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Bypassed as a CFL quarterback, Marshall enjoys rugby life

The Canadian Press

4/4/2012 10:01:05 PM

VANCOUVER -- Jason Marshall could have kept trying to achieve the almost impossible dream of becoming a Canadian quarterback in the CFL, but he opted for a professional rugby career instead.

Now, he's earning a living playing a sport he loves and finding success on the international stage with Canada's national team.

The 27-year-old North Vancouver native, who called signals for five seasons with the Simon Fraser University Clan based in Burnbaby, B.C., is gearing up to start a two-year contract with Stade Aurillacois Cantal Auvergne in France's second division.

"I really hope I can stay (in France) for the rest of my rugby career," said Marshall, during a news conference to promote a June 23 international June test match between Canada and Georgia in Burnaby.

If all goes according to plan, Marshall, recuperating from surgery to repair a torn bicep, will suit up at prop for Canada against Georgia on the same Swangard Stadium field where he played quarterback for SFU.

After completing his university football career in 2008, Marshall had a brief, unsuccessful tryout with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. As often happens with former Canadian university quarterbacks, the Eskimos sought to move Marshall to another position -- fullback.

The experiment ended almost as soon as it began "four days after rookie camp."

"To me, my football career was over," he said. "I had tried out with Eskimos. It didn't work out. So it was either try something else or go over to the working world. I had a degree in accounting. I was going to try for a (chartered accountant designation) or whatever. But the rugby thing came up. I just stuck with it and it worked out."

The same year that he was cut by the Eskimos, Marshall launched his career with the national rugby squad. He had played rugby throughout high school and with club teams and SFU during his first two years of university eligibility while also serving as a backup quarterback on the gridiron. But before his third year, his football coaches offered a larger scholarship on the condition that he stop playing rugby in order to avoid injury.

So he focused on football for three years. Since returning to rugby full-time, he has suited for Canada in 12 international matches, including all four at last fall's World Cup in New Zealand.

In the process, the six-foot-three Marshall bulked up to 255 pounds and moved from the front line to prop, a football-lineman-like position that requires passing, punting and tackling skills.

He signed his contract with the French squad just before Canada opened the competition with a 25-20 upset of Tonga en route to going 1-2-1 and finishing fourth in its pool.

"My ultimate goal was just to make the World Cup," he recalled.

After that, Marshall thought he would pursue an accounting-related career. But now he plans to play as long as possible in France, where he currently makes close to six figures -- much more than he would in the CFL -- and suit up for Canada in two more World Cups.

In other words, his former football dream has become a strong rugby itch.

"There's not that big a rugby following in Canada," he said. "But once you get to go and experience games overseas, just games in France -- or we went and watched a game in Australia -- you see it's like how hockey-crazy it is in Canada. So I want to stick with it and see what I can do with it."

According to Rugby Canada officials, Marshall is one of about 10 Canadian team members playing professionally overseas. Others include Adam Kleeberger, a 27-year-old Elk Point, Alta., native, who plays for London Scottish in England.

Gareth Rees, Rugby Canada's national men's program manager, said Marshall benefits twofold from his contract with the French team, which includes one year (2012) plus an option (2013).

"One, he's playing against the best in the world," said Rees. "But two, he's supported in a way where it's now his livelihood. So he's supported fully. He does everything that he should do -- whether it's through the training regimes or the competition-skills models -- so that he's fully prepared to play for Canada. It makes him a better player for Canada.'

In turn, Marshall serves as inspiration for younger players to pursue a national rugby dream.

"It sends a clear message to kids -- not only Canadian rugby players, but Canadian football players -- to choose the sport if you want to have a professional career, largely with the way the salaries are in the CFL," said Rees. "You can add to that, for families and people that don't know rugby, that you can now go to the Olympics. So that's why I say it's pretty exciting times for rugby."

Rees said Marshall is a team leader and will likely continue to be one over the next decade. However, Marshall said, he no longer has the special status anointed to quarterbacks.

Unlike in football, all rugby positions are equal and everyone has a chance to be a star, in contrast to the anonymity that often comes with playing on the offensive line. As a result, rugby is a closer-knit team sport.

"You still get the recognition if you want it," he said. "It's just all about how hard you want to work."

Accordingly, Marshall has no regrets about quitting football, even though the Eskimos showed a renewed interest.

"I haven't told anybody this, but after the World Cup, they actually contacted me again," he said. "They wanted me to come out to their training camp this summer."

But he has other plans.

Note: In addition to the contest against Georgia, Canada will host test matches against the U.S. on June 9 in Kingston, Ont., and Italy on June 15 in Toronto. The matches will be Canada's first since the World Cup.