote was trying to be circumspect, but the Calgary Stampeders fullback felt compelled to defend his teammate, because running back Jon Cornish had already proved enough to him.
“There was another running back in the league — I don’t want to name names — who said…what did he say? ‘It hurts to be a running back’ or something like that,” Cote said Thursday. “And [Jon] was almost insulted by that comment. He said, ‘That is your job. You don’t say it hurts to be a running back. This is what you want, this is what you’re paid to do.'”
Cornish had fantastic numbers in 2012 — a Canadian record 1,457 rushing yards — but Cote stood with his shoulders back and his hands on his hips in front of the newest reporter to ask how hard Cornish had in fact worked in his first full season as Calgary’s featured tailback.
“I think they overlook a great proportion of the stuff [Cornish] does— the physical and mental preparation,” Cote said. “They kind of look at him as a bit of a class clown. He is a bit of an eccentric dude, and it gets the media going.”
Everything Cornish has achieved, especially the Most Outstanding Canadian award he won Thursday night, he has earned, Cote affirmed: “[The media] don’t appreciate that [Cornish’s] No. 1 goal and focus has never stopped being football.”
The prolific and pontifical writer Norman Mailer once wrote that manhood — although he could have said the same about any kind of development or achievement — was not innate. “Manhood was earned provided you were good enough, bold enough,” Mailer wrote. “There are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will.”
Cornish pondered the philosophy carefully before the media swarmed on Thursday. He nodded slowly. “I think it is pretty accurate if I were to describe my own growth over the last six months,” he said. Six months ago Cornish reprimanded his offensive line over Twitter after he ran for minus one rushing yard on six carries against B.C. in Week 5.
“For me, it is not so much about earning anyone’s respect but my own, and I felt, after the first few weeks of the season, I really didn’t respect what I was accomplishing,” Cornish said. “I felt I needed to grow, so I made that choice. I made the choice to dedicate myself to my craft.
“I made film study one of the activities that I do, and I made working out something that I focus on.”
Cornish ran for 1,250 yards in the final 14 weeks, and broke Edmonton legend Normie Kwong’s 56-year Canadian record. But then he was fined for allegedly mooning Saskatchewan Roughriders fans, and the antics became more interesting than the statistics.
Left tackle Edwin Harrison shakes his head because he knows the truth; Cornish, an aspiring graduate student in mathematics, obsesses over all underappreciated minutiae.
“Jon wants to know, as far as blocking assignments are concerned, what he needs to do,” Harrison said. “Jon wants to know things about where the offensive line is going to go, and how this lineman is going to attack this defender on this particular play.”
Harrison accepted Cornish’s criticism of the offensive line, although wished it had stayed within the dressing room. But, in a way, Harrison believes it actually became a watershed in Calgary’s season for an offensive line that had so many changing parts, and a backup quarterback, Kevin Glenn, who was slowly finding his rhythm in a starting role. Calgary then won ten games between August and November.
In front of another big crowd of reporters Thursday, some wondering if he felt like a role model for young Canadian running backs, Cornish credited Stampeders head coach John Hufnagel, offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson, and all his teammates for their patience and support. “I let out all the immaturity I had left in that moment,” Cornish said about exposing his butt to Saskatchewan fans.
Cote and Harrison think the running back, the singular man, does not need to be self-effacing. Cornish’s muscles have grown with strict hours in the gym. His football brain is expanding and continues to absorb every snippet of new information. And his reputation among his teammates is incredibly strong.
Perhaps Cornish’s development represents Calgary’s steady upward journey to Sunday’s 100th Grey Cup.
“Being a running back is not hard, it is a choice,” he said.
“[Cornish] is growing and he is learning,” Harrison said. “We’re all men, we’re all adults; you’re never too old to learn a lesson, you’re never too old to say that you can’t learn something from somebody else.
“Each week [Cornish] is progressively getting older and becoming much more of a leader on this team…If everybody doesn’t know it that is OK. As long as you’re respected by the other men in that locker room that is all we’ve ever needed.”