Fan Day at Toronto Argonauts training camp wrapped up more than an hour ago and the players have long since hit the showers. But the queue to meet Michael “Pinball” Clemons, former player and now coach of the Toronto Argonauts, and arguably one of the most popular figures in Toronto, stretches from the goal line to the 30-yard line. Within the crowd John Reeves and his buddies wait patiently. As Clemons hands out an inexhaustible supply of hugs, high-fives, autographs, photo-ops and smiles, the line mercifully gets shorter and the 27-year-old Whitby resident finally gets his chance. He and his friends, all decked out in authentic Argos jerseys, pose for a photo with Clemons, hoisting him on their shoulders and shouting “cheese.”
Reeves is a passionate Argos fan. Passionate enough to sacrifice part of his body for the Double Blue. And we’re not talking about a trendy tattoo, either.
Reeves is missing a chunk of his right ear.
Three years ago he went to Hamilton to watch the Argos play their arch-rivals, the Hamilton Tiger Cats, in the annual Labour Day Classic. In a post-game scuffle Reeves had part of his ear bitten off by a drunken Tiger Cats fan.
“It’s a war wound,” says Reeves with a laugh. “And, hey, they haven’t beaten the Argos since.”
Rewind a week to the first day of training camp for the returning Grey Cup champions. Players are lined up along the far sideline in practice jerseys and shorts doing warm-up jogs in the late-May sun. All 70 or so run across the field in a giant phalanx behind Coach Clemons and, instead of running back the way they came, Clemons has them gather in a large circle around a frail-looking old man. Players raise their massive arms in unison and do a solemn cheer for a minute or so, then return to their drills. The old man looks happy.
Turns out the man is 93-year-old Russ Winter, an Argonauts season-ticket holder for 50 years. After hearing Winter dropped by camp just to check out this year’s team and to say hello, Clemons took care of the rest.
Fast forward again to Fan Day and 68-year-old Wes Bickford is patrolling the sidelines with his sister, Eleanor. Bickford is wearing an Argos trucker cap festooned with team pins. Keep in mind, this is a trucker cap from the days when trucker caps were a sensible way to let your head breathe and not a fashion bauble.“I find the CFL game so exciting,” says Bickford, treasurer and co-founder of Friends of the Argonauts fan club, who figures he’s seen more than a thousand games. “In the last 40 years, I’ve only missed about three Grey Cups; one because my daughter got married and she wouldn’t change the date.”
Access and history. The two go hand-in-hand for the CFL and the Argonauts, North America’s oldest professional sports franchise. When you don’t have a massive network TV deal or staggering marketing budget like the NFL, you bring the game and the players to the people.
The good ship Argonaut has turned around, from receivership to tripling its season-ticket subscriber base to about 10,000 in less than two years. “We’re the No. 1 community team in the city,” says Keith Pelley, President and CEO of the Argos. “The accessibility of our players, coaches and cheerleaders is phenomenal.”
He’s right. On Fan Day at training camp, two impossibly lithe and energetic Argo cheerleaders marshal cars toward the practice field. Obligatory honks follow.
What started out in 1873 as a recreational sideline for members of the Argonaut Rowing Club has become a Canadian institution. The Argos are almost as old as Canada itself and many stars have worn the Double Blue.
Modern players who have had brief star turns in Toronto include Joe Theismann, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Doug Flutie and current Indianapolis Colts star Mike Vanderjagt, but the full list could fill a small phone book: Dick Shatto, Bill Symons, Tobin Rote, Condredge Holloway, Terry Greer—to name a few. The legendary Lionel “Big Train” Conacher won a Grey Cup with the Argos in 1921, then made an effortless foray into pro hockey, winning Stanley Cups with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and the Montreal Maroons in 1935.
At Argos camp, the camaraderie is palpable. Many of the players haven’t seen each other since Toronto’s 27-19 win over the British Columbia Lions in last November’s 92nd Grey Cup in Ottawa and high fives, hugs and laughs are exchanged. Linebacker Michael Fletcher has an infectious energy and smile. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound defensive specialist knows that even though he doesn’t have a sneaker named after him, life is pretty good. The 28-year-old grew up in Compton, a section of South Central Los Angeles notorious for gangs and drugs. A parks and recreation employee turned him onto sports at age seven, steering him away from more dangerous influences.
A consistent performer for four years at the University of Oregon, Fletcher was overlooked by the NFL. Much like the parks and rec employee, the CFL has given “Fletch” a chance to make a living playing the game he loves.
“This league, for guys who got overlooked, they give guys like myself a chance, and that’s all people need, right?” says Fletcher, whose sweat-covered biceps are as thick as telephone poles. “This league does that—[in my case], and with the great Canadian players in this league, or all these undersized guys who can play football. It’s not about numbers. It’s about how you play the game up here.”
From Fletcher’s manic energy to linebacker Mike O’Shea’s laid-back attitude, the Argos are a study in contrasting personalities, but they pull it all together when it counts.
Entering his 13th season in the CFL, O’Shea is the unspoken leader of the defence. With his mop of thick brown hair, the 34-year-old University of Guelph product looks like he could be a surfer, a pro wrestler or a stuntman. For now, he’ll have to settle for being an all-star who is third on the CFL’s all-time defensive tackles list and a great spokesman for the league.”A lot of [CFL players] are very easy-going and approachable and that’s part of the attractiveness to fans,” says 6-foot-2, 221-pound O’Shea after practice, with his young son and daughter in tow. “It’s genuine. When you talk to a CFL player, I think you’ll get the feel right away that he’s pretty genuine about sticking around and hanging out and shooting the breeze. You’re not going to find too many guys who are quick to brush [media or fans] off.”
Professional sports may be the key to unfathomable wealth, but not in the CFL. With an average annual salary of about $50,000—about one-tenth the average NFL stipend—players often have summer jobs. And every player, regardless of team, status or salary is always one serious knee injury away from retirement and a suddenly narrower range of career choices. In the CFL, you learn to be thankful for the little things maybe because most aren’t going home to a gated mansion in a tricked-out Hummer.
Like many CFLers, O’Shea has, partly out of economic necessity, an eye on life after football. He’s co-owner of a Philthy McNasty’s sports bar/restaurant franchise near Yonge and Eglinton in mid-town Toronto.
“I’m head dishwasher, and I also change the urinal pucks,” says O’Shea, a grin spreading across his face. “The problem is testing their freshness. That’s always tough. It’s like licking a 9-volt battery; you have to lick it. If it tangs your tongue, it’s ready to go.”
At 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds, defensive tackle Noah Cantor can crush you like a grape using only his thumb and index finger. But on Fan Day, the hulking Cantor is chilling with teammates and fans to the ear-splitting sounds of bubble gum punk and rap coming from the sound system the team has set up near the hot dog stand.
“The opportunity to get out and meet some of the fans and for them to meet us is amazing,” says Cantor, who runs Vera’s Burger Shack, a small Vancouver burger chain, in the off-season. “It’s always been a great thing about the CFL.”
Cantor’s a soft-spoken behemoth, but he’s happy to laugh at the practical jokes that go along with playing a team sport with a bunch of sweaty guys. “We have doughnut day once a week and sometimes there are some pretty good jokes done with the doughnuts and then put on film for [teammates] to see. We can’t describe where the doughnuts have been, but it sure doesn’t make you feel hungry after you see the film.”And, by the way, the “Cantor Burger” at Vera’s includes a six-ounce patty, fried salami and fried onions.
Receiver Robert Baker is known as The Touchdown Maker, but the 29-year-old Florida native almost never got the chance to play the game he loves. In 1998, he was convicted of three drug trafficking-related offences and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His former college coach managed to get him early parole after less than a year and now the 6-foot, 208-pound speedster is a changed man.
“Things that happened in the past have made me more of a man with a plan,” says Baker, who records rap music under his own label, Showdown Boys Entertainment. Baker, a second-year Argo, says the CFL has renewed his enthusiasm for the game. “That was the most fun I’ve had playing football since high school.”
At the helm of the Argos—known affectionately to their fans as the Boatmen or the Scullers, in reference to the Greek myth of Jason and the sea-faring Argonauts—is seemingly ageless quarterback Damon Allen, who, at age 41, is entering his 21st season in the CFL and is the league’s all-time leading passer.
In last year’s Grey Cup, Allen responded to critics who said he was too old by passing for 299 yards and winning his fourth championship ring. He was also named MVP of the game for the second time in his career. This, after missing seven weeks with a broken leg.
Then there’s receiver Arland Bruce, who, with his wife, owns and operates a Vietnamese restaurant in Kansas City in the off-season; or running back John Avery, who spent much of the off-season writing a sitcom about his life.
It takes all kinds to make up a great football team and all kinds of fans to love it. And with Grey Cup rings freshly adorning their beefy hands, the Argos’ mutual love affair with fans is as strong as ever.
Stephen Knight is a Toronto-based sports and entertainment writer.
Catch the Argos July 9 at the Rogers Centre as they take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders. For tickets, call 416-341-ARGO, 416-872-5000 or see www.argonauts.ca.
CFL FOR DUMMIES (A.K.A Fans of the NFL)
Downs: In the CFL, you have but three chances to advance the ball 10 yards in order to earn a fresh set of downs on the march toward the endzone. This means passing. A lot of passing. Wide-open, long bombs that make it to the evening newsreels. In the NFL, you have four downs to make 10 yards, which means lots of short runs and sleep-inducing “clock management” strategies by coaches.
Endzones: In the CFL, the endzone is as long as a Saskatchewan prairie. Well, 20 yards anyway. NFL endzones are 10 yards deep.
Missed Field Goals: In the CFL, if you miss a field goal, you are still awarded a single point. Call it socialism, but the “rouge,” as it is known, has decided more than a few games over the years. A punt that lands in the end zone or goes through it is also rewarded with a single point. In the NFL, if you miss a field goal, you hope your phone number and address are unlisted.
Field: In the CFL, the field is 110 yards long by 65 yards wide. This means lots of room to roam for players with good wheels. The NFL field is 100 yards long by 53 yards wide. Number of players on field: 12 men are on the field in the CFL at any given time. In the NFL, 11 men are on the field, thus the CFL provides more jobs. — SK—Stephen Knight