Jon Cornish willingly talked to a small group of reporters, even though he’s usually the one surrounded by cameras and microphones.
Cornish was getting lost in the shuffle despite rushing for 80 punishing yards to bring his season total to 1,059. He’d just become the first Kansas football player to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a decade.
It seemed even more wrong once you realized how banged up Cornish is. Someone asked if he felt 100 percent.
“I haven’t been 100 percent since day one,” Cornish answered, curtly.
Don’t get the wrong idea: it wasn’t a bad afternoon – just a rough one. Cornish had gutted out every inch of 80 yards on 13 carries against a very physical Colorado defense. He said the Buffalos put all their eggs in the Kansas run game basket.
“I was hoping for a few more yards tonight, but they came out and played a lot of defense,” Cornish said. “They crowded the box like I’ve never seen before. Definitely the toughest yards I’ve had to gain the entire year.”
It’s very tough to stop Jon Cornish, though. A soft voice and unassuming demeanor hide a strength and determination that has been forged by challenges met both on and off the field.
Cornish came to Kansas after gaining over 2,100 yards rushing and scoring 39 touchdowns as a senior at St. Thomas More High School in Westminster, British Columbia. Kansas coach Mark Mangino never saw Cornish play in person, but as soon as he saw tape of the 2001 British Columbia Provincial Player of the Year, he offered him a scholarship. Cornish accepted, excited about the opportunity to play in the Big XII.
Word on the street was that Cornish was going to utilize his 4.47 speed to make an immediate impact on Mangino’s Kansas team that was long on available playing time and short on athletes. Upon arriving at Kansas, however, things didn’t go exactly as scripted.
First, he missed the 2002 freshman season due to injuries and was granted a medical redshirt.
Cornish saw extensive special teams action the next two seasons along with the occasional carry as Clark Green’s backup, but he was hardly living up to his potential. Mangino was worried enough that he called Cornish into his office after spring football in 2005 and asked him if he was willing to make the commitment necessary to play football at the Division I level.
Luckily for Mangino and the Jayhawks, he was, in large part due to some personal adversity that lead to a sense of purpose, both on the field and off.
“When I came down from Canada, I had a maturity issue,” Cornish said at Kansas’ 2005 media day. “Over the past few months, I felt that I’ve really understood that and begun to mature myself, to overcome that.”
“Really it was just an issue of finding what I had in myself to keep on going. I had some family members who got sick with cancer and having to see them go through what they did made me realize that some of my problems aren’t nearly as serious as theirs, and it’s really helped me mature.”
Watching loved ones battle cancer brought Cornish strength and resolve – qualities that have made all the difference in how he approaches football. His team and the Jayhawk fans have seen the results: over 1,800 total yards rushing and 300 yards receiving in 2005 and 2006, not to mention outstanding special teams play.
He thought back to those trials Saturday evening as he took a few minutes to enjoy his accomplishment, even if he wasn’t doing it in front of a flock of reporters.
“The things I’ve had to go through, it’s very satisfying,” he said, “and having three more games this season – I say four more games – it’s big for me. It allows me to show what Canadians can do.”
Cornish knows he’s going to continue to take more than his share of hits as the center of attention for opposing defenses. It comes with the territory when you’re successful.
“Colorado certainly expected us to run, so they crowded the box and played man coverage,” Cornish said. “I think we’ll see other teams do the same.”
As a result, one might think that Cornish’s preseason prediction of 1,500 yards rushing is in danger, but ask him about it, and you see his confidence, albeit in typical understated Canadian fashion, come through.
When the subject was brought up, Cornish thought for a second, measured his response and said, “I’ve got to be reasonable, but I want to do whatever I can for the team. My job is to gain yardage, so I’ll get as many as possible.”
You can bet he will, whether anyone notices or not.