Wed Feb 02 11:55pm EST
It's been an offseason of change for the Calgary Stampeders, and that continued Wednesday with the retirement of offensive lineman Rob Lazeo. Lazeo (pictured, right, with defensive end Mike Labinjo, 42, after a 2008 victory), a 37-year-old non-import from Abbotsford, B.C., just completed his 14th CFL season, and decided it was time to retire. As he said in his farewell press conference (video available here), retirement took some thought.
"It's been a hard decision to retire," Lazeo said. "I feel like I could probably play another year, but who doesn't? Your mind tells you one thing, or your heart tells you one thing, but your body tells you another."
Lazeo's longevity at such a physical position (he mostly played guard this past season, but occasionally rotated to other OL spots) is quite impressive. There are very few CFL players who can last 14 seasons; even legendary receiver Ben Cahoon only played 13 before finally hanging up his cleats earlier this offseason. For a guy in the trenches like Lazeo, taking and distributing hits on every play, lasting this long in this league is very impressive, as teams are continually trying to get younger and there's often a huge amount of personnel turnover.
Lazeo also had some very notable highlights during his career, which took him from Saskatchewan to Winnipeg, back to Saskatchewan and then to Calgary. It may be his years with the Stampeders that are the most notable, though; on the team front, he helped them win the 2008 Grey Cup over Montreal, but on the offensive line front, he helped pave the way for Joffrey Reynolds to lead the league in rushing in both 2008 and 2009. It wasn't like that line fell off dramatically this season, either; Reynolds finished third in the league with 1,200 rushing yards, while Jon Cornish added another 618, giving Calgary the most rushing production from backs in the league.
The Calgary line was also solid in pass protection, paving the way for Henry Burris' great season that led to him picking up the league's Most Outstanding Player award last November. The Stampeders finished with a league-best 13-5 record, and a large part of the reason why was thanks to the great blocking they got from Lazeo and his comrades in the trenches.
"My four years here in Calgary have been the best of my football career and definitely the most memorable," Lazeo said. "It was 12 years before I won a championship."
He made his exit on a good note, picking up this year's "Presidents' Ring." It's an award given out annually by the Stampeders to the player "who combines excellence on the field with leadership, inspiration and motivational skills," as voted by the players. Many of his teammates chimed in with nice things to say about him, too, including kicker Rob Maver. That says a lot about what Lazeo meant to this team. He'll probably miss the camaraderie even if he doesn't miss the constant violence, but he's got a good job with plenty of teamwork opportunities lined up; he's going to join two of his former offensive line comrades, Jamie Crysdale and Jeff Pilon, in the company Gridiron Drilling and Blasting.
The Stamps may miss Lazeo, though, and for more than just his appearances in charity videos. Replacing offensive linemen is never particularly easy, as much of the position isn't purely about skill, but also depends on the ability to work well with the other linemen, the quarterback and the running backs. There are plenty of talented guys out there, but it takes time to mould them into CFL stars.
Lazeo isn't their only departure, either. Another 37-year old Stampeder, receiver Ryan Thelwell (pictured at right scoring a touchdown in 2009 against Edmonton), made the decision to retire last week. Thelwell, from London, Ontario, finished his career with 441 catches for 6,728 yards and 39 touchdowns; he also won Grey Cups with B.C. in 2006 and with Calgary in 2008. He wasn't a huge part of the Calgary offence this past season, only picking up 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches, but he did provide veteran leadership in the receiving corps and helped to bring some of their younger players along. Without Thelwell and Lazeo, as well as other departures like that of defensive backs coach Corey Chamblin (now Hamilton's DC), it's going to be a different group in Calgary next season. We'll see if they prove as successful.