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Fabulous freshman: After a breakout season, Winnipeg's Chris Matthews should be a slam dunk to win the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie Award

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TORONTO -- Take it from Milt Stegall -- there should be no question who will be named Most Outstanding Rookie at tonight's CFL awards show.


"Chris Matthews," said Stegall, when asked if the Blue Bombers wideout was the favourite. "No question. If he doesn't win, something's wrong."

It's really no contest. B.C. Lions defensive lineman Jabar Westerman brings four sacks and 14 tackles to the party and was a part-time starter in his first pro season.

Matthews started all 18 games and finished the regular season with 81 receptions for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns, all of which were team-highs among Winnipeg receivers. The yardage total was sixth best in the league and his 14.7-yards-per-catch average was the fourth best among receivers who caught over 60 passes.

Westerman might someday become a dominant player, while Matthews already is. Matthews made an immediate impact upon his arrival in the CFL, recording two 100-yard-plus games within the first three weeks of the season and six 100-yard games overall.

"When I got here I didn't know what to expect," said Matthews. "It's been a great time for me. When I saw the talent and the strength of the league and the Canadian fans, I grew an instant respect for the league. I set high goals and after the first game, I knew I had lots of hard work ahead of me. But after getting used to the speed of the game, I felt pretty confident in my skill set."

The 23-year-old Matthews is 6-5 and 229 pounds and has the uncanny ability to judge the ball in the air and adjust his body, allowing him to both defend and attack the pigskin. He goes up and gets it, in plain receivers' speak.

"Chris is a player that I feel really is a true professional and being a rookie makes that more impressive," said Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce. "He can play any receiver position and cause a mismatch with the defender. His skill set is like that the league hasn't seen in awhile."

Bombers coach Tim Burke says Matthews was the best of the bunch this season.

"Chris had a great rookie year, the best in the league in my opinion. He became our go-to receiver. He combines size, speed and athleticism," said Burke.

Stegall said Matthews can be elite.

"He's got a chance to be top four in the league," said Stegall. "He's still rough. He needs to get some polish and become a route runner. He's going to want to try the NFL and with his size, he's got a chance," said Stegall. "But right now, the Bombers have one of the best in the league in Chris."

Matthews didn't have to think about his answer when asked on Wednesday if he was rookie of the year. He's got being humble down pat, too.

"We're going to have to see," said Matthews. "I'm happy that I was nominated. That's a big deal in itself. Winning would be nice but that's not up to me. I do know I want to come back to the Grey Cup as a player and with all my teammates. That's more important than winning this award. I want the Blue Bombers to get the team trophy. That's what really counts."

Matthews will stay in Toronto for the entire week and watch the Grey Cup.

"I want to see these teams compete and fight for the win. And I want to take in the experience and use it as motivation when I get back in the gym next week," said Matthews. "This is where I want to be and I can use this to remind me of the hard work it requires." Twitter: @garylawless

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Matthews moments


Chris Matthews burst onto the CFL scene with a brilliant rookie season and will represent the East Division as its Rookie of the Year nominee at tonight's CFL awards show. Here are some of the biggest moments of his season:


Week 1 @ B.C.: Caught his first CFL touchdown in the team's first regular- season game in B.C. on a five-yard pass from Alex Brink. He finished the game with five receptions for 48 yards.

Week 3 @ Edmonton: Fresh off his eight-catch, 131-yard performance a week before in Montreal, Matthews would record seven catches for a season-high 171 yards receiving, including a 72-yard touchdown catch on Joey Elliott's first throw of the game.

Week 5 vs. Edmonton: On the final play before halftime, Alex Brink tossed up a Hail Mary pass that only Matthews could come down with in the end zone. It was a 40-yard catch that gave the Bombers momentum going into halftime of a game they would eventually win -- their first of the season.

Week 13 vs. Hamilton: Despite not making a single catch during this game, Matthews showed tremendous football sense by dishing out blocks and helping to open up holes for his running backs. He laid out Tiger-Cats linebacker Brock Campbell on one play that got Chad Simpson loose for a big gain, and then later provided a key block on Will Ford's fourth-quarter touchdown run. It was the only game this season he failed to record a catch.

Week 15 @ Montreal: Matthews led all Blue Bomber receivers with six catches for 143 yards and had back-to-back standout plays -- first hauling in a 42-yard catch and run that set the Bombers up in great field position before eluding a defender on a pump-and-go play that went for 36 yards and a touchdown on the very next play.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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