June 1, 2024

Hall: Cornish aims to remove barriers in football, life


Jon Cornish serves as chancellor of the University of Calgary and works as an investment banker. They’re a Canadian Football Hall of Famer and a two-time Grey Cup champion.

But the legendary Calgary Stampeders tailback sees themself in more modest terms — which isn’t surprising given their disdain for labels.

“For whatever reason, a lot of different groups around town have wanted to bring me in,” Cornish said on Friday, on the eve of Pride Month. “I public speak. I get people excited. I make sure people have a good time.

“And so, I think of myself as a professional mascot.”

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From his time on the field to his post-playing days, Cornish has been an advocate for making football a more inclusive place (Stampeders.com)

According to the Britannica Dictionary, a mascot is a person, animal or object used as a symbol to represent a group (such as a sports team) and bring good luck.

Cornish is passionate about using public profile to help those on the margins while advocating for inclusion in football.

“I lived in intersections my entire life,” they said. “I have a strong relationship with the LGBTQ community. I’m half-black and half-white. I’m a Canadian who played football in the U.S. and in Canada with Americans and Canadians.

“So, I think for me personally, I had the opportunity to see what was going on in the locker-room through a bunch of different lenses.”

Cornish played collegiately at the University of Kansas from 2002-2006.

“It was unspoken, but our showers were segregated,” they said. “There was a Black shower and there was a white shower. And it was just the way it was.”

When Cornish jumped to the professional ranks in 2007, he encountered labels of a different kind.

“People from the southern United States, hung out together,” Cornish said. “People from western side of the States hung out together. Canadian players typically hung out with other Canadians.”

Over time, Cornish witnessed the walls crumble as players from all backgrounds started to hang out with those who weren’t necessarily like them.

And over time, he helped shatter the stereotype that Canadians weren’t good enough to start at positions like tailback and quarterback.

“You see Canadians today in every single different position,” Cornish said. “I think people find it easier to categorize things and hook people into these boxes because that’s easy to understand. And I always had trouble fitting into any category.”

“We need to have football be a more compassionate sport. I know I found my most success on the field when I became more compassionate.”
— Jon Cornish

At the 2012 CFL Awards, Cornish inadvertently stumbled into the category of LGBTQ2S+ advocate by thanking their two moms in their acceptance speech for Most Outstanding Canadian.

After raising her five children on a music teacher’s salary, Margaret Cornish became an Anglican priest and married Andrea Mann.

Jon Cornish thought nothing of mentioning their two moms in the acceptance speech, but by doing so, made headlines all over Canada and in the U.S.

The following year, Cornish travelled with their mom to Saskatoon to speak at an LGBTQ2S+ conference.

“We had the opportunity to write a speech together, and I reflected on my life,” Cornish said. “It’s weird. You get cool. You get good at sports. You have money. You get included. You become an insider.

“But I was an outsider in many different situations in my life. And I always felt that nobody ever took a step to include me. So, I always ensured that when I had the opportunity, I took the steps to include others.”

Now 39, Cornish continues to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ2S+ community. They also founded the Calgary Black Chambers, a non-profit organization that supports and uplifts young BIPOC professionals.

To make football more inclusive, Cornish recommends we look at the high school game. They worry that some young people may shy away from trying out due to fear of being ostracized or mistreated.

They also want to see more women in the coaching ranks, at all levels of the game.

“Women have been shown to be more compassionate in various things — as CEOs, as managers,” they said. “We need to have football be a more compassionate sport. I know I found my most success on the field when I became more compassionate.”

Cornish sees a bright future for the next generation of football players, through compassion and understanding that everyone brings their own gifts to the game.

Regardless of how anyone labels them.

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