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Calgary Stampeder rookie centre Brett Jones finds fulfillment in football

11/07/2013 02:56 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST
CALGARY - Football wasn't always at the forefront of Brett Jones's life. But when he arrived at crossroads where he might have left the sport behind, his curiosity got the better of him.

Jones was thinking dentistry when he graduated from high school. He'd already applied to medical school when the Calgary Stampeders drafted him this year.

He'd made it known to interested CFL teams prior to the draft he might play pro football for just one year if accepted into medical school.

Those who know the 22-year-old offensive lineman from Weyburn, Sask., say he could do many things in life with his intelligence and work ethic.

But football drew Jones in because it was a package of challenges to unwrap: physical strength, discipline, strategy, problem solving, time management. The game appealed to his liking for unique life experiences.

"I just really think the game of football has changed who I am," Jones said. "I've really been able to realize what I'm capable of.

"I did have a curiosity. Why not give it a chance and see what happens?"

What happened was Jones was named the West Division's nominee for the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie on Thursday.

He was the only Stampeder offensive lineman to play every game this season. Of his 18 starts, 17 were at centre.

Jones contributed to an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the CFL this season and helped running back Jon Cornish rush for a league-leading 1,813 yards.

The CFL awards will be announced Nov. 21 in Regina. Jones is up against the East Division's C.J. Gable, a 26-year-old running back with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Jones snapped the ball to a revolving door of quarterbacks behind him as Kevin Glenn, Drew Tate and Bo Levi Mitchell moved in and out of the lineup because of injuries.

"Jonesy is a good football player and we knew that when we drafted him," Calgary head coach John Hufnagel said. "He's a strong, dedicated young man who takes his job very seriously.

"With his intelligence and ability and strength, it was a natural fit for him and he's had an outstanding year for us."

B.C. Lions receiver Jason Clermont (2002), Tiger-Cats linebacker Mike O'Shea (1993) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Joe Poplawski (1978) are the only Canadians to win the Most Outstanding Rookie award since it was introduced in 1972.

An offensive lineman has never won the award.

"My great hope now is that those people that vote on those things will recognize the challenges of being a 22-year-old, first-year rookie centre that starts 18 games for a CFL team that is first in their division," said Frank McCrystal, who coached Jones for four years at the University of Regina.

"For him at centre, to come in and play against those big guys and play against those guys who are from the NFL or the big schools in the States . . . to make all of the calls and do it as a rookie, that's pretty special."

When Jones decided to add football to pre-med studies in Regina, he excelled both as a student and an athlete. A three-time member of the Canadian all-academic team, Jones was also a two-time CIS all-star for the Rams and a finalist in 2012 for the top lineman in Canadian university football.

Not many teenage males would opt to live with their grandmother during university, but Jones did. When Helen Roundy was diagnosed with lymphoma, Jones cared for her and took her to treatments.

"It was awesome living with my grandma," he said. "It started out in the beginning where she would look after me. She would always cook so much food. She would cook for five or six. It was just me and her.

"Eventually it changed over the four years I was there. I became more of the caregiver to her. Her health declined and she passed away this year."

Jones switched to engineering at university once he'd finished his pre-med requirements. He wasn't accepted into medical school and while he hasn't ruled out applying again, Jones intends to return to Regina in the off-season to continue engineering studies.

"I'm just going to see where football takes me. I want to keep playing," he said. "Hopefully I'll keep getting my schooling done in the off-season and just keep playing as long as I can."

The study habits that earned three academic scholarships at university served him well in his first CFL season in addition to his six-foot-two, 319-pound frame.

"I just really wanted to make sure I did all the studying, watching the film and just knowing what the other team was going to do," Jones said. "I wasn't going to let the playbook, or our scheme for the week, that wasn't going to be why I didn't know that I was doing.

"I probably study more diligently now that I'm here. Week 17 is a lot different from Week 2 or Week 1. The defences have definitely got more difficult. They're doing different things. It's just constantly evolving.

"Each game there's something different and something new you have to know and something new you have to do on the field. You can't relax. If you do, you'll be in trouble."

Jones is a product of Weyburn Comprehensive School and the Eagles football program that also produced Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman Brendon Labatte, the West Division's nominee at that position.

While in high school, Jones volunteered in the Functionally Integrated Program, making friends with students with disabilities.

"He would come and hang out with my kids, teach them skills, how to be sociable, he'd introduce them to his buddies," teacher Jodi Abel said.

"He'd help them with their homework or whatever issues they were having. He would go pick them up from the group home and take them to a movie, take them fishing, go hang out with them or take them out to eat.

"When he would come home from university, one of his first stops would always be the classroom so he could come and see all the kids. He's a really, really neat guy."

Jodi's husband and Eagles coach Darren Abel said Jones had to be cajoled into attending the Senior Bowl, which features the top graduating football players in Saskatchewan. That game helped get the attention of McCrystal and the Rams.

"Thank goodness he made that decision to go," Abel said. "He had all the skills. The thing about Brett is he's a hard worker and willing to learn and he just absorbs everything.

"He's like a renaissance man in some ways. He's got all these things he loves to do and wants to experience. We're happy he stuck with football."

Jones says his "welcome-to-the-CFL" moment was his first game against the Roughriders in Regina, where the wall of sound from a Mosaic Stadium sellout shocked him.

"I'd never played in an environment where you can't hear anything," he said. "It really made me realize 'you're in the big leagues now.'"

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