Wed May 18 11:42am EDT
While Jesse Lumsden's decision Tuesday to leave football and focus on bobsleigh may be more of a change in focus than an outright retirement, it's still worth discussing his CFL and CIS career and what he meant to the Canadian game. Stephen Brunt's quite right that Lumsden's injuries probably kept him from really cracking the list of the league's best Canadian running backs, but they didn't stop him from making notable impacts on both the CIS and CFL.
Lumsden's dominant CIS career and the attention it drew him from both the CFL and NFL proved to future players that they didn't necessarily have to cross the border in university to be successful, and the amazing ability he showed when healthy likely helped to change many CFL executives' perceptions about Canadian running backs. Every CFL team's current primary running back today is American, but there are plenty of rising non-import stars at the position, including Jon Cornish, Jamall Lee, Andrew Harris, Calvin McCarty and Matt Walter. Despite his health issues, the success Lumsden (pictured at right during his tenure with Edmonton) had certainly helped blaze a trail for the Canadians who have followed in his footsteps, and that should be remembered.
It wasn't always that difficult to make the CFL as a Canadian running back. The early days saw plenty of homegrown talent at the position (including Jesse's father, Neil), and there have been more recent success stories as well. Jamall Lee's father Orville famously led the CFL in rushing in his 1988 rookie season with Ottawa (becoming only the second Canadian to do so, after the legendary Normie Kwong), and Sean Millington put up some incredible rushing performances during his 12 years in the league from 1990 to 2002. Millington also made a brief comeback with Toronto in 2005 and found success there.
Most of the Canadian running backs drafted into the league over the last few decades were converted to fullback and primarily used to block for American tailbacks, though. That hasn't completely changed, as famed CIS players like Daryl Stephenson and Mike Giffin have still suffered that fate thus far in their CFL careers, and even noted non-import players from the NCAA ranks like Kerry Carter and Dahrran Diedrick have never received many chances to carry the ball. However, more and more Canadians are being considered as serious skill-position players these days, and that shift has been quite notable in the running back ranks. Part of that has to do with the particular players coming in, as football executives (perhaps unfairly) have generally valued raw athleticism over proven production in the college ranks. Stephenson and Giffin had the rushing totals, but didn't necessarily display the measurables executives wanted, while the likes of Lee and Cornish have been able to offer both.
However, at least some of that shift can be attributed to Lumsden and the potential he showed. When healthy, he was one of the most exciting and most explosive players in the CFL and was a dominant running back, not just a dominant Canadian player. His football career may never have hit the heights it could have, but it's still certainly important. Lumsden showed that Canadians can still succeed at the skill positions in this league, and for that, he deserves plenty of credit.