Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out
Montreal Alouettes running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is used to psyching himself up to sprint down a field, evading a crush of muscled men the entire way.
But mentally preparing for his latest venture required bracing for a whole new set of anxieties.
As he readied himself to hop in a bobsled for the first time, Murray-Lawrence knew he'd be zipping down an icy track faster than cars are allowed to travel down most highways.
"It was very nerve wracking," the 27-year-old Toronto native said of the run. "Once I got in the sled, it was just the longest 50 seconds of my life. I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I couldn’t breathe. But when it’s over, I was like ‘Hey, man, I think I could do that again.’"
And he has.
Murrary-Lawrence, Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Jay Dearborn and B.C. Lions running back hopeful Kayden Johnson joined the national bobsled program after the CFL cancelled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the national development squad, the trio has been training at the ice house at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park. This week, the group moved to the sliding centre in Whistler, B.C., where they'll perfect their techniques on a full course.
Built for the 2010 Olympics, the Whistler track is known as one of the fastest in the world.
Dearborn still hasn't figured out how to explain what it's like to race down the ice.
"The feel of those forces going around the corner, or the speed that you’re going at … the biggest thing that I struggle with is how to describe what it’s like to have your whole being crushed by these forces going through each corner," he said.
Just months ago, Dearborn "didn't know a thing" about the sport. A strength and conditioning coach at Carleton University put him in touch with a national recruiter last year, but it wasn't until March that the 26-year-old from Yarker, Ont., got into a sled for the first time.
"I just knew the type of athletes it attracted and I knew I was pretty similar — a strong, explosive, fast athlete, that are pretty technically minded people," Dearborn said.
Football and bobsled both require ample power and explosiveness, Murray-Lawrence said.
"You've got to be very aggressive," he said. "You need so much speed, so much power in such a short amount of time."
The sport has a delicate side, too, he added, because you also have to be a "ballerina or ninja" to seamlessly jump into the sled without rocking it as it hurtles down the track.
Learning that balance of power and poise has been a long time coming for Murray-Lawrence. He was first recruited by the national bobsled team in 2017 while playing for the Lions.
Then his life was upended by a hit-and-run crash that left Murray-Lawrence with a concussion and back injuries.
It was about 700 days before he played another CFL game, joining the Alouettes late in the 2019 season. The campaign ended before Murray-Lawrence could firmly reestablish himself, though, and this year was supposed to be his big comeback.
"Everything got put on hold. There was so much uncertainty," he said. "For me, the last two years has been about trying to prove myself."
When the CFL finally called off the 2020 season in August, it didn't take Murray-Lawrence long to turn his sights to bobsled. He spoke with former Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back Dexter Janke and Olympian Jesse Lumsden, both of whom played in the CFL and competed in bobsled.
"I’m just trying to be a sponge. I’m just trying to soak up as much knowledge and information that I can," he said.
There's a lot of overlap in training for bobsled and football, said Kayden Johnson, a 24-year-old running back from Kerrobert, Sask., who was selected by the Lions in the seventh round of the 2020 draft.
Because of the lost season, Johnson has yet to play a CFL game, but he believes his winter work will help his football career.
"Bobsleigh has that mental toughness and that competitive aspect of all or nothing," he said. "You’ll always commit to going full speed. Even if you fail, you fail at full speed, that’s what they like to say here. You’re not afraid of the challenge or attacking the run."
For Dearborn, training to be a brakeman includes more sprinting than he was used to in the CFL. He and his coaches regularly watch video to dissect and perfect every detail and angle of his stride, the same way a runner might work with a sprinting coach.
"I think it’s going to help my running," Dearborn said. "I should show up on that field a little faster than I was, so that’s really exciting."
In January, the three CFLers are set to take their new skills on the road as the Canadian bobsled team heads to Europe to compete. The bobsled and skeleton world championships are scheduled to take place in Germany at the beginning of February, and there's an Olympic test event slated for early March in Beijing.
Knowing that the team is working towards the 2022 Olympics is exciting, said Murray-Lawrence. Competing on the world's biggest stage for your country instead of for a team that you've signed a contract with "holds a little bit more pride," he explained.
"This is something I can carry with me forever, that I represented my country," he said.
Johnson already knows the thrill of wearing the maple leaf of his chest, having represented Canada in decathlon at the Pan American junior championships, but he'd love to represent his country on the bobsled track in Beijing, too.
"The Olympics has always been a dream of mine," said Johnson, who also competed in 60-metre hurdles at York University. "Olympics rings have always been something I’ve been chasing after."
All three athletes hope they can balance bobsled and football when the CFL finally returns.
Murray-Lawrence believes he can do both sports for a long time, but adds that, with the current state of the world, little is certain right now.
"At any moment, this could all be shut down," he said. "So we’re just living in the moment right now. Embrace it, cherish it and have fun."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020.