VANCOUVER — Let’s face it — just about everything that could happen in the CFL has probably already happened in a league that will hand out its championship trophy, the Grey Cup, for the 99th time on Sunday.
But there was at least one thing, a very surprising thing, that had never happened — no defensive back had ever won the outstanding defensive player award in the CFL.
Until, that is, Winnipeg Blue Bombers cornerback Jovon Johnson did exactly that here Thursday night at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
In the closest vote of the night at the 2011 Gibson’s Finest CFL Player Awards, Johnson edged out Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker Jerrell Freeman 37-25 to make league history and become just the third Blue Bomber player in history to win outstanding defensive player, joining Tyrone Jones in 1985 and Greg Battle, who won in 1990 and again in 1991.
Johnson also becomes the first Bomber player to win a CFL player award of any kind since defensive end Gavin Walls won for outstanding rookie in 2005.
Johnson paid homage to his step-father, Benny Crosby, who raised him through a hard-scrabble childhood in Erie, PA and who has travelled to Vancouver this week, where he will see his son play in the CFL for the first time ever in Sunday’s Grey Cup.
"He helped me become the man I am today," said Johnson. "This is one trophy down and I look forward to going out on Sunday and doing what I can for my team to hopefully hoist the Grey Cup."
It was all sweet vindication for a player who, while listed at 5-9 in the Bombers media guide, looks smaller than that and says he has been denied opportunities in the past in pro football simply because of his perceived physical shortcomings.
"This is definitely one of the best moments I’ve ever had in my life. For me, being a player that always dealt with the politics — heard I was too small, heard I wasn’t fast enough — this is just one of those moments thatI can say forget everyone who thought I wasn’t worth it."
Johnson also paid homage to another man who was instrumental in his life — the late Richard Harris, the former assistant-head coach of the Bombers who died suddenly last summer.
Johnson revealed that in the aftermath of the 2009 season and the house-cleaning that took place after head coach Mike Kelly was fired, it was only because of Harris that he decided to sign a new contract.
"I always think of coach Harris," Johnson said, "He was the main reason I decided to stay, knowing he was going to be the only coach remaining from that coaching staff that was going to still be in Winnipeg."
Johnson was rewarded Thursday night for a standout season in 2011 in which he led the CFL in interceptions with eight — and also returned a pair for touchdowns.
Johnson’s historic victory also came with a footnote — while Johnson is now considered the best player in the CFL, history will record that he was only just barely considered the best player on what was a dominating Bombers defence this year.
A panel of eight Winnipeg voters — seven media representatives and head coach Paul LaPolice — was split evenly at 4-4 between Johnson and fellow defensive back Jonathan Hefney in the original voting for Winnipeg’s defensive player nominee this season.
But Johnson advanced in that process on the basis of a second-place vote advantage and, with the heavy-lifting behind him having won the Winnipeg nomination, promptly ran the table after that.
Steve Daniel, the CFL’s head statistician, confirmed for the Free Press on Thursday that Johnson becomes the first defensive back to ever win the outstanding defensive player award since it was first handed out in 1974. But Daniel added that there is one wrinkle — Montreal’s Hal Patterson in 1956 and Edmonton’s Jackie Parker in 1957-58 won the award as the the league’s Most Outstanding Player on the strength of their play both as offensive players and as defensive backs in the days of two-way players.
Johnson’s victory came on the same night that BC Lions quarterback Travis Lulay won the award as Most Outstanding Player and creates an interesting subplot to Sunday’s Grey Cup clash between the Bombers and Lions, with the top defensive player in the league going up against the top offensive player.
Meanwhile, Johnson received another honour here last night in getting named to the CFLPA all-star team, an honour particularly coveted by players because it is voted on by players.
Johnson was joined on the CFLPA all-star team by fellow Bombers Hefney, safety Ian Logan, offensive tackle Brendon LaBatte — all of whom, such as Johnson, were also on the CFL all-star team. Bombers defensive tackle Doug Brown, who was not on the CFL all-star team, was also on the CFLPA team, while defensive end Odell Willis — who was on the CFL all-star team — was not on the players list.