By Jeff Hamilton
John Rush doesn’t remember much about the first time he was asked to play fullback. He’s not sure he was even asked, given he was only nine at the time and in his first year of organized football. The details of that season are faint, but he does recall the team being named after — or at least sponsored by — the local Dairy Queen.
“Our mascot was a Blizzard,” Rush said, chuckling, while standing in the end zone at Investors Group Field, one of nearly 90 players at Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp.
Rush lasted just one season at fullback, preferring instead to play on the defensive side of the ball. There, the game came naturally, with Rush establishing himself as one of the best high school players in Niagara Falls, Ont., and then across the entire country. In his final season at the University of Guelph in 2015, Rush, a feisty middle linebacker, was named the Presidents’ Trophy winner as the nation’s top defensive player, leading the country with 60 tackles.
Rush, who amassed 150 solo tackles and assisted on 129 more in his five seasons with the Gryphons, said his passion to play on defence was in his blood, with his dad a middle linebacker in high school and his older brother a safety. Part of him, though, has always loved the offensive side of the game. Whenever the Gryphons opened training camp, Rush would lobby offensive co-ordinator Kevin MacNeill to include him on a play or two. MacNeill, now the head coach of the Gryphons, was quick to laugh off the request and Rush never pushed, knowing any chance to attract attention from CFL teams would be on defence.
Or so he thought.
The Bombers, after combing through game film, were impressed by Rush’s high football IQ, particularly his instincts around the ball. So they signed him prior to the 2016 season. A lower-body injury to start camp — just the latest in a string of injuries over his career, including a torn ACL in 2013 that derailed his season and ultimately caused him to go undrafted the following year — hindered his chances and Rush, unable to impress in pre-season, was released shortly after.
Despite a rough start, O’Shea, who also played middle linebacker at Guelph, still believed Rush had something to give to the game, perhaps possessing a soft spot given their university connection. Either way, O’Shea believed Rush warranted another shot.
“There’s something there, he understands the game,” O’Shea said. “From however he looks at it, he just gets the game.”
For Rush’s part, he returned home in 2016 with a list of instructions of what to work on, primarily his foot speed and endurance. So he committed to getting better on not just that, but everything about his game. He split workouts between the Hamilton Hurricanes of the Canadian Junior Football League and in his backyard back home, where he worked on drills with his brother.
“I was doing everything in my power to showcase what I could do for this team,” he said.
Rush remained on the team’s negotiation list throughout the 2016 season and was signed in December. O’Shea, having assessed the roster, decided to approach Rush early in April’s mini-camp with a potentially life-altering question: would he be interested in playing fullback?
“He was just like, ‘You don’t have to do it, it’s just an option,’ ” Rush recalled. ” ‘Do you want to?’ ”
Rush, having first dreamed of playing professionally since the age of six (he was hooked after watching a commercial that included a football player doing a front flip over an oncoming defender) wasn’t about to be picky. He accepted and the transformation began.
Some of the differences between offence and defence are subtle. Instead of a blue jersey, a white one now hangs in his locker.
Instead of running into bodies and tackling them to the ground, Rush is now asked to run over his opponent and then continue down field or protect the quarterback he used to hunt.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Rush said, “because, after all, football is still football.”
But some of the changes are more complex and have taken more time to fully digest. The biggest adjustment, he said, is learning the lingo of a new playbook. He recalled the sudden surge he felt in his chest the first time he heard starting quarterback Matt Nichols call a play in the huddle. Where Rush was used to digesting three or four words to describe a play or formation on defence, on offence it was more like a short story.
“It’s like a play that’s 30 words long and each word means something different for each player. That’s the trickiest part, for sure,” said Rush.
“It’s a different code that I grew up in. On defence, I’d hear the word and it would be instinctual, it would be super easy for me. On offence, I have to remember which side of the ball to line up on and in what exact position. It’s very precise and exact but it’s been good.”
The Bombers need to trim the roster down to 56 by June 17, and if Rush is going to earn one of those spots, he knows he’ll need to show he can be versatile. With Mike Miller and Christophe Normand both ahead of him on the depth chart at fullback, they provide both a constant resource to learn from and an obstacle for how much playing time he’ll be afforded. Rush understands if he is to make his dream a reality, it won’t be about how quick he can adjust to a new position but how well he can perform when called upon.
Like most young Canadians who are new to the CFL, Rush is aware it will take time for his role on the team to evolve, if he sticks around at all. He won’t be called up soon, if ever, to run in for a touchdown. More likely, he’ll be leaned on to contribute first through special teams.
O’Shea hasn’t ruled out Rush as a linebacker in the future — “If he was on a game-day roster and you were playing short yardage and you needed a linebacker, he’d fill right in now, no problem” — nor is he married to making him a permanent fullback. At this point in camp, he’s looking for good football players. And he thinks he’s found one.
“He’s not a linebacker or a fullback or a special-teamer, this guy plays football — he gets it from both sides of the ball. He’s tough and he’s crafty,” O’Shea said. “We’ll see how he fares through the exhibition season, through the two games, but the reason you move a guy like that is because you want to give him the best opportunity and you want him to be able to compete and try and win a spot because if he does win that spot, he’ll be an asset in three phases.”