Lions rookie Matt Norman: From the classroom to CFL West final
Matt Norman had to get special permission to take a break from his student-teaching practicum this week.
He had an unusual — but quite legitimate — reason.
The B.C. Lions need him to help provide depth for a wounded offensive line in Sunday's Western Final against the Calgary Stampeders. He started the CFL season with the Lions but left in the middle of the campaign to pursue his teaching certificate at the University of Western Ontario.
"I kept myself ready [for the playoffs] just in case, but I didn't really expect a phone call," said Norman after practising with the Lions on Wednesday at B.C. Place Stadium for the first time since late August.
Norman was teaching Grade 10 civics at Lucas High School in London, Ont., when the call came from the Lions. He kept the word of the summons quiet to all but family and close friends.
But as he was flying from Ontario to B.C. on Tuesday, he could not quite believe that the Lions had asked him to put down textbooks and pick up his playbook.
"Ever since I was young, I've been following the CFL," said Norman, a 24-year-old Chateauguay, Que., native who was chosen by the Lions in the third round (22nd overall) of the 2012 CFL draft. "So to actually be in the Western final game is beyond words."
Either as a backup or starter, he is expected to play a prominent role against the Stampeders. Veterans guards Jon Hameister-Ries (back, knee), Dean Valli (knee) and Jesse Newman (knee) are battling injuries that have bothered them since the first week of training camp.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, Norman stayed football-ready by helping coach a Lucas High School squad and his former University of Western Ontario Mustangs while also working out on his own.
"Certain days, I'd go through the drills with the guys, show them how to do it, and then the last couple weeks, I just started running," said Norman.
The Lions officially suspended him after they gave him permission to leave so that he could get his teaching qualification in one year before Western's program expands to two years in 2013-14. He was added to the team's 46-man roster Wednesday.
Norman said he is as ready as anybody to play against the Stamps, who registered eight quarterback sacks against the Lions while pounding them 41-21 in the last regular-season meeting between the teams on Oct. 26.
"I'm just going to take advantage of the time that I have on the field, keep myself fresh and then keep my face in the playbook," said Norman.
Coach Mike Benevides and general manager Wally Buono will have to shuffle some bodies, likely on the offensive line, to put him on the 42-man squad for the game. Benevides was impressed with Norman's first practice since he left following a game in Montreal on Aug. 31.
"He looked outstanding," said Benevides. "You take a look at just him stepping in, he's the same person. He obviously did a lot of work physically. He looks good. It was great to see him. We got him to stand up in the [dressing] room, and the room just burst. He's ready to go, which is great."
Benevides feels comfortable throwing Norman into such a big game because of the way he made an impact earlier in the season. At the outset of the season, the rookie was expected to play sparingly and increase his playing time gradually. However, he was pressed into action as a starter in the first regular-season game against Winnipeg and played extensively while switching between right and left guard over the eight contests in which he played.
"Obviously, he hasn't played in a little while now since he has left us, but I feel very good about it, because I know who he is," said Benevides. "I know the character he is. I know the tough, technical player that he is."
Benevides said the Lions should be "fine" on the offensive line after Valli successfully tested his wonky knee in practice, but a team can never have too many offensive linemen around.
Quarterback Travis Lulay was also glad to see another offensive lineman, a "quarterback's best friend," on the field.
"Obviously, the more healthy offensive linemen we've got, the better," said Lulay.
Norman's return adds another intriguing chapter to the story of a B.C. offensive line that has overcome considerable adversity this season. Despite the injuries, the Lions, along with Montreal, had the lowest sacks against total this season (30). B.C. also led the league in rushing with 2,248 yards while passing for more than 5,000 yards.
"That's kind of been their trademark of this season, guys being able to step in and play — being able to play and play at a high level," said Lulay.
He said the Lions were fortunate that centre Angus Reid and tackles Ben Archibald and Jovan Olafioye have been able to stay healthy while different guards stepped between them at different times. Reid has been nominated for a CFL all-star selection while earning one last time for the first time in his career, and Olafioye is up for lineman-of-the year and all-star honours.
Lulay also praised Patrick Kabongo, who signed as a free agent during training camp after being released by Edmonton in the off-season, and Norman for stepping in when needed, and marvelled at the injured guards' willingness to come back and play after taking considerable punishment in the trenches.
"You have to have a certain mentality to [be an offensive lineman], and we're fortunate that we have some good ones," said Lulay.
Norman looks forward to helping the Lions however he can — despite his two-month layoff.
"I'll be comfortable," he said. "Whatever needs to happen will happen, and I'm willing to step up to anywhere they want to put me in."
Note: Norman will miss three days of his teaching practicum this week. If the Lions qualify for the Grey Cup, he will have to get permission again to take more time away from the classroom.