Calgary Stampeders' running back Jesse Lumsden's announcement Tuesday that he's leaving football to focus on bobsleigh can be seen on a couple of different levels. For CFL fans, it's an unfortunate conclusion to the career of one of the most promising Canadian running backs in decades, but a fitting one considering that Lumsden's time in football seemed to follow the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy, with his initial promise swallowed up by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. From a wider perspective, though, this isn't really the end of Lumsden's story at all, but merely the beginning of a new act. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his athletic career is far from dead.
Bobsleigh doesn't tend to draw nearly the attention of the CFL, especially in a non-Olympic year, so it's understandable why the general perception of Lumsden's announcement appears to be that it's a retirement, an admission that he couldn't handle the grind of football any more. However, that might not be the complete story. It's worth noting that Lumsden's battled back from seemingly career-ending injuries before. He also vowed to continue after tearing his ACL last season, and as recently as just a few days ago, he was still talking about returning to the Stampeders.
This doesn't seem like the team's forcing him out, either. Just last week, Calgary head coach and general manager John Hufnagel seemed reasonably confident the team would have Lumsden (pictured at middle above in a sleigh during Tuesday's presser, with his former bobsled teammate and current coach Pierre Lueders on his right and former Stampeders teammate and reigning CFL Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris on his left) back for the stretch run. Considering Lumsden's injury history, you probably wouldn't want to rely on him as your primary running back, but his explosive athletic potential (which sparked plenty of interest in him when he decided to return to the CFL last fall) certainly made him a nice option to have, and Calgary's depth at running back meant they didn't have to worry too much if he got hurt again. It isn't possible to know for sure how the Calgary front office viewed Lumsden's prospects, but there would seem little risk and plenty of upside to keeping him around if he still wanted to play football.
You can catch video from Lumsden's news conference below the jump:
Given Lumsden's comments and the Stampeders' apparent interest in keeping him around, you can make a case that his decision isn't really a retirement or a concession to his injury issues, but rather a logical move to focus on his bobsleigh career. Some might find it hard to understand why anyone would abandon the chance to play football before a massive national television audience every week for the anonymity of bobsleigh, where few media and fans care outside of the couple of Olympic weeks every four years, but sports isn't always about popularity. Being a multi-sport athlete is never easy, and Lumsden's simultaneous training for both football and bobsleigh last year-often in the same day-was tough on him mentally, as Ian Busby writes:
During his stint with the Stamps, Lumsden was incredibly busy.
He would practice with the CFL team in the morning, grab a quick nap and hit the track for training in bobsled.
It was taxing mentally more than physically, and he quickly realized bobsled would need his full attention if he was serious about becoming an Olympian again.
Moreover, Lumsden's ceiling in bobsleigh is absolutely sky-high. He started winning medals almost as soon as he teamed up with legendary driver Pierre Lueders in 2009, and the two of them finished a strong fifth at the 2010 Olympics (a finish they're pictured celebrating at right). Bobsleigh's an interesting sport, as it requires both tremendous physical ability to get a good start and incredible driving skill to steer down the icy track. During his time as a brakeman, Lumsden's proved that he already has the physical ability to succeed in the sport, and Lueders told Busby that he thinks Lumsden could become an excellent driver with practice:
Lueders is now Lumsden's coach, and the mentor said the only thing standing between the Burlington product and racing's elite is time driving the sled.
Before getting hurt last year, Lumsden had the best push-times of all drivers. He was tops among brakeman before that.
"You can teach people to drive a sled, but you can only teach them so much about being an athlete," Lueders said.
If Lumsden can become a talented driver, that could bode very well for Canada at the 2014 Olympics. The same mix of explosive speed and power that made Lumsden a nightmare for defenders makes him one of the best out there at pushing a sled, and if you can get that kind of push from your driver as well as your brakeman, you're in very good shape to wind up on the podium. Bobsleigh is also a sport the Canadian team's found a lot of success in historically, with Lueders winning two-man gold with Dave MacEachern in 1998 and pairing with Lascelles Brown to take silver in 2006. Lyndon Rush, who piloted the Canadian four-man sled to bronze in Vancouver, is a terrific driver as well, so Canada could potentially send two squads with serious medal potential to Sochi in 2014. We haven't seen much of what Lumsden's capable of as a driver yet, but Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press writes that he's bringing the same focus to driving he brought to football.
"I realized how technical the sport is, how precise it is and how good you have to be to be fast," Lumsden said during a news conference at Canada Olympic Park. "That's the goal. It's not to get down the hill anymore. It's to be fast.
"When I realized that, I realized I had to put my heart and soul into the endeavour. I don't want to just place and just get by. For me to be No. 1 in the world, it's going to require my full attention."
Allen Cameron writes that Lumsden said it's that focus that motivated him to leave football, not any concern about further injuries:
Whether it's the shoulder or the knee or the small cancer scare I had with my throat, I'll never let something like that determine the outcome," Lumsden, 28, said Tuesday at a news conference at the top of the Canada Olympic Park bobsled track, where he announced he's leaving the Calgary Stampeders to continue to focus on becoming a bobsled driver.
"This comeback would have been like the others, no big deal. It's something I've overcome before, and that's in the past. But it's not the reason I decided to step away from the football field.
"My sole focus is to represent Canada now at the 2014 Games, and that was the No. 1 reason to step off the football field. If I want to be the best in the world at this sport, I need to put my heart, soul and 100 per cent of my work ethic into it."
It's still fine to reflect on Lumsden's football career and what might have been for him. As Bruce Arthur wrote back in 2004, Lumsden was unquestionably the best university football player in Canada for much of his CIS career (he would go on to claim the Hec Crighton Trophy that season), and he played a huge role in McMaster's success. (Oddly enough, Lumsden played for another legendary Hec Crighton-winning running back, Greg Marshall, both at McMaster and later with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.) His CFL career and attempts to crack the NFL were hindered by his injuries, but he still put up 1,842 yards and 10 touchdowns in the CFL with an impressive 6.3 yards per carry average. As both Stephen Brunt and Steve Milton wrote, Lumsden was so dazzling when healthy that he could perhaps have been one of the best Canadian running backs ever with better luck. While it's worth eulogizing his football career, though, obituaries for his overall athletic career are premature. This isn't Lumsden's final curtain call, but merely a changing of the scenery. All the world's indeed a stage, and he's still a featured player.