Jahlani of All Trades
Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren’s Story and His Struggles Being a Canadian Quarterback
Standing at six foot one and 205 pounds, Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren could be seen as a jack-of-all trades type of football player. Throughout his football career, from his elementary school days in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, his ventures out in Western Canada, to the present day as a member of the Concordia Stingers, he has spent time as a quarterback, wide receiver, slotback and even as a safety.
“He’s special,” said Stingers head coach Mickey Donovan. “He’s a great quarterback, he’s another unbelievable athlete. He’s showing his skills as receiver and it’s pretty impressive. The kid can play [defensive back] just as well.
“He’s a guy you wish you had more of.”
Gilbert-Knorren, a theatre major from Ottawa, was originally Concordia’s first choice for the starting position at the beginning of the season, beating out a number of fellow quarterbacks, including current starter from the United States, Trenton Miller.
However, his first two games, including a 37-0 opening game blowout loss to Sherbrooke, weren’t enough for him to keep his starting job. In two games, he threw one touchdown pass and four interceptions. Three of his interceptions came in his second start against the Bishop’s Gaiters.
In both games, Gilbert-Knorren was eventually pulled in favour of Miller, and since the second game of the season, the team has elected to start the American-born player. Gilbert-Knorren has found himself catching passes and lining up as a slotback for the Stingers, instead of calling plays and throwing to his receivers.
“I had a chance to start and I blew it,” he said. “I can’t be mad at anyone else but myself and if I stay mad at myself I’m not helping my team.
“I could’ve sulked, I could’ve bitched, I could’ve quit the team,” he continued. “But I didn’t because I love these guys and I want to go out and I want to win with these guys.”
Gilbert-Knorren’s journey to becoming a quarterback has almost come full circle. He’s loved the position since he was a child and acknowledges how challenging and complex the position can be.
Originally from Ottawa, he moved to Montreal in his youth where he attended St. Monica Elementary School, nearly two kilometers away from Concordia Stadium.
It’s where Gilbert-Knorren’s earliest childhood memories of being a quarterback are, suffering agonizing moments, relishing glorious success and trash-talking his opponents during schoolyard ball with his classmates.
“We used to go out and play everyday,” he said. “There’d be feuds and people wouldn’t be friends for weeks and that’s truly where I got my love for football.
“I loved that competitiveness.”
When he wasn’t calling plays in the schoolyard of St. Monica’s, he was playing football for the Sun Youth Hornets, where he got his start at running back before eventually moving to his desired position of quarterback.
From there, Gilbert-Knorren spent his junior high and high school years in Edmonton before being recruited to play at the University of Saskatchewan. There, he spent time at running back and quarterback before moving to receiver in his final year. Unhappy with his situation, he bolted to the Canadian Junior Football League, where he spent time with the Langley Rams and the Edmonton Wildcats—he played defensive back for the latter team—before returning to Montreal as a Stinger.
Gilbert-Knorren is a player who can thrive at many positions. He isn’t the first, nor will he be the last player to do so. What makes his situation interesting, however, is that he becomes one of the many Canadian-born football players whose attempts at becoming a quarterback have been thwarted. While they are present in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, spotting a Canadian quarterback on a roster in a league such as the Canadian Football League is almost like spotting Bigfoot.
Gilbert-Knorren is aware that being a Canadian quarterback is a rarity and knows Canadian quarterbacks who have been chewed up and spat out by the Canadian game—and have since looked elsewhere, like in Europe, to keep their quarterbacking, or overall playing dreams alive. He’s even heard stories of American players in the Canadian game being “cocky,” and referring to major positions such as quarterback and linebacker as “American positions.”
“I know what [the CFL] does to Canadians, they just delegate them to special teams,” he said. “There are other options. There’s not just the CFL, which is an American-run league.
“If we had an Olympics, you take [Canada’s] best 40 players and you take [the United States’] 40 players, I believe that we match up and I believe that we win. I believe that we would compete and there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d win the Olympic gold.”
“I had a chance to start and I blew it.” —Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren
Despite the change in position, Gilbert-Knorren showed promise as a weapon for Concordia; in a 33-21 victory over the McGill Redmen on Sept. 19, he caught a touchdown pass from Miller. He clearly hasn’t brooded over the position change and the switch seemed relatively easy from a coaching standpoint.
“I don’t even know if we had a sit-down,” Donovan said. “That’s how great he is. He was like ‘Coach, put me at receiver,’ without even saying anything. He’s a great quarterback, unbelievable football player. You can put him into any situation and he can go.”
More likely than not, quarterbacks who lose their opportunity to start are often left on the bench, but right now, Gilbert-Knorren seems thankful at having the chance to start games, albeit in a different position.
“I’m just happy that I get to be on the field and that I get to help my team out,” said Gilbert-Knorren. “At the end of the day we’re trying to win football games and we’re in the business of winning football games.”
Gilbert-Knorren admits he might not be as adamant about playing quarterback as he used to be, but he says he is “spontaneous” and could try playing quarterback possibly in Europe once his university career is over. He isn’t opposed to joining the Canadian Football League and has made attempts in the past.
In the meantime, Gilbert-Knorren says he is still “technically” the Stingers backup quarterback. Perhaps there is hope he can still relive his dream position at least one more time at the CIS level, and it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying.
“People tell you that you can’t be a Canadian quarterback and when someone tells you that you can’t do something, it made me want to push harder and keep pursuing it,” he said.
“I love that position, so why wouldn’t I try it?”