November 17th, 2019

Inside the CFL: Saluting the Hall of Fame class of 2019 including one of the best of all time

By Graham Kelly on August 13, 2019.

Last Friday in Hamilton, seven newcomers entered the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. There were three receivers from the 1980’s, a great from the Bud Grant era, running back Jon Cornish, as well as builders Jim Hopson and Frank Smith.

In my opinion, the greatest CFL running back of all time was Saskatchewan’s George Reed. Grant, who took four Minnesota teams to the Super Bowl, said Reed was second only to Cleveland’s Jim Brown among all pro backs in any league. Since Reed’s retirement in 1975, the greatest running back I’ve seen was Cornish.

It is true he set the rushing mark for a Canadian, eclipsing former Stampeder and Eskimo Norm Kwong. But I mean Cornish was the best, period, regardless of nationality.

In his nine year (2007-15) stint with Calgary, the New Westminster, B.C. native who played college ball at Kansas won Grey Cups in 2008 and 2014, garnered the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2013 plus three straight top Canadian awards, 2012-14. He was a Western all-star, 2011-14, all-Canadian 2012-14, led the league in rushing 2012-14. He accumulated 6,844 yards on 1,026 carries, added 1,666 receiving yards for a grand total of 8,510 yards. He scored 53 touchdowns.

Cornish had tremendous vision and great speed. He did things on the field I’d never seen before. He is probably the most intelligent player I ever met. Knowing he would need his superior brain for the rest of his life, he retired after suffering a concussion from a vicious hit to the head by Alouette Kyries Hebert. He did recover from the effects of the concussion but felt it would be unwise to continue.

Jim Hopson was a school teacher and administrator who played on the offensive line for Saskatchewan, 1973-76. He was head of the Roughrider alumni group when he was asked to become the team’s first full-time president and CEO in 2004. In his 10 years on the job, his teams made four trips to the Grey Cup, winning in 2007 and 2013.

As one who remembers three campaigns to prevent the Riders from folding, Hopson’s greatest legacy was turning a cap-in-hand operation into a CFL financial powerhouse. Taking “poor little Regina” to the most prosperous franchise in the league was an amazing accomplishment. He also spearheaded the effort to build the new and beautiful Mosaic Stadium, the finest facility in the land. Of all this year’s inductees, what Hopson did will be the most important and enduring to the CFL.

One of the greatest dynamic duos of all-time was quarterback Roy Dewalt and his favourite target “Swervin” Merv Fernandez. They were part of the B.C. team assembled by the late Bob Ackles and coached by the late Don Matthews that ended 19 years of futility, going to the Grey Cup in 1983, winning it in 1985. Fernandez spent six seasons with the Lions, 1982-86 and 1994. With 95 catches for 1,727 yards, 15 touchdowns, he won the 1985 Most Outstanding Player honours. His finest hour came in the 1983 Western Final when he scored three majors and picked up 260 yards to propel B.C. into its first Grey Cup appearance since 1964, the second greatest playoff performance in CFL history.

Terry Greer, in his six seasons with the Argos, 1980-85, led Toronto to its first championship in 31 years in 1983. He was the first receiver in pro ball to rack up 2,000 receiving yards in a season, back then 16 games.

Ernie Pitts was a great two way player with Winnipeg, 1957-70. He won Western all-star accolades three times as a receiver and three as a defensive back. He won four Grey Cups in six tries. Pitts ranks seventh all-time in Grey Cup receiving. He was killed by his wife in 1970 at age 35.

Frank Smith coached UBC from 1974-94, winning 126 games and two Vanier Cups. Smith had a big impact on the personal fortunes of his players. His call to the hall is certainly well-deserved.

Receiver David Williams played for six teams and won the outstanding player award in 1988 as a B.C. Lion. I don’t remember him as a Hall-of-Famer.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 47 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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