VANCOUVER – Every single move Jon Cornish makes on a football field is planned.
A student of the game, the Calgary Stampeders running back almost effortlessly slices through defences, but each juke or spin that leaves a defender grabbing at air has been researched and studied, with a story of its own.
“The strongest memory is no match for the faintest ink,” said Cornish. “People can think about things all they want. I have it written down so I can see exactly what I’m going to do.
“My game is so far removed from the thought process. It’s natural. I’m out there and I just ‘do’ … I think a lot of people try to interfere in the process of playing football – they (inject) thought.”
The Stampeders hit the practice field at B.C. Place Stadium on Wednesday ahead of Sunday’s Grey Cup game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and Cornish explained how he developed a physical list of moves so that all he has to do on the field is react.
“I realized primarily through meditation that a lot of the stuff we do is not real,” said the 30-year-old. “I’ve had the move list for about 2 1/2 years now and after I found it was effective I added a few extra moves. If you see me do a few different things on the field it’s never a new move, it’s always stuff that I’ve researched.”
A native of nearby New Westminster, B.C., Cornish has even started to add techniques used by fellow University of Kansas running back and NFL great Gale Sayers.
“I truly believe Gale Sayers is the greatest running back that ever lived,” said Cornish, who won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete last year. “Every running back likes to credit his vision, but Gale Sayers was able to see in 360 (degrees). He knew everything that was going on on the field and that’s something that I’ve tried to (incorporate).”
Also the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2013, Cornish was injured for a big chunk of this season, but still managed to lead the league in rushing with 1,082 yards to go along with five touchdowns for a team that went 15-3 before thumping the Edmonton Eskimos in the West Division final.
“Jon does what he does because he is a different person,” said Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. “When I say that I mean that he’s not doing your normal preparations during the off-season. He’s doing different things – learning how to meditate, learning how to do karate. Whatever it is, he’s learning how to be a different and better athlete.”
Stampeders head coach John Hufnagel stressed that for all the great things his running back does, Cornish is just one piece of Calgary’s puzzle.
“Jon’s a very good football player, but he plays for a very good football team,” said the veteran coach. “Whether Jon’s in the game or not in the game, the Calgary Stampeders are still a good football team. But he does bring an extra dimension.
“He’s a strong, hard runner. You know, if we can get him into the second level, it can be a long day for the defence. Unfortunately, it’s going to be very difficult to get to second level against Hamilton.”
The Tiger-Cats, who were 9-9 before downing the Montreal Alouettes in the East final, allowed by far the fewest rushing yards per game in 2014 with an average of just 72.7.
“Jon is a very important key to our offence because we are a run-first team and we are going to rely on him a lot of the time,” said Mitchell. “He’s a very hard player to stop and you have to focus on him.”
While Cornish won’t get this year’s most outstanding player nod, his teammates see what he does on a daily basis and marvel at his talents.
“He’s still the best player in this league. Everybody knows it,” said Calgary slotback Nik Lewis. “He’s the most valuable person to our team, but to win 15 games and only have him for nine is pretty amazing, too.”
The Stampeders lost the 2012 Grey Cup to the Toronto Argonauts before falling to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in last season’s West final, with that second defeat standing out for the cerebral Cornish.
“I truly felt there was something more going on than a football team losing to another football team. I felt that the Riders had an impetus, something that was pushing them that we didn’t have,” said Cornish, who sat out both of Calgary’s games against Hamilton this season. “When I faced down their defence … they believed in something that maybe we didn’t at the time.
“That’s what guided my entire off-season, and coming to now I think we’ve been able to cultivate that, cultivate our team camaraderie, cultivate our drive, and I think that’s the reason we’re standing here today.”
Cornish – who won a high school title at B.C. Place – has one Grey Cup ring from Calgary’s 2008 championship team and said another in his home province would be even more special.
“It’s hard to win Grey Cups,” he said. “It’s not something that just happens all the time. You can be a great team during the regular season, but as has been shown if another team comes into your house with drive and that will to win they can defeat you.
“That’s what we’ve understood this entire year – whatever we’ve done during the season doesn’t matter, it’s what we do right now.”