Over the course of a 14-year career in the Canadian Football League, Rob Lazeo picked up some pretty cool souvenirs.
He’s the proud owner of a Grey Cup ring, earned in 2008 as a member of the Calgary Stampeders. And in his living room, the offensive lineman has a couple of game balls on display, including one from a July 24, 2010 game in which his Stamps rushed for 247 yards in a 40-20 victory over one of his former teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Lazeo also lives with other less-thrilling mementoes of his playing days, in the form of persistent pain in basically any joint you can name.
But the 41-year-old Abbotsford native doesn’t carry an ounce of regret on his massive frame (he was listed at 6’5″, 310 pounds during his final season with the Stamps). While playing a game for a living can start to feel like a grind for many pro athletes, Lazeo’s childhood passion for football never waned.
“My knees are shot, my back is sore, elbows, neck, you name it,” he said with a chuckle during an interview with The News last week, in advance of his upcoming induction into the Abbotsford Sports Hall of Fame.
“But man, it’s just an honour (to play pro football). I always looked at it like, we’re just so lucky to do this. You get to act like children and run around and hit people for a living. It was great. I never wanted it to end.”
Lazeo’s lengthy pro career is a marvel in light of all he had to endure to make it happen.
Heading into his Grade 12 year at Abbotsford Senior, Lazeo was a blue-chip prospect and was recruited by a who’s-who of NCAA programs – USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington, Washington State and Hawaii were among the schools that expressed interest.
But after the Panthers’ first game of the season in Richmond, Lazeo went to push open the front door of the school, and his arms went right through the glass. His right tricep was completely severed, and while he narrowly avoiding catastrophic nerve damage, he missed the balance of the season and all of his big-time NCAA suitors lost interest.
Lazeo managed to land a scholarship from Western Illinois University, where he resurrected his career and was drafted by the Roughriders. But during his junior season, he suffered a torn nerve in his neck on an awkward hit. It left him unable to lift his left arm over his head, and doctors told him that the odds of the nerve healing and regaining full use of his arm was slim to none.
Miraculously, the nerve healed and after a redshirt season, Lazeo returned to the gridiron for his senior year.
After finishing his eligibility at Western Illinois in 1995-96, Lazeo joined the Roughriders, but he was cut in training camp and spent the season working at a lumberyard back in Abbotsford. But he kept training, earned a roster spot in Saskatchewan in 1997, and stayed in the CFL for 14 seasons.
“There’s been some challenges,” Lazeo acknowledged. “But I never had the quit in me, if that makes sense. Every time I got hurt, I was coming back – it didn’t matter. I was like that all the way through my career.”
Lazeo played the majority of his pro career with Saskatchewan, spending a combined eight seasons in Regina over two stints, with a two-year run with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in between.
“When I played there, it was unreal,” Lazeo said, reflecting on the legendary passion of Roughriders fans. “We were the worst team in the league (in the late ’90s), and it was hard, because it’s a small town. It’s not much bigger than Abbotsford . . . so anywhere you went, people knew who you were.
“You’d have to have some thick skin . . . when you were 3-15 or 5-13.”
The Roughriders traded Lazeo to Calgary prior to the 2007 season, and it was there that he had his greatest success, both individually and team-wise.
In 2008, he was a West Division all-star at centre, and was the Stamps’ nominee for the CFL’s outstanding lineman of the year award. Calgary capped that season by beating the Montreal Alouettes 22-14 in the 96th Grey Cup at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Following the 2010 campaign, his last in the CFL, Lazeo was the winner of the Presidents’ Ring – an honour voted on by his Stampeder teammates which goes to the player who best combines excellence on the football field with leadership, inspiration and motivational skills.
“Those are the twilight years of my career, but I had my best years,” he said. “Maybe I was a late bloomer, maybe you can just attribute it to being a cagey vet and knowing the tricks of the trade, I don’t know. But I was a lot better player once I hit 30 years old. Your body’s beat up, but I was still running circles around the young bucks.”
When Lazeo retired, only two CFL players – Montreal QB Anthony Calvillo and B.C. Lions kicker Paul McCallum – were older.
These days, he and his family make their home in Abbotsford, and he works alongside several of his former Stampeders teammates for GridIron Drilling Services, an Alberta-based company in the oil and gas industry.
Lazeo and community sport builder Liz Carter are being inducted into the Abbotsford Sports Hall of Fame in a ceremony on April 26 at the Legacy Building at Exhibition Park. Tickets are available through Hub Fire Engines (phone 604-859-3124, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
“It’s pretty exciting,” Lazeo said. “Growing up here and then moving back to my hometown, it’s quite an honour. I never envisioned when I started playing football that I’d go as far as I did and have the accomplishments that came my way.”