Brock Sunderland

Great Falls native and former Griz receiver Brock Sunderland was named general manager of the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos in April.

Courtesy of Edmonton Eskimos

When the job of a lifetime calls, you answer.

Even if you're on the other side of the world. And it's 4 a.m.

Brock Sunderland was in Austria this spring when he learned he'd have a chance to interview for the general manager position with the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos. The phone call in an instant wiped out his European vacation, which started with a visit to his sister, Shay, who lives in Amsterdam.

Bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, two days later the Great Falls native and former Montana Grizzly was landing in Alberta.

"The reality is when you count the NFL, there's only 41 of these jobs in the world," Sunderland said. "When they come available, when lightning strikes, you have to be ready."

The Eskimos, one of the CFL's most storied franchises whose history dates back to the late 1800s, named the 37-year-old Sunderland as its GM on April 24. Sunderland previously served as assistant general manager with the expansion Ottawa Redblacks, a three-year stop on the résumé of a life dedicated to football.

***

Sunderland was an all-state receiver and kick returner at Great Falls' C.M. Russell High when his body first began to betray him.

The first of six surgeries came just before his junior year to repair a torn ACL. Fully healed, he walked on with the Griz in 1998 determined to make an impact with the team.

At just 5 feet, 8 inches and 165 pounds, Sunderland's intensity made up for what he lacked in size, remembered former teammate and fellow receiver Dane Oliver.

"He was always diving for balls. Every time he's catching a ball, he was laying out for it," Oliver recalled. "Looking back, maybe that was a reflection of his personality. He just went all out all the time."

Until he no longer could.

Sunderland's knee continued to hamper him. He needed surgery on his meniscus in 2000 and a year later, having worked his way into a starting role for his redshirt sophomore year, Sunderland dislocated his right knee and broke his ankle during spring ball.

Facing the prospect of permanent damage to his lower limbs should he push his playing days further, Sunderland stepped away from the game.

Those Griz in 2001 went on to win a national championship without him.

"Devastated isn't strong enough of a word," Sunderland said this week from Edmonton. "It crushed me."

He felt betrayed by the game he loved, but Sunderland tried not to show his growing distaste for football around his teammates.

"You get detached a little bit when you get injured, but he was such a solid high-character guy," said Oliver, who now coaches the Missoula Sentinel football team. "There for the younger guys and nothing but positive. He's rooting for ya."

But after that season he quit watching football altogether, the emptiness too painful to confront. He graduated from the university soon after and left the state to take a job as a mortgage broker in Kentucky. Pharmaceutical sales followed.

One day in 2003 during a training seminar in New Jersey, as the whole staff headed out for dinner and a Broadway show, Sunderland excused himself from the evening's events.

"I skipped it to watch football," he said.

***

Football is more than a game for the Sunderland family. It's business.

Some of Sunderland's earliest memories date back to the early 1980s in the family home's kitchen in Great Falls. His father, Marv Sunderland, is holding a young Brock on his lap while reviewing game film. The 8-millimeter film projector is whirring in the background as Marv watches the black-and-while images of college prospects dance across the kitchen wall.

Marv, a Chester native, was a longtime NFL scout with the New York Jets, eventually working his way up to director of player personnel with the Giants by the time Brock was in college.

"When you grow up in a football family, the roof over your head and the food on the table is provided by football," began Brock. "I had a different view. Football is most people's hobby, but it's always been our livelihood."

So when the football bug bit again in his mid-20s, Sunderland leaned on that background built years ago back home in Great Falls: scouting.

He worked the phones throughout the CFL in search of a job and finally came across a friendly name. Craig Dickenson, another CMR grad and the brother of famed UM quarterback Dave, helped Sunderland get in with the Montreal Alouettes where he was an assistant coach.

It wasn't much, just $100 per game scouted, but Sunderland was in the door.

"You pick up things through osmosis that you don't even realize you're learning and it becomes a second language that you get and you speak fluently," he said of his lessons from his father.

He became a full-time regional scout in 2004 and by 2007, Sunderland made the jump to the NFL as a pro scout with the Jets. Then came another fateful call. After a decade without a team, Ottawa was granted rights for the expansion Redblacks to begin play in 2014. The new franchise wanted Sunderland as its assistant GM.

"There were three of us initially and a stapler," Sunderland quipped. "Literally that was it. And they said, 'Here ya go, now go build a team.'"

***

Working under general manager Marcel Desjardins, Sunderland scouted the first generation of Redblacks, negotiated contracts and crafted a roster that -- unsurprisingly -- sputtered to a 2-16 finish in its rookie campaign.

An influx of talent found and signed by Sunderland and Desjardins in offseason No. 2 created a vastly improved team in 2015, especially on offense. Ottawa caught fire down the stretch, winning eight of its final 10 regular season games to clinch the top spot in the four-team East Division.

The group reached the Grey Cup, the CFL's championship game, the first team from Ottawa to do so since the 1981 Rough Riders. The Redblacks fell there, though, to Edmonton.

Already a trending name in the CFL because of Ottawa's meteoric rise, Sunderland became a commodity because of what the Redblacks accomplished in Year 3. They again played their best football at the end of the season, knocking off the Eskimos to reach a second straight Grey Cup last November. The championship went to overtime as Ottawa fended off a furious comeback from the Calgary Stampeders of head coach Dave Dickenson to win 39-33.

The victory ended a 40-year title drought for the city of Ottawa, the gravity of which didn't set in for Sunderland until Canada's capital held a championship parade two days later.

"Grown men were coming up shaking my hand with tears in their eyes saying thank you," Sunderland said.

That weekend's events spurred the phone call that rang through the Austrian night, and replaced Sunderland's Redblack wear with Edmonton's green and yellow.

0
0
0
0
0
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.