November 29, 2022

O’Leary: Alternate end of season awards

We saw the CFL’s best of the best recognized on Nov. 17 in Regina, ahead of the 109th Grey Cup. To the surprise of few, we saw Zach Collaros walk away with his second consecutive Most Outstanding Player award. To the surprise of exactly no one, we saw Nathan Rourke named Most Outstanding Canadian player.

Shout outs to Stanley Bryant (offensive lineman), Lorenzo Mauldin IV (defensive player), Mike O’Shea (coach), Dalton Schoen (rookie) and Mario Alford (special teams) for their respective wins as well.

As we transition from the intensity and all-consuming nature of the playoffs into the quiet of the early days of the off-season, you can’t help but think of some of the league’s other top players and personalities and that they too deserve some love. Since you can’t give out awards for every single aspect of the game in one night, let’s use this time to look back on the 2022 season and put the spotlight on some deserving people that may not have heard their names called almost two weeks back.

Let’s get into some alt-awards — some of which bear consideration for actual awards and others, less so — and spread that love around.

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Breakthrough player of the Year

Nathan Rourke, BC Lions 

The only double up name in this project, it’s hard not to think of Rourke first when you’re running through a mental list of candidates. Put it this way: What did you think of the BC Lions’ chances when we were heading into the off-season a year ago? What did you think of their chances when Michael Reilly announced his retirement in January? And what did you think of them when the Lions came out of their training camp, when Rourke had exactly one CFL season under his belt with 52 completions, 754 passing yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions on his resume?

Rourke shattered any and all expectations around him as the Lions’ starter this year. A month into the season, when he was setting passing records and stacking wins with the Lions, we collectively shifted from doubters to trying to harness our expectations of just how good he could be and how far the Lions might be able to go.

He’ll weigh his NFL options this winter, but if he’s back on the field for BC in 2023, the sky is the limit for him and his team.

Case in point on how strong Rourke’s season was: look at this list of players that make up the honourable mentions.

Honourable mentions: Lorenzo Mauldin IV, Jake Maier, James Butler, A.J. Ouellette, Kurleigh Gittens Jr., Keon Hatcher, Malik Henry, Jamal Peters, Kameron Kelly, Marc-Antoine Dequoy, Jake Ceresna, Tyrice Beverette, Seth Small, Chandler Worthy, John Haggerty.

You’ve got next award, aka future head coach 

Mark Kilam, Calgary Stampeders

Late November and the month of December mark the peak of coaching change season in the CFL. Both Ottawa and Montreal, as this is being written, are in the midst of sorting out head coaching hires. We’ve touched on strong internal candidates for each team — Bob Dyce in Ottawa and Noel Thorpe and Andre Bolduc in Montreal — so let’s use this space for a name that feels like it’s on the cusp of getting called, if not this season then soon.

It feels like Calgary Stampeders’ special teams coordinator Mark Kilam is in a position that many Stamps’ coordinators before him have been in, where when he finds the situation that’s right for him, a head coaching job could be there for the taking. He got his first taste of the job this season, when Stamps’ head coach Dave Dickenson was forced to miss an August game against the REDBLACKS in Ottawa due to COVID-19. Calgary won that game 17-3.

Honourable mentions: Mark Washington, Buck Pierce, Brent Monson, Corey Mace.

Back for his first season of football since 2019, Larry Dean showed that he hadn’t lost a step in 2022, as he broke the 100-tackle mark for the second time in his career (Kevin Sousa/

All the way back award, aka comeback player of the year

Tie: Larry Dean, Saskatchewan Roughriders and Cameron Judge, Calgary Stampeders

When you think of this kind of recognition, it usually goes to someone that’s overcome a significant injury. That’s certainly the case for Dean, who tore his Achilles tendon in a pre-season workout with the Riders in 2021.

By the time Dean took to the field for the Green team this year, he’d been out of the game for 2.5 years, thanks to the cancelled 2020 season. The 34-year-old linebacker didn’t miss a beat. His 101 tackles were four off of his career high and the second time he’d broken the 100-tackle mark in his career, giving him the third-best total in the league. He added in three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Riders didn’t have the success they wanted as a group this year, but Dean’s season was a bright spot and something that fans could rally behind.

The 2021 season was certainly a down one for Judge. The West nominee for Outstanding Canadian in 2019 when he played with the Roughriders, Judge emerged from the cancelled 2020 season in Argos’ Double Blue and wasn’t himself. On a talent-laden team, he got into 13 out of 14 games last year and only had 13 tackles. Yet, the second that the Stamps traded for him last winter, you could sense that Judge would find his way back to productivity in 2022.

He certainly did that, putting together the best season of his five-year career. He had 78 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles — five fumble recoveries (!) —  two interceptions and a pair of touchdowns. That earned him a West Division and CFL All-Star nod, the first of his career. He can now add this fictitious award to his list of 2022 accomplishments.

Honourable mentions: Emmanuel Arceneaux, Andrew Harris.

Please don’t go award, aka don’t retire yet

Henoc Muamba, Toronto Argonauts

If you’re a fan of storylines, Henoc Muamba has a perfectly beautiful one. The first overall pick of the 2011 CFL Draft, Muamba has had a successful career, establishing himself as a consistently productive and positive presence on all of the four CFL teams he’s suited up for. A two-time CFL All-Star, the 33-year-old finally got to hold and lift the Grey Cup this year, serving as a key piece of the Toronto Argonauts’ defence. A father of three, he felt all of the emotion when he was named the game’s MVP and Most Valuable Canadian. Seeing his daughter, Thea, as he was named the double-winner brought it all together and provided a picture-perfect moment for him.

To many people, that marks the perfect sunset for any athlete to ride off into. They’re not wrong about that, either. Muamba ended the 2022 season standing on top of the Canadian football world, having led his hometown team to its first Grey Cup win in five years, while taking down a goliath of a Winnipeg Blue Bombers team.

If you watched Muamba go from that stage and out into the community in the days after the Argos’ incredible win, you saw a reason for him to perhaps prolong his career. He took the Grey Cup to a Maple Leafs game and received a standing ovation at Scotiabank Arena. A few days later he and his teammates did the same at a Raptors game, with Drake cheering them on from courtside. On the morning of the team’s championship rally, Muamba met with Toronto mayor (and former CFL commissioner) John Tory.

Simply (and selfishly, given my platform), Muamba is a wonderful ambassador for his team and the league he plays in. He was extremely productive this year, with 75 tackles, two interceptions and three sacks. True, he’ll be hard-pressed to create an ending to any future season that’ll top this one, but the CFL is better with Muamba in it.

My lasting memory from that Argos championship rally last week is Muamba addressing the crowd and Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons mouthing along some of the motivational words that Muamba shared. I’d love to see him continue to share those messages with this team and Argos fans beyond this season, if he wants to.

Honourable mentions: Andrew Harris, Brandon Banks, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Bryan Burnham, Shawn Lemon, Almondo Sewell.

Shawn Oakman had two tackles and a sack in the Argos’ Grey Cup win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Kevin Sousa/

Staring into a world of pain award, aka most intimidating opponent 

Shawn Oakman, Toronto Argonauts

A purely subjective choice here and it should be noted that in reality the entirety of the CFL roster would strike fear into my heart if I had to line up against them in any capacity.

With that said, anyone that’s had to play against Shawn Oakman is deserving of a bonus, in my opinion.

There are certain athletes that you see on your screens and that you study that leave you feeling like you know what to expect. Then there’s someone like Oakman, who just carries the 287 pounds on his six-foot-nine frame in a way that makes him stand out from the rest of the super-sized humans that he works with and against on a weekly basis.

Seeing Oakman in-person this season, especially from the sidelines at Mosaic Stadium during Grey Cup week, made the idea of trying to stand between him and your quarterback, or taking a hit from him as a quarterback, feel like a physical impossibility. I wouldn’t fault someone for turtling or turning and running away from him.

Honourable mention: Literally the entire CFL roster.

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