(CFL PHOTO - Geoff Robins)
By Frankie Benvenuti
Oftentimes, when a running back is talked about as being versatile, it means that they can block, run the ball, and make catches out of the backfield. When Jackson Bennett is described as versatile, it means something completely different.
Diversifying himself in the sporting context has been a part of Bennett’s life since he was young. He tried just about every sport that he possibly could, and through that, built up skills that make him the football player, and person that he is today.
“The first sport that I played was soccer,” Bennett said. “Once I got into school, I took part in other sports. I played basketball, football, rugby, volleyball, and badminton even. It’s been fun to accumulate skills from different sports and apply them to football.”
In an alternate reality, Bennett is winning Olympic gold medals in badminton, or adding his name to an already lethal group of players for the Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team, but those other sports lacked something he loved.
“I always loved the team aspect of football. We say all the time that we need everybody to do their one-twelfth on and off the field. I like the physicality of the sport, as well. Soccer has a level of physicality, but I don’t think it’s anything like football.”
Bennett started out in football as a running back with the Pembroke Panthers, but quickly found himself on the defensive side of the ball at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School. As he looked to continue his football career, the University of Ottawa ranked among the top options for Bennett. Although he kept his options open, the Gee-Gees eventually won out.
“I found a home here in Ottawa, and ultimately, it made the most sense for me,” Bennett said. “I’ve got family and friends here, I know the area really well, so after all the discussions with teams around Canada, I decided to stay home.”
Through training with some of the members of the Gee-Gees in his high school days, Bennett felt comfortable in his new surroundings almost immediately. He was meant to play running back with the Gee-Gees, the position he earned by being the fastest player on the Panthers as a kid, but plans changed early in his tenure.
“They brought me in as a running back,” Bennett said. “People get hurt and things change, and they said ‘Hey Jackson, we need help on defence.’ It was an opportunity to play, and especially in my first year, I took that.”
“My whole career at university was playing free safety, field halfback, and then I spun down to sam linebacker, before playing boundary halfback in my final year. It was a lot of defence that I played in university.”
Bennett had the talent to make the switch, but that can only take someone so far. His mind was a secret weapon, as he made the change from understanding routes and blocking schemes to coverages.
“It’s a big jump,” he said. “Fundamentally, you go from running forwards, to running backwards. In terms of the mental game, you have to take things one piece at a time. You have to focus on your job, specifically, and what you have to do. When everything gets put together, you start understanding what other people’s jobs are, and your job makes even more sense.”
Committing to the University of Ottawa proved to be the right choice for Bennett. He enjoyed a successful career on the defensive side of the ball, and was selected 11th overall in the 2018 CFL Draft by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Bennett would once again be asked to make a position change, but this time, it was to happen at the professional level. After playing defence in 2018, Bennett was moved back to the offensive side of the ball, returning to his childhood position.
Since coming to the CFL, Bennett has been to the Grey Cup game twice with the Tabbies, but they have fallen short on both occasions.
“It was really tough not being able to get a win after being to the Grey Cup twice in a row,” he said. “You learn to control yourself, in that environment. You’re in front of the whole world and you have to perform.”
At just 26 years old, Bennett comes to Ottawa with plenty of experience. His trips to the Grey Cup help motivate him, but playing on both sides of the football at the professional level gives him a leg up on his competition.
“You go into the game looking for any small advantages you can have over defenders,” he admitted. “You have a different perspective of things when you are running a route. I can anticipate things a little quicker [because of playing defence].”
Bennett may be one of the many new faces in the locker room this season, but he is far from unfamiliar. Coming back home, and teaming up with a slew of former teammates from Hamilton, Bennett knows that he wants to bring the Grey Cup to his hometown.
“I’ve been to the Grey Cup twice. and lost twice. I still think about it here and there,” said Bennett. “It’s a motivator to bring [the Grey Cup] to the city.”
Until the chance to get on the field arrives, Bennett only has one message for RNation.
“Get ready, have fun!” said Bennett. “We’re out here for you guys, so let’s go!”