CFL Hall of Fame's Jon Cornish on racism, growing up Black and building communities

WATCH: In the fifth part of Beyond Skin Deep Jon Cornish opens up about his childhood, racism and his work to elevate Black culture in Calgary.

Two-time Grey Cup champion, CFL All-star and Hall of famer — Jon Cornish holds many titles but his triumphs and tribulations extend far beyond the end zone.

Cornish’s upbringing may bend the barriers of what is considered conventional but it came with an abundance of love and support from his single mother and his four siblings.

“You know I was always technically the black sheep in the family,” he said.

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“My older siblings were born having a different dad, my younger brother was born to yet to another father. While we all got along, visually I was different, I didn’t present white. So when I was around my older siblings and we were going to hang out, would ask ‘Who is this kid?’ ‘Oh he’s my half brother.'”

“Half — that always just stuck with me. I was always half of something,” he shared on a snowy walk in Calgary’s Nose Hill Park.

The former Calgary Stampeder grew up in Vancouver. He told Global News his dad, who was originally from Barbados, left the picture when he was three and passed away when Jon was in university in Kansas. He never got to know him other than a few phone calls.

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“You don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s only at this point now that I can see what the role of a father is in a person’s life,” he said.

“The first thing I learned about race is: I was just a Black kid holding my Mom’s hand and Black men walking down the street, there weren’t many Black men on the street and they would acknowledge me — they would give me a little head nod,” he said, adding it’s something he still does today.

Jon said his mother was very racially aware and really prepared him but he admits he wasn’t introduced to things other Black kids were introduced to.

“When I was called the N-word for the first time in elementary school I didn’t know what it meant, so I went home and told my Mom — this was Grade 4. And she called the principal and the kid gets suspended but it was actually a few years before I knew what it meant. I was pretty incredulous,” he said.

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Just a few years before that, when Cornish was just in Grade 1, he experienced what is his first memory of racism even though he didn’t realize it at the time.

“There was a random day where all of a sudden all my friends weren’t talking to me,” he recalled. “I was just like, ‘what’s going on?’ So at recess, we go outside and they all run away from me. I’m fast so I could catch up to them so I run them down, and I’m like ‘Guys, what’s going on?’ ‘Like … you’re Black.’

“That never left me.”

He said he took part in his first track meet in Grade 5 and was the fastest kid in the province of B.C. Cornish said sport helped give him structure and taught him how to work hard. But he said he never really knew where he fit in.

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“When I went to high school though, then there’s Black kids. And they’re like ‘Hey you’re an oreo.’ ‘What’s an oreo?’ ‘You’re Black on the outside white on the inside.’ So I had to navigate that place of being Black ‘sort of’ everywhere that I went. It was interesting.”

“You start to become a chameleon, right — a person who can just adapt to the changing circumstances,” he said, adding being able to adapt has been an asset.

The football star remembered a night when he was leaving an establishment with some friends while in another province, when he was boxed-in by police. He was the designated driver.

“Eight cops get out… ‘Cornish we got you! We got you, you are a figure in this community and you are driving drunk.'”

“They are talking smack, eight cops and I am standing there knowing I’m the DD — I hadn’t had a drink, right — just talking,” he said. “‘Can I take the breathalyzer?’ Zero-zero on the breathalyzer.”

He said despite the result they continued to berate him for another five minutes, telling him he was a “danger to society.”

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“I am so mentally distraught that can’t drive home, someone else has to drive home,” he concludes. “So yeah I had to deal with that.

In 2019 Jon and his wife decided to start the Calgary Black Chambers, a group similar to a chamber of commerce, in part to give people who have lived through experiences like the one just described a safe place to share. It’s also a space to create and grow and to give youth opportunities.

“One real big challenge we have here in Alberta is kids can get streamlined, you look a certain way so that’s all you can achieve and that’s actually been a big problem,” he said.

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Cornish is without a doubt a community builder. He has spent hundreds of volunteer hours trying to make the city better. While retired from the sport, he flourished — he said he is currently living his dream.

“Reaching personal goals, that’s easy. Helping other people reach their goals, that’s my reason for existing.”

While he’s encouraged by the dialogue so many are having about racism, he dreams of a day when there’s no longer the need.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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