Jamall Lee’s surprising retirement suggests things aren’t completely rosy for Canadian RBs

In 2011, Canadian running backs made more of a league-wide impact on the CFL than they had in decades. The Edmonton Eskimos' Jerome Messam (who may or may not be bound for the NFL's Miami Dolphins) broke the 1,000 yard barrier with 1,057 yards, the Calgary Stampeders' Jon Cornish led all regular running backs with an incredible 7.3 yards per carry mark on 119 carries and played so well that he ousted franchise legend Joffrey Reynolds this offseason, B.C.'s Andrew Harris took over the starting tailback role midseason and helped the Lions to a Grey Cup and Toronto's Andre Durie continued his run of underappreciated excellence. The rise of Canadian running backs was one of the year's most notable storylines, so you'd think that conditions are great for Canadian tailbacks right now. However, Jamall Lee's surprising retirement Monday suggests that's not universally true.

No particular reason was given in Lee's retirement announcement, but he's certainly not a victim of aging, as he's only 24. Injury seems to be part of the issue, but most don't seem to think it was the key part. The most logical explanation appears to be that Lee was tired of the minimal role he had with the Lions and didn't think things would be better even if he could force a trade or sign as a free agent somewhere else. That fits in with several other Canadian college stars' experiences across the league, and it's a troubling indication that plenty of progress still has to be made on the Canadian running back front.

Lee came into the CFL with just about the most impressive pedigree possible for a Canadian running back. He's the son of Orville Lee, who became only the fifth Canadian (and the most recent one) to lead the league in rushing when he picked up 1075 yards in his rookie year of 1988 with Ottawa, and the younger Lee excelled in his own right. At Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Lee ran for 4,296 yards (a Quebec university record) over four seasons, and things got even better after he left. He broke CFL E-Camp records in both the 40-yard dash (which many consider a crucial indicator, particularly for running backs) and the vertical jump, he was selected third overall in the 2009 draft by B.C. and he even had a stint with the NFL's Carolina Panthers (very rare for Canadians at skill positions). To many observers, Lee looked like the man who could be the next great Canadian running back.

Yet, while contemporaries and followers like Messam, Cornish and Harris were eventually given chances to excel as starting running backs, Lee never had one. Over his three seasons with the Lions, he only received six carries and mostly played as a blocking fullback and a special-teams star. He did pick up 133 receiving yards on only 11 passes, but even that wasn't enough to convince B.C. to let him handle the ball more frequently, and he didn't have an offensive touch in 2011. (Update: apparently he did have a couple in October, a single carry for one yard and two catches for 24 yards. Thanks, Aidan!) That experience of being shunted into a fullback/special teams role has been a common one for Canadian running backs who starred at the CIS level, including Hamilton's Daryl Stephenson, Montreal's Mike Giffin and Winnipeg's Nick FitzGibbon.

Interestingly enough, of the four Canadian running backs mentioned at the top, only Durie played CIS football (at York University), and he's also the only one who isn't his team's primary running back. Cornish (the University of Kansas, Division I FBS in the Big 12), Messam (Graceland University of the NAIA), and Harris (Canadian junior football) all came up through different routes, and they've all proved the exception to the rule that Canadian running backs have to shift to fullback and special teams at the CFL level. Unfortunately, Lee never really got the shot to show what he could do as a tailback.

If it's over his role, Lee's decision to retire is understandable. While some dream merely of making the CFL in whatever role they can find, Lee certainly looked like he had the talent to do much more than that. He never got a regular shot to carry the ball in three seasons, though, and that has to be incredibly frustrating. It's a little curious that Lee wouldn't ask for a trade instead, as Wally Buono has been willing to do that in the past for dissatisfied players and another city might have given him more of an opportunity, but perhaps he didn't feel he'd get a real shot anywhere. Given how many top Canadian running backs have been shunted into minor roles in the CFL, it's difficult to blame him. The examples of Cornish, Messam, Harris and Durie certainly show that the CFL's glass ceiling for Canadian running backs may be starting to crack, but Lee's retirement could indicate that there's still much more to be done.