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Jade Etienne: from broken back to unbroken dream

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In a CFL draft where perhaps the most talented player was drafted with the final pick of the fifth round and the identity of the top pick was known days in advance, there are plenty of interesting angles to explore. That isn't uncommon in the CFL, as there are usually tons of interesting stories around prospects in this league, and this year's crop is no exception. One player particularly stands out even amongst that group, though, and that would be Winnipeg Blue Bombers' draft pick Jade Etienne.

Etienne was originally a kicker with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies before converting to receiver, but he missed most of the 2009 season after breaking three bones in his back and only had two career CIS catches heading into last year. He put up a superb 2010 campaign, though, recording 28 receptions, 721 yards and six touchdowns in seven CIS games. That led to his selection as a first-team All-Canadian and his invite to the league's evaluation camp. However, his selection fourth overall by Winnipeg was still very surprising.

Heading into the draft, Etienne (pictured above during his time with the Huskies) hadn't received anywhere near the amount of buzz of fellow receivers Anthony Parker (picked third by Calgary), Nathan Coehoorn (picked fifth by Edmonton) or Marco Iannuzzi (picked sixth by B.C.). He also had only cracked the CFL's list of the top 15 prospects in the final slot in December, missing the list entirely in both September and April. Draft guru Kent Ridley put him 11th among receivers in his most recent rankings. It's notable that even Etienne wasn't high on his own draft stock, as he told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:

Etienne, 21, of Regina was among those startled by the news he was the fourth pick in the draft, having fallen from his top pre-draft rank of 15th in April.

"My agent told me there was a slight chance I might go in the first round, but he told me don't count on it," said Etienne.

Watching the televised draft with his family in Edmonton, Etienne's phone rang a short while in.

"I got a call from (Winnipeg head coach Paul) LaPolice about five minutes before the announcement," said Etienne. "He said, ‘Well, we're picking you. We really like you, we think you'll fit in our system, and we're taking you with the next pick.'

"I didn't even say anything, I just got off the phone and my mom burst into tears and the family cheered. Then we watched. It was a great experience."

That doesn't mean choosing Etienne was necessarily the wrong move or one that isn't going to work out. Rankings aren't everything, and a fair bit of the doubt around Etienne was based on just the small sample size of his career, as he really only spent one productive season as a CIS receiver. That's fair enough, and it certainly makes him a risky pick if that season proves to be a fluke. However, it's notable that Etienne was the only CIS receiver in the 2011 draft who earned All-Canadian recognition in 2010; Parker and Coehoorn both missed that mark, as the other selections were Simon Charbonneau (first team) and Cyril Adjeitey and Adam Molnar (second team). His total of 721 yards was third in the league behind only Charbonneau and his Sherbrooke teammate Alex Poirier, and it was well ahead of the totals posted by both Parker (367 yards in five games) and Coehoorn (416 yards in eight games). We'll see if he's able to sustain that production at the CFL level, but there's certainly plenty to be optimistic about with him.

Even Etienne's injury history may not be as bad as it sounds on first glance. A broken back is a frightening thing, but all broken bones are not created equal. He certainly seemed to recover well during the 2010 CIS season, and he told the Star-Phoenix that his back's perfectly fine now and he isn't worried about trying to protect it.

"My back is 100 per cent back to normal and I didn't have any problems with it this past season," said Etienne. "I got hit hard and twisted in awkward ways, but I wasn't even sore.

"You can't second-guess yourself in football, because then you'll get hit even harder."

Going to Winnipeg is going to be a new experience for Etienne, however. He lives in Regina and went to school in Saskatoon, so he and his family are far more used to rooting for the green-and-white clad Roughriders and against the blue and gold of the Bombers. Etienne's impact at the CFL level is still an unknown, but his selection has already been a positive marketing move for Winnipeg, as they've converted his mother, a lifelong Riders' supporter.

"Now my mom says she's a Winnipeg fan."

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