TORONTO — Chad Owens has come full circle.
In 2008, Owens was injured and out of football, unsure about his future. On Thursday night, the Toronto Argonauts speedy receiver was named the CFL’s outstanding player.
“Four years ago I had no real idea what the CFL was,” said Owens, who accepted the trophy with his nine-year-old son, Chad Jr., who completed his first year of football as a defensive player. “Everything that happened to me prior in my career, it all happened for this moment.
“In 2008 did I see this? No. But this off-season did I see this? Yes. You always have to believe you have a chance and I truly did. I’m just so thankful it came true.”
Owens, 30, affectionately dubbed The Flyin’ Hawaiian, got the nod over Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish in voting by the Football Reporters of Canada and the eight CFL head coaches. Owens received 41 of the 57 available ballots.
The five-foot-eight, 180-pound Owens led the CFL in receiving (94 catches for 1,328 yards and six TDs), return yards (2,510) and all-purpose yards (league-record 3,863).
Owens is a big reason why Toronto will make its first Grey Cup appearance since ’04 when it faces Cornish and the Stampeders in the 100th anniversary of the CFL’s title game Sunday at Rogers Centre.
After an outstanding career at the University of Hawaii, Owens was drafted in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL draft by Jacksonville. But after bouncing between the Jaguars (twice) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers he signed with the Arena Football League’s Colorado Crush.
Owens, a married father of three, ripped up his knee in ’08 with the Crush, then the league folded.
He joined the Montreal Alouettes in ’09 but after spending most of the season on the practice roster was dealt to Toronto on June 24, 2010 for a 2011 fourth-round draft pick. Owens took off with the Argos, being named the league’s top special-teams player in 2010 and is the only player in pro football history to surpass 3,000 all-purpose yards in three straight seasons.
“This means hard work, perseverance, dedication, passion if you do all those things dreams can come true,” he said. “You can attain your goals no matter how high or unachievable they may seem.
“I’ve got plenty of motivation from my family already but I want to go out there and be the best every time I step on to the field. That’s why you play, you don’t play to be second place.”
Owens heaped lavish praise upon Cornish.
“Jon had a great year, I really appreciate the way you play,” Owens said. “Everyone should look at that as an example of how you play the game.
“You definitely represent Canadians, just an awesome job.
Cornish said Owens was a deserving winner.
“The thing is he came into the league as a returned and they gave him a chance to be a receiver,” Cornish said. “And he has run with it.”
The six-foot, 217-pound Cornish had a record-setting ’12 campaign of his own.
He led the CFL with 1,457 rushing yards, the first Canadian to do so since Ottawa’s Orville Lee in 1988. Cornish, 28, also broke Norm Kwong’s 56-year-old record for most rushing yards in a season by a Canuck of 1,437.
Cornish missed becoming the first Canadian in 34 years to be named the CFL’s outstanding player but didn’t leave empty-handed.
The native of New Westminster, B.C., received 54 votes as top Canadian ahead of Montreal Alouettes linebacker Shea Emry, of Richmond, B.C. A grateful Cornish thanked a myriad of people including B.C. Lions tailback Andrew Harris — a Winnipeg native — Kwong, Calgary head coach John Hufnagel and his teammates but saved his final thank-you for his mother, Margarent, who is married to a woman.
“I’d like to thank my two moms because who are you without family,” he said. “They are the two most important people in my life so having them there made the event that much more special.
“It’s a tremendous honour and at this point in my career it’s the biggest accolade I’ve achieved and I’m definitely thankful.”
Cornish especially appreciated Stampeders offensive lineman Dimitri Tsoumpas pulling him aside last year after the club released Joffrey Reynolds, Calgary’s all-time rushing leader, to get Cornish into the starting lineup.
“He told me I had big shoes to fill and for me that really enlightened me because Joffrey Reynolds is a future Hall of Famer,” Cornish said. “I didn’t really understand I was taking his job . . . but the reality was that I took his job and I didn’t really appreciate that fact.”
Emry, who had a career-best 87 tackles this season with seven sacks, was also a finalist for the top defensive player award, finishing behind Edmonton linebacker J.C. Sherritt. Ironically, the two were college teammates at Eastern Washington where Sherritt was a fullback and moved to middle linebacker after Emry left.
Sherritt received 49 votes after recording a league-record 130 tackles along with three sacks and five interceptions.
“I have to thank the CFL, it’s been a blessing for me,” he said. “I also have to thank my teammates because that defensive line protected me.
“I share this award with them and it’s an honour, but this is all about a ring. I’ve always been about championships and will continue to be that way.”
The other award winners were Hamilton receiver Chris Williams (special-teams); Lions offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye (lineman); Winnipeg receiver Chris Matthews (rookie) and Montreal receiver Brian Bratton (Tom Pate award, community service).
The CFL awards are sponsored by Gibson’s Finest.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon honoured all players who’ve participated in the league, along with their families, presenting them the Commissioner’s Award for making significant contributions to the CFL.
The five-foot-nine, 155-pound Williams — the CFL’s top rookie last season — received 56 votes after registering a league-record six return touchdowns in 2012 (five punts, one missed field goal). He was tops in punt returns (78 for 1,117 yards) and second in missed field goal returns (five for 256 yards) for a Hamilton team that missed the playoffs.
“Wow, I can’t believe it, two years in a row,” Williams said. “I have to thank my teammates, they did a great job and made my job easy.
“But we didn’t have the greatest year as a team and we’re going to have to work on changing that.”
Tim Brown of the B.C. Lions was the finalist.
The second time was the charm for Olafioye, who received 37 votes after being the finalist to Montreal’s Josh Bourke for the 2011 top lineman award. This year, it was Bourke, 30, of Windsor, Ont., who settled for being the runner-up.
But Olafioye was still stinging from B.C.’s West Division semifinal loss to Calgary.
“I still have a real bitter taste in my mouth about the game,” he said. “I’d feel a lot better to be here with my teammates and celebrating this together.”
The six-foot-five, 229-pound Matthews received 53 votes. He was Winnipeg’s leading receiver as a rookie, sixth overall, with 81 catches for 1,192 yards and seven TDs.
“Winnipeg gave me the chance to showcase my talents and I want to thank them,” Matthews said. “But it didn’t come easily to me.
“When I first started I was just trying to make the team, everything else kind of just fell into place. This means everything to me.”
B.C. Lions defensive lineman Jabar Westerman, a native of Brampton, Ont., was the finalist.