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Eastern Washington University Football

Ring chasing: After coming up short of Grey Cup, former EWU QB Vernon Adams Jr. determined to lead BC Lions to title

BC Lions quarterback Vernon Adams pictured in 2019 while helping out at Eastern Washington’s Pro Day in Cheney.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dave Cook The Spokesman-Review

Approaching a decade as a pro, Vernon Adams Jr. is still ascending toward the pinnacle championship that evaded him as a collegian at Eastern Washington and Oregon.

This year, though, the climb toward that accomplishment – if successful – can fortuitously end in his home stadium in November.

The starting quarterback for the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League, Adams passed for nearly 5,000 yards a year ago before the Lions came a victory short of making it to the Grey Cup, the Super Bowl of the CFL.

The CFL regular season is now underway within the nine-team league, and features 18 games for each team with three bye weeks. The goal for Adams and British Columbia is to get past perennial West Division power Winnipeg and advance to the 111th Grey Cup, which takes place on the club’s home field at BC Place in Vancouver.

“I’m just chasing to get a ring and a championship for B.C. – that’s why we all play this game,” Adams said recently, just before he played in his 100th regular season game as a professional. “I know you can’t win it today. Our city is hosting the championship game, so there is a lot of buzz around the city – and pressure.”

On the first day that tickets for the Grey Cup went on sale on June 6, more than 40,000 were sold. The stadium, which opened in 1983, has a listed capacity of 54,500 so a sellout is a cinch – even five months in advance of the game. The Jonas Brothers are scheduled to appear at halftime.

Even during the regular season the stadium is expected to be at or near capacity, particularly if the Lions can continue winning. A crowd of more than 50,000 is expected for the team’s home opener on June 15 when rap icon 50 Cent performs pregame.

In the team’s regular-season opener on June 6 at Toronto, Adams and the Lions narrowly fell 34-27. Adams passed for 363 yards and two touchdowns in a losing effort versus the 2022 Grey Cup champion.

“Pressure is a privilege, and I’m excited about the opportunity and challenge to work towards that goal of being champions,” Adams continued. “We’ll take it one day at a time and keep on working.”

Adams played from 2012-14 at Eastern, and the Eagles came a victory short in 2013 of making it to the NCAA Division I Championship Game the Eagles won in 2010 and would later return to in 2018. He then transferred to Oregon, hoping to get back to the title game of the College Football Playoff the Ducks advanced to at the end of the 2014 season.

Adams won a pair of league titles and was Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 and 2014 while at Eastern, and the Ducks finished as the runner-up in the Pac-12 in his lone season at Oregon when he was the Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year. But he wants to end the season with a championship game victory, not just the incomplete success of settling for the playoffs or a bowl game.

“I didn’t win a championship at Eastern or Oregon or anywhere,” he says of a career that has also included his first 5½ years in the CFL mostly with Montreal, along with a short stint with Saskatchewan and getting released while in Hamilton.

“I need one.”

The pressure this season has been amplified after the Lions were dominant at times in 2023 en route to finishing 12-6 in the CFL. They defeated Calgary at home in the first round of the playoffs, then lost at Winnipeg, which has represented the West Division in the last five Grey Cups.

The Lions beat the Blue Bombers 30-8 early in the year, but lost two other regular-season meetings versus the 2019 and 2021 Grey Cup champs. Two late-season home losses by British Columbia helped Winnipeg garner home field advantage in the playoffs with a 14-4 regular season mark.

“We have to take care of the games in the regular season that we need to take care of,” says Adams. “There were some important games we lost last year. You don’t overlook anybody, and each week any team can win. A couple of games at the end of the year we shouldn’t have lost and that hurt us in the long run.

“If we handle business like we are supposed to during the year, then everything else will take care of itself come playoff time,” he added. “Getting a first-round bye and home playoff games is the goal.”

Adams is a candidate to win league Most Outstanding Player honors in 2024 and is ranked as the No. 3 player in the CFL by The Sports Network (TSN) in Canada (he ranks behind Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros and Blue Bombers running back Brady Oliveira). Adams had career highs with 4,769 passing yards and 31 touchdowns in 2023, including single-game passing performances of 455 and 458 yards.

That puts Adams in the same company as former Eagle and CFL legend Bo Levi Mitchell, who led Eastern to the National Championship in 2010 before winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player honor twice for Calgary. He led the Stampeders to Grey Cup titles in 2014 and 2018 and was the game’s MVP in both.

“He’s won championships and has been the MOP – that’s exactly what we all chase after,” said Adams of Mitchell, now the starter for Hamilton. “He could retire right now and be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

Besides Adams and Mitchell, former Eagle All-America defensive halfback T.J. Lee III is also currently active in the CFL as a teammate of Adams in B.C. Lee, who didn’t play in the team’s opener because of hamstring injury, has played his entire 10-year career for the Lions.

“He’s formidable still and is still the longest-standing Lion here,” said Adams of Lee, who is a two-time All-CFL player and three times a West Division all-star. “I love playing with him here.”

Another former Eastern defensive back, Ryan Phillips, is the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the Lions after a productive playing career in B.C.

But change is inevitable in the professional ranks, and B.C. is no different. Although they return their offensive line intact and some key components, there are enough new players on offense that will make it challenging to compete for the title and equal the 6-1 start the club had a year ago.

“We have a really good team,” Adams says. “We brought back a lot of players and have chemistry, but we lost some good players too. A lot of our new guys have to step up and do what is asked. We know they are ballers too so we just need them to make plays for us.”

Beau Baldwin, the head coach at Eastern while Adams, Mitchell and Lee were playing there, is now quarterbacks coach at Calgary. Before a recent pre-season game, Adams and Mitchell were able to meet up.

Adams will have several more chances to visit with former Eagles, including 2010 Buck Buchanan Award winner J.C. Sherritt, who is now linebackers coach at Saskatchewan.

“We talked it up for a good 15-20 minutes before the game and caught up,” said Adams of meeting up with Baldwin. “It was good to see and talk to him, and it will be cool to see J.C. Sherritt up here too. He’s an Eastern Washington and CFL all-time great, and has won a Grey Cup championship too (2015 with Edmonton).”

Adams resides in Tacoma in the off-season, but his family is now with him in Vancouver for the 2024 season. His son, Cash, will turn 10 this summer.

In his first seven seasons in the CFL (not counting 2020 when COVID-19 wiped out the season), Adams has accounted for more than 100 touchdowns. He entered the 2024 season completing 64% of his passes (956-of-1,488) for 13,261 yards, 80 touchdowns and 45 interceptions in 99 career games, while adding 265 rushes for 1,431 yards and 21 more touchdowns.

“It’s so crazy how fast it’s all gone by,” Adams says of his career since bursting onto the scene as a redshirt freshman at EWU in 2012. “I’m so blessed and grateful, and everyday in my prayers I thank God for my journey – the ups and downs, the transfer to Oregon, being cut and everything else. As an American you obviously wish you could get to the NFL, but I love this journey and I’m grateful for it. I’ll never take it for granted and I wouldn’t change anything.”