'Magical year' for Grey Cup champion Argos

Argos GM Jim Barker (right) holds a game ball after it was awarded to him by head coach Scott...

Argos GM Jim Barker (right) holds a game ball after it was awarded to him by head coach Scott Milanovich after the Argos win the 100th Grey Cup at the Rogers Centre in Toronto Nov. 25, 2012. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI AGENCY)

BILL LANKOFF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 PM ET

TORONTO - Toronto Argonauts: Grey Cup champions?

It was to laugh.

Perhaps not out loud, but when this team gathered for training camp, it didn’t have a whole lot going for it outside of maybe auditioning for America’s Funniest Videos. It was all supposed to be about the Tiger-Cats this 100th Grey Cup year. Or, perhaps, an encore by the Lions.

But the Argos? They were the CFL’s version of the Keystone Kops.

They had a rookie head coach, a pilfered defensive coordinator, a one-legged kicker headed for hip surgery and a No. 1 tailback who wouldn’t last past mid-season. There was an offensive line that had all the cohesion of the United Nations. It had more leaks than a New Orleans dam.

Speaking of leaks, people wondered if there might be a few in general manager Jim Barker’s head, too, when he pronounced none of this would be a problem.

They did finally have a proven quarterback in Ricky Ray. But he, too, was new. He had to learn a new system. Also new were his receivers. Well, except for Jason Barnes, who also came over from Edmonton. They just played like they were strangers the first three-quarters of the year.

So, yeah. Like this was gonna work: The Grey Cup, solve world hunger and have all the little children in the world sing ...

Well, they got the Cup and people Sunday were singing ... so, two out of three ain’t bad!

But there is no doubt that getting to Tuesday’s parade had its unrefined and prickly moments.

One week, Ahmad Carroll was the player of the week. Two weeks in a row he had interceptions. Key ones. The next week he was benched.

Hello T.J. Williams. Carroll has a motor that never stops and his lips move as fast as his feet. It drives opponents crazy and Carroll’s penchant for inopportune penalties wasn’t doing much for defensive coordinator Chris Jones either — except make him crazy.

So Carroll sat. Williams played. But not well enough. By season’s end, Carroll was back ... and the penalties — at least the undisciplined ones — ceased. Through three playoff games, he was the superb cover corner that at one time made him a first-round pick with Green Bay.

“Everybody on this team, you ask them, somewhere they had to overcome something to get to this point. We’re a family, we just came together, stuck together and just played great football,” said Ray.

This was not a team born a champion.

It is a rag-tag assembly of lovable wannabes, a legion of unknowns, a sprinkling of has-beens and a shipload of dreamers. It was a team built, torn apart, reassembled, twisted, and mutilated. Moulded. It was ignored by all except a small but loyal fan base for the first 18 weeks of the season. Instead of cheers, it played to echoes at Rogers Centre. It played to doubters in the media — and there wasn’t much media that bothered to show, even to doubt, on most weeks.

Most days there were perhaps one or two reporters, in a city with dozens, who ventured to the wilds of the Erindale training grounds.

Forgotten men on a forgotten team.

But through long nights in video rooms, through early morning strategy meetings, through two-a-days at training camp, through long, hot summer practices, somehow Milanovich, Jones and general manager Jim Barker made it work. Made the irrelevant once again relevant.

There was Robert McCune, the sublime linebacker, with six tackles Sunday against the team that had released him. There was Carroll, plucked from the Arena League Arizona Rattlers’ refusal-to-report list, limiting Calgary’s Nik Lewis and shutting down Larry Taylor.

Several Argonauts never had won a championship. Ever.

Ron Flemons stood quietly. “First time,” said the big lineman, happily watching teammates celebrate on the Rogers Centre podium, surrounded by his kids and wife Jessica.

“He was a little nervous, I think. But it’s hard to tell,” she said.

Flemons pointed at the flashing lights, the air filled with cheers and fireworks and smoke.

“Remember I told you in November or October that we weren’t worried?” he said, flashing a huge grin. “OK, maybe a little worried. But we stayed the course.”

In the end zone, Marcus Ball was making snow angels as blue and white confetti fluttered around him. Three colleges. High school. And, last year, no team in football wanted him. But now, finally, a champion. “I always wondered what this moment would feel like,” he said.

Now he knows.

Cornerback Patrick Watkins, a former Dallas Cowboy, was out of football last year, but became an East all-star. Injured in the East semifinal, instead of what might have been a devastating loss, Jalil Carter, who hadn’t played a down since Week 4 and wasn’t even on the roster anymore, came back and performed flawlessly.

Slowly, inextricably, it felt as if fate had decided to don Double Blue.

Defensive back Pacino Horne was out of football for two years. Sunday, his key 25-yard TD interception staked Toronto to an 18-point halftime advantage. Milanovich called it the turning point.

“To win a Grey Cup on my birthday, the 100th Grey Cup, this is an amazing feeling,” said Horne, who turned 29 Sunday. “I can’t say nothing else. I’m just living the moment.”

Perhaps this team’s renaissance is reflected best by Foley. Named the Most Outstanding Canadian Sunday for a performance that included four tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery that led to a Toronto touchdown, it might do well to reflect back on a hot August day.

It was then that he mused with a reporter whether he still belonged in the game.

Foley was the picture of befuddlement. One of the most creative sack specialists and rush ends in the Canadian game was back-pedaling.

Literally. Figuratively.

Foley had spent seven seasons in the CFL, the last three as a starter, creating havoc for quarterbacks and offensive linemen from his defensive-end position.

Now he was being called on to often drop into coverage. The havoc was still there, but it was being played out in his own mind.

“Our defence is doing well and we’re shutting teams down, winning games so that’s AWESOME. Personally, sometimes it’s a struggle because I’m doing things I’ve never done before and sometimes I feel I’m not playing well,” Foley said at the time.

But, somehow, he figured it out, in the process — some argue — becoming a more complete player. Somehow the Argonauts figured it out, becoming a more complete team.

And so, as champagine corks popped, Foley could ponder on how it all came together now in a most unexpected way.

“This team stuck together through the tough times. Last year (when the Argos missed the playoffs in 2011) guys kind of turned on each other. We didn’t do that this year. When guys made mistakes, or felt bad about their performance, we picked guys up and we started on such a roll ... it’s just so unbelievable.”

Long after the on-field celebrations, the players gathered in the centre of a champagne-splashed dressing room, to calls of “Quiet! Quiet!”

Milanovich handed out the game balls. One to Chad Kackert. One to Foley. One to Jeff Johnson, whom Milanovich said has “been like a brother to me.” And, finally, one to Jim Barker, of whom Milanovich said “sacrificed his position (as head coach) so that I could come here ... and so we could win a Grey Cup.”

Players screamed, “Speech! Speech!”

Through early training camp and much of the summer season, Barker insisted that offensive line of untested, unwanted or second-hand parts could get the job done. Sunday, it held up — wonderfully. Calgary’s Charleston Hughes and linebacker Juwan Simpson barely laid a paw on Ray. And chances are Kackert doesn’t come anywhere near that most valuable player award if not for the gaps provided by Jeff Keeping, Joe Eppele, Marc Parenteau and Tony Washington.

All season, in the face of doubt and cynicism, Barker would preach patience and give people the squinty-eyed look — like he was some kind of Houdini with an ace up his sleeve. Talk. Talk. Talk. And then it happened. The miracle on Bremner Boulevard.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Barker.

Who knew?

All it took to shut him up was a game ball ... and a Grey Cup championship.

“It was,” he said amid a shower of beer and champagne, “a magical year,”

A city applauds. Finally, somebody noticed.


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