Monday, May 16, 2011

Skateboarding, hockey and the CFL: Hodgson defies odds

There were plenty of unconventional picks in this past weekend's CFL draft, from Calgary's choice of Canadian quarterback Brad Sinopoli to Winnipeg's selection of kicker-turned-receiver Jade Etienne. However, one of the most unusual and notable stories revolves around a man picked in the last round by B.C., Saint Mary's defensive lineman Chris Hodgson.

Most of the players in the CFL draft are in their early 20s, just coming out of university, but have been playing organized football for much of their lives. That's not the case with Hodgson (pictured at right during his short time with St. Francis Xavier, the school he briefly attended for football before switching to Saint Mary's), the 26-year-old son of former Blue Jays' outfielder Paul Hodgson and a guy who's already been a professionally sponsored skateboarder, a renowned snowboarder, a professional hockey player in the ECHL and an notable hockey player in the QMJHL and CIS ranks, but only has one season of CIS football under his belt. When you look at YouTube for videos of him, you don't get the standard football highlight reels, but rather professionally-made skateboarding videos and clips of his hockey fights:

Hodgson, who played hockey on a line with current NHLers Alex Burrows and Jason Pominville in the QMJHL and competed against the likes of Sidney Crosby, is an incredible story. Getting drafted by the CFL isn't particularly easy these days thanks to the increased focus on the draft, and plenty of good CIS players were passed over this year, including John Surla and Marc Mueller (who both later signed free-agent contracts).  For a guy like Hodgson who's played a grand total of one year of high-calibre football to be drafted is against all the odds. However, he also might just turn into a very capable player. Here's Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun on what Hodgson brings to the table:

As a kid, Hodgson set four national age group speed skating records, developed into a professionally sponsored skateboarder (Globe shoes) and played some senior baseball in the hope of emulating his dad, Paul Hodgson. An outfielder who signed a pro contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in their first year of existence (1977), Paul Hodgson made a brief appearance in the major leagues three years later and was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1995.

Still, Chris credits his mom, Kim Daley, who raised him in Fredericton following a divorce, as much for his athletic genes as his dad.

"She competed in figure skating and tae kwon do at a high competitive level," Hodgson says. "Basically, my mom was a good skater, and she was tough."

After growing disenchanted with hockey - he was scratched for the CIS championship final in ‘09 when UNB won the title, even though Hodgson participated in earlier tournament games - he abruptly switched to football and tried to join the X-Men of St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, N.S. His grades weren't good enough to get into the kinesiology program, Hodgson says, so he moved on to Saint Mary's in Halifax, without having played a game for the X-Men.

"He ended up landing on our door," says Huskies football head coach Steve Sumarah. "He's raw, so we put him on special teams. But he could become a bit of matchup nightmare if he develops into a player. He's 6-3, 260 and but runs like a linebacker."

It's worth noting that while Hodgson's incredible story is obviously the focus for the media coverage, that's not really why he was chosen in this year's CFL draft. That has much more to do with the showing he put on at this year's E-Camp, which included a 39.5-inch vertical leap as well as impressive performances in the speed, agility and one-on-one drills. That wasn't a one-off, either as he put up incredible performances as an unofficial invitee at the 2010 E-Camp and his pro potential was discussed before he ever played a CIS down. Football is about winning, as Lions' head coach and general manager (and the CFL's all-time winningest coach) Wally Buono knows very well, and he isn't picking Hodgson if he doesn't think he's someone who can help B.C. on the field.

It's also notable that football is a sport that's rewarded many players with unconventional backgrounds. From NHL legend Lionel Conacher to track star "Bullet Bob" Hayes to college basketball player Antonio Gates, plenty of athletes have found success in football after coming in from other sports backgrounds. Starting football late in life isn't always bad, either; 26-year-old former firefighter Danny Watkins, who first stepped onto the gridiron in junior college, went in the first round of this year's NFL draft. Hodgson may be a rawer prospect than Watkins, but he has some of the same athleticism, and he definitely has some of the same maturity and experience to help him. We'll see if his CFL dream becomes a reality or not, as not all that many sixth-round picks go on to notable CFL careers. Still, Hodgson isn't a guy I would want to count out.

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