Decades after Russ Jackson’s retirement, wait continues for next Canadian starting QB

Almost 50 years after retiring, Russ Jackson is still waiting for the CFL’s next Canadian-born starting quarterback.

Jackson, 80, retired in 1969 after leading the Ottawa Rough Riders to a second straight Grey Cup title and the third of his illustrious 12-year career. The Hamilton native was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1973 and is regarded as the best Canadian-born quarterback ever to play in the CFL.

But the Canadian quarterback has been a rare sighting since. Two will start the ‘17 season on CFL rosters — Calgary native Andrew Buckley with the Stampeders and Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ont., with the Saskatchewan Roughriders — but both are backups.

“I don’t know if we’re turning a corner or not,” Jackson said. “Let’s face it, in Calgary we know who the starting quarterback is going to be (CFL MVP Bo Levi Mitchell).

“But you never know with injuries what can happen. That’s the way it happened for me when the quarterbacks got injured and I got the chance. As they say, the rest is history.”

It’s an uphill climb for Canadian quarterbacks competing for a roster spot traditionally dominated by Americans. In 2011, Calgary drafted Hec Crighton Trophy-winning quarterback Brad Sinopoli from the University of Ottawa. But with Americans Henry Burris, Kevin Glenn, Tate and Mitchell firmly entrenched ahead of him, Sinopoli moved to slotback and last year helped Ottawa win the Grey Cup.

“Well, it’s the big thing,” Jackson said.

“It’s getting the opportunity and that’s what a lot of Canadian kids have never received.

“We’ll just hope for them and that one has some success.”

At least Bridge has one start to his name. He was under centre for Montreal’s 2015 regular-season finale — a 30-24 overtime loss to Saskatchewan — making him the first Canadian to start a CFL game since B.C.’s Giulio Caravatta in 1996.

The 25-year-old Bridge, who joined the Riders in August 2016 after being released by Montreal, entered Saskatchewan’s camp well under the radar behind Glenn and former NFL player Vince Young. But Young suffered a torn hamstring, leaving the six-foot-four, 229-pound Bridge and rookie Bryan Bennett to battle for the backup position.

Bridge saw action in both of Saskatchewan’s exhibition games — starting the club’s opening 25-25 tie with Winnipeg — and completed 26-of-38 passes for 233 yards with a TD and interception. Bennett finished 10-of-22 passing for 127 yards and a touchdown and both he and Young were among the Riders’ final cuts Saturday, giving Bridge the backup job.

Buckley has also shown promise, winning the No. 2 job in Calgary after spending last season as a short-yardage specialist, scoring eight rushing touchdowns in the process.

He made an impression this pre-season when he ran in one touchdown and passed for another in the fourth quarter of the Stampeders’ 36-35 exhibition win over Edmonton.

“Andrew, he earned it,” said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson, himself a former CFL quarterback. “He did a great job in that last pre-season game.

“(He) stepped up and it was good to see.”

But with veterans firmly entrenched ahead of both Bridge and Buckley, the wait for the next Canadian-born CFL starter continues.

“It’s long overdue,” Jackson said. “It should’ve happened years ago.”

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