• The Canadian Press

    Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

    Montreal Alouettes running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is used to psyching himself up to sprint down a field, evading a crush of muscled men the entire way.  But mentally preparing for his latest venture required bracing for a whole new set of anxieties.  As he readied himself to hop in a bobsled for the first time, Murray-Lawrence knew he'd be zipping down an icy track faster than cars are allowed to travel down most highways.  “It was very nerve wracking," the 27-year-old Toronto native said of the run. "Once I got in the sled, it was just the longest 50 seconds of my life. I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I couldn’t breathe. But when it’s over, I was like ‘Hey, man, I think I could do that again.’” And he has.  Murrary-Lawrence, Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Jay Dearborn and B.C. Lions running back hopeful Kayden Johnson joined the national bobsled program after the CFL cancelled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As part of the national development squad, the trio has been training at the ice house at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park. This week, the group moved to the sliding centre in Whistler, B.C., where they'll perfect their techniques on a full course.  Built for the 2010 Olympics, the Whistler track is known as one of the fastest in the world.  Dearborn still hasn't figured out how to explain what it's like to race down the ice. "The feel of those forces going around the corner, or the speed that you’re going at … the biggest thing that I struggle with is how to describe what it’s like to have your whole being crushed by these forces going through each corner," he said.  Just months ago, Dearborn "didn't know a thing" about the sport. A strength and conditioning coach at Carleton University put him in touch with a national recruiter last year, but it wasn't until March that the 26-year-old from Yarker, Ont., got into a sled for the first time.  “I just knew the type of athletes it attracted and I knew I was pretty similar — a strong, explosive, fast athlete, that are pretty technically minded people," Dearborn said. Football and bobsled both require ample power and explosiveness, Murray-Lawrence said.  "You've got to be very aggressive," he said. "You need so much speed, so much power in such a short amount of time." The sport has a delicate side, too, he added, because you also have to be a "ballerina or ninja" to seamlessly jump into the sled without rocking it as it hurtles down the track.  Learning that balance of power and poise has been a long time coming for Murray-Lawrence. He was first recruited by the national bobsled team in 2017 while playing for the Lions. Then his life was upended by a hit-and-run crash that left Murray-Lawrence with a concussion and back injuries. It was about 700 days before he played another CFL game, joining the Alouettes late in the 2019 season. The campaign ended before Murray-Lawrence could firmly reestablish himself, though, and this year was supposed to be his big comeback.   “Everything got put on hold. There was so much uncertainty,"  he said. "For me, the last two years has been about trying to prove myself.” When the CFL finally called off the 2020 season in August, it didn't take Murray-Lawrence long to turn his sights to bobsled. He spoke with former Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Dexter Janke and Olympian Jesse Lumsden, both of whom played in the CFL and competed in bobsled. “I’m just trying to be a sponge. I’m just trying to soak up as much knowledge and information that I can," he said. There's a lot of overlap in training for bobsled and football, said Kayden Johnson, a 24-year-old running back from Kerrobert, Sask., who was selected by the Lions in the seventh round of the 2020 draft. Because of the lost season, Johnson has yet to play a CFL game, but he believes his winter work will help his football career.  “Bobsleigh has that mental toughness and that competitive aspect of all or nothing," he said. "You’ll always commit to going full speed. Even if you fail, you fail at full speed, that’s what they like to say here. You’re not afraid of the challenge or attacking the run.” For Dearborn, training to be a brakeman includes more sprinting than he was used to in the CFL. He and his coaches regularly watch video to dissect and perfect every detail and angle of his stride, the same way a runner might work with a sprinting coach. “I think it’s going to help my running," Dearborn said. "I should show up on that field a little faster than I was, so that’s really exciting.” In January, the three CFLers are set to take their new skills on the road as the Canadian bobsled team heads to Europe to compete. The bobsled and skeleton world championships are scheduled to take place in Germany at the beginning of February, and there's an Olympic test event slated for early March in Beijing.  Knowing that the team is working towards the 2022 Olympics is exciting, said Murray-Lawrence. Competing on the world's biggest stage for your country instead of for a team that you've signed a contract with "holds a little bit more pride," he explained.  “This is something I can carry with me forever, that I represented my country," he said.  Johnson already knows the thrill of wearing the maple leaf of his chest, having represented Canada in decathlon at the Pan American junior championships, but he'd love to represent his country on the bobsled track in Beijing, too.  “The Olympics has always been a dream of mine," said Johnson, who also competed in 60-metre hurdles at York University. "Olympics rings have always been something I’ve been chasing after.”  All three athletes hope they can balance bobsled and football when the CFL finally returns.  Murray-Lawrence believes he can do both sports for a long time, but adds that, with the current state of the world, little is certain right now. "At any moment, this could all be shut down," he said. "So we’re just living in the moment right now. Embrace it, cherish it and have fun.” This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020.  Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

  • The Canadian Press

    Miles, Brodeur-Jourdan both given new roles on 2021 Montreal Alouettes coaching staff

    MONTREAL — Barron Miles and Luc Brodeur-Jourdain will have added responsibilities with the Montreal Alouettes in 2021. The Alouettes promoted Miles to defensive co-ordinator and Brodeur-Jourdain was named offensive line coach Wednesday. Miles was appointed as the team's defensive backs coach and pass-game co-ordinator last winter and will remain in charge of the club's secondary. Bob Slowik had served as Montreal's defensive co-ordinator since 2019, but his contract wasn't renewed. Brodeur-Jourdain became Montreal's assistant offensive line coach in 2019 after playing 11 seasons with the team. Khari Jones remains Montreal's head coach and quarterback coach. The remainder of his staff includes Mickey Donovan (special teams, linebackers); Andre Bolduc (running backs, assistant head coach); Todd Howard (defensive line); Robert Gordon (receivers); Michael Lionello (offensive assistant) and Byron Archambault (special-teams assistant). "We are very happy to have been able to put together such a complete coaching staff, even though we have reduced our staff because of the new reality in the CFL," Jones said in a statement. "We have never stopped working and communicating, as we all look forward to the 2021 season and working with our players." This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020. The Canadian Press

  • The Canadian Press

    Veteran CFL receiver Armanti Edwards remains a quarterback at heart

    Armanti Edwards is a receiver by trade but a quarterback at heart. The 32-year-old American continues to prepare for his first CFL season with the Edmonton Football Club after the league cancelled the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But before coming to Canada, the five-foot-11, 183-pound Edwards was a standout college quarterback — including being at the helm for one of the most famous upsets in NCAA history.Edwards remains convinced he could've played the position professionally."If it was up to me I'd be playing quarterback but I'm the employee, not the employer.," Edwards said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "There's no doubt in my mind I could, otherwise I wouldn't have been playing the position to begin with."My quarterback days are long gone now . . . I've moved on. Obviously at the beginning of my professional career it was very disappointing because that's the position I played since I was six years old and was one of the reasons why I was in love with the game."Edwards enjoyed a successful tenure at Appalachian State, leading the North Carolina school to its second and third straight Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) titles in 2006 and 2007. In the latter year, Edwards led the Mountaineers to a stunning 34-32 upset of Michigan, passing for 227 yards and three TDs while rushing for 62 yards and a touchdown before more than 109,000 fans at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.Edwards became the first player to win the Walter Payton Award — given annually to the FCS's top offensive performer — in consecutive years (2008-09) and twice overall. He started 49-of-51 college games, passing for 10,392 yards with 74 touchdowns and 33 interceptions while rushing for 4,361 yards (5.8-yard average) and 65 TDs.Edwards was taken in the third round, No. 89 overall, of the 2010 NFL draft by Carolina. But he had twice as many catches (six for 131 yards) as pass attempts (three, completing two for 11 yards) ) over four seasons with the Panthers and Cleveland Browns before being among the Chicago Bears' final 2014 cuts.Edwards was out of football until 2016 when he joined the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders as a receiver. He was dealt to Toronto the following year and spent three seasons with the Argonauts — winning a Grey Cup in 2017 and registering career highs in catches (69), yards (1,014) and touchdowns (seven) in 2019 — before signing with Edmonton as a free agent.Based upon his background and experience at quarterback, Edwards wasn't the least bit surprised Sunday when receiver Kendall Hinton struggled mightily in his first NFL start at QB for the Denver Broncos.Denver activated Hinton, a rookie, from the practice roster hours before its 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Hinton, who played quarterback at Wake Forest before switching to receiver in his senior season, was pressed into action after all four of Denver's quarterbacks went on the reserve/COVID-19 list.Predictably, Hinton had trouble, finishing 1-of-9 passing for 13 yards with two interceptions."There's a lot of hard work and preparation that goes into it," Edwards said. "It takes all of training camp and sometimes even a few games into the season for a starting quarterback to get into sync with everything and everyone."All season you have a quarterback working with his receivers, the running backs and offensive line and now you've got a guy back there who hasn't played the position all season? That's pretty hard."In his younger days, Edwards looked up to former NFL star Michael Vick, a fellow left-hander who routinely made big plays with his arm and legs. At six feet and 215 pounds, Vick was bigger than Edwards. Often in pro football, players are judged more for their physical traits than playing ability."It's all an eye test, that's what today's game is all about," Edwards said. "It's not about what you've done on film, to me personally."And although Edwards said making the transition to receiver wasn't easy, he credits the CFL for reigniting his love for the game."Before I decided to go across the border, I'd pretty much hung up my cleats," Edwards said. "But I didn't want to end my career like that so coming to Canada rekindled that love."I was given the opportunity to actually play the position of receiver in games and that's what helped me to continue to grow."While the cancellation of the '20 CFL season wasn't ideal, it has provided Edwards some benefits. He's had the chance to heal physically and spend time with his wife and their two children (a 15-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son)."At this point and time in my career, I'm in my 30s so I pretty much know how my body responds and I listen to my body," he said. "It's been a blessing to be able to sit down and let my body heal and enjoy my family."But I'm looking forward to getting to Edmonton and playing with a guy like (quarterback) Trevor Harris who's been on playoff and Grey Cup-contending teams before. I know what's at stake and the opportunity we have and that's what I'm looking forward to, (winning) a Grey Cup ring."This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2020. Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

  • The Canadian Press

    Former quarterback Brad Sinopoli can appreciate challenges Hinton faced with Broncos

    Ottawa Redblacks receiver Brad Sinopoli fully understands the challenge Kendall Hinton faced Sunday with the Denver Broncos.The NFL club activated the rookie receiver from the practice roster to become the starting quarterback in Sunday's 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Hinton, who played quarterback at Wake Forest before switching to receiver in his senior season at the university, was pressed into action after all four of Denver's quarterbacks went on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week.The outcome was predictable. Hinton finished 1-of-9 passing for 13 yards with two interceptions. Sinopoli, a star quarterback at the University of Ottawa before turning pro, certainly could relate."Quarterbacks make the most money for a reason," the native of Peterborough, Ont., said Monday in a telephone interview. "It's a very, very hard job and even the best ones have tough days and tough streaks."To put a guy in who doesn't do that on a daily basis is tough and stressful. I'm sure leading up to the game . . . he probably didn't let on but he was probably really stressed."Before becoming one of the CFL's top receivers — Sinopoli was named the league's top Canadian in 2016 — he played under centre at the University of Ottawa (2007-10).The six-foot-four, 215-pound Sinopoli captured the 2010 Hec Crighton Trophy as Canada's top collegiate player after passing for 2,756 yards and 22 touchdowns in eight games. He was drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in 2011 and began his CFL career as a quarterback before converting to receiver in 2013."Here and there I've always jumped in during practice over the years, be it for fun or in that situation where it was a bit of an emergency," Sinopoli said. "I was sitting there kind of stressing about it, forgetting how fast it was back there, but really I just tried to do some mental reps."I'd take the plays and go through them in my mind and go through the exact thing. The coaches were like, 'What pass plays are you comfortable with?' and I picked plays I'd done that were similar in college and I think that's probably what they did with (Hinton) because trying to do a play you're not familiar with and all that's happening around you, you can rush a bit and overthink things and it just becomes a little too much."The quarterback runs the offence on the field. Plays begin on his command and most times his hands are the first on the ball once it's snapped.But what many don't see — or hear — is how the quarterback relays plays in the huddle. Each call specifically outlines the other players' responsibilities regarding pass protections, run assignments and/or pass routes.That puts the onus on the quarterback to clearly — and correctly — relay that information."I think the process of saying the plays is a bigger deal than listening to them," Sinopoli said. "When you're a receiver what the offensive line does in protection doesn't really sometimes apply to you so you hear it but you don't have to be as detailed."But as the quarterback, everything you say matters. I think it's a bit more stressful than people realize to regurgitate the plays. It's under pressure with the time clock and sometimes the play doesn't come in correctly and you have to know whatever the situation is."There's also the matter of the quarterback, upon reaching the line of scrimmage, being able to quickly scan a defence and determine if the play called can work or if an audible is required."You're inevitably going to face struggles as a quarterback and when it's not your job it's a hard hole to get out of because you have to do the opposite of instinct," Sinopoli said. "When things start to get away from you, the instinct is to tighten up and press a little bit more but you have to calm down."If you kind of screw up at receiver or (defensive back), you can take out (the mistake) in some form of physical fashion. If you're a receiver you can make a catch, put your head down and take a good hit and that's the same way on defence."As a quarterback you can't do that. I think the toughest thing is you don't have that outlet to get over those humps, You have to work it out mentally, which, if you're not used to that is tough."And so too is getting into the rhythm required to play quarterback, something Sinopoli said takes time to achieve but can be lost rapidly."When you're not in the offence, that kind of familiar feeling goes away pretty quickly," he said. "I'm sure they probably tried to make some calls easier and not have as much in but I know a big part of it is just having that confidence."The truth is I probably wouldn't feel 100 per cent comfortable like I knew I was because it's all about reps and when you haven't repped certain things over and over, it's almost like everything is kind of new because you're in that new position of running that specific offence. The talk is usually by the end of the second year, (as a starter) now you're getting comfortable with the offence. It does take a long time to kind of get comfortable and used to it all."Sinopoli said if he was pressed into service at quarterback on an emergency basis, he's confident he could make the necessary mental adjustments. However, he wonders if he could make all the necessary throws after undergoing right shoulder surgery three seasons ago."That would be my main worry," Sinopoli said. "It's interesting, when you throw if you haven't been throwing your whole life, you just don't have that flexibility even though you're flexible."A thrower's flexibility is very, very different . . . it's like throwing with your left arm if you're not left-handed. The flexibility in your shoulder isn't used to the stress that's being put on it."This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2020 Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press