Jon Cornish recounted a story from a Christmas break he remembers well. He came home from the University of Kansas, and his mother was excited to tell him about the special person she had finally met. He was excited as well and asked, "What's he like?" The son was surprised yet very proud when his mom said, "It's a she."
The Calgary Stampeders star running back spoke candidly about a number of personal things on Wednesday afternoon with the spotlight on him ahead of Sunday's Grey Cup. The native of New Westminster, B.C., talked about his mother, who raised five kids alone on a music teacher's salary, followed her dream to become an Anglican priest late in life, and fell in love with a wonderful woman. He talked about standing up against homophobic slurs. And he addressed some immaturity he showed in the past and vowed to become a good role model, one young Canadian players can view as motivation.
Cornish has been following the news consistently this week, worried for the safety of his mom, Margaret, and her partner, Andrea, who were vacationing in Jerusalem. The couple were concerned about their return to Canada as operations were interrupted at Tel Aviv's airport during the violence that is engulfing Israel. They had e-mailed the family that they could see fighter planes overhead and hear explosions in the distance. Cornish was relieved to hear Wednesday that his mother had arrived in Toronto ahead of the Gibson's Finest Outstanding Player Awards, where he won the Most Outstanding Canadian award and was nominated for the Most Outstanding Player award as well, which went to Toronto slotback/returner Chad Owens. He calls his mom inspirational.
"She's quite a remarkable woman," said Cornish, who said his mother found a way to pay her kids' way through private schools. "She worked to ensure we had the best even though she wasn't always so capable on a music teacher's salary. When we were all done, she decided to go back to school, she got her Master's of Ethics and became an Anglican priest. That's what she wanted to achieve, and that has been a big motivation for me."
Cornish said he takes every opportunity to speak up when he hears homophobic slurs being used.
"I'm pretty outspoken. I don't like slurs being used, and any time I hear them, I speak up," said the 28-year-old. "People are surprised when I tell them about my mom's situation. For me, it's something I'm proud of. She went through a lot, and she finally found someone she loved, and for me, there's nothing more positive in the world."
Cornish says his father died when he was in college and he never really knew him. But then added something upbeat, which got a laugh from the room.
"But I am thankful that he gave me good genetic code."
Cornish led the CFL in rushing yards this season with 1,457 and admits he is just now realizing the importance of being a good non-import rusher in this league, and what it may mean to Canadian kids who may feel they have no chance to be a professional running back.
He also learned the hard way that being a star athlete means the spotlight is on all the time. He didn't run away from questions about the embarrassing episode early in the year, when he mooned Saskatchewan Roughriders fans in frustration after a loss.
"I would say I let out all the immaturity I had left in me in that moment," said Cornish. "This season has been about learning what you do, you're in the public eye and people care. It's something I've been cognizant of and I want to be a good role model, and for me, that has required some maturing. It's something I've worked on."