From start to finish

PERRY LEFKO -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

Shock and awe.

Those were the words used by Lori Bursey, the president of the Toronto Argonauts Fan Club, following the team's 26-18 upset win over the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL East Division final.

Yet a week later, after the team's emotional 27-19 win over the favoured B.C. Lions in the Grey Cup at Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa, the words "shock and awe" became even more apropos.

Who could have imagined that the Argonauts would win the 92nd edition of the Grey Cup?

To be sure, the team approached the season with the goal of making it to the big game after two consecutive appearances in the East Division final.

But that is the goal of every team in training camp, and even with coach Pinball Clemons preaching the merits and strengths of his team, few really believed the team could sip the sweet taste of championship success from the Cup at year's end.

After all, this was a franchise in transition.

With new owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski and a new president in former TSN boss Keith Pelley, the Argos began an aggressive plan of putting resources into the football and business operations with the goal of making the Argos relevant again in the minds of the public.

The team re-signed many of its key free-agent players such as receiver Tony Miles, return specialist Bashir Levingston, linebacker Michael Fletcher, offensive lineman Sandy Annunziata and punter/placekicker Noel Prefontaine, to highlight a few.

Yet the biggest off-season signing would be running back John Avery, a former National Football League first-round pick who had starred for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2002.

He injured a knee playing for the Minnesota Vikings in 2003 and missed most of the season but the Argos had confidence he could recover from the injury.

To make financial room for the price of signing Avery at $250,000 a season -- the highest salary for a non-quarterback player in the league -- the Argos cut holdover running back Michael Jenkins, who had played through an ankle injury the year before, and popular receiver Derrell (Mookie) Mitchell, who was within 100 yards of becoming the team's leading receiver in career yardage.

Excitement turned to concern on the first day of training camp when Avery hobbled off the field, favouring his surgically repaired knee. He was immediately sent to a rehab clinic for daily aggressive treatment in hopes of being ready for the regular season.

And Annunziata, who had undergone major reconstructive knee surgery in the off-season, also showed he likely wouldn't be ready to man his spot at right guard at the start of the season, which prompted an immediate search for a replacement. The team dealt Marcus Brady to Hamilton just before the start of the season to pick up Canadian offensive lineman Mike Mihelic. The trade drew immediate and harsh reaction from people who had watched Brady emerge as a promising young quarterback -- one whom Clemons anointed the heir apparent to starter Damon Allen the year before -- for a veteran offensive lineman known more for his hot temper and undisciplined behaviour than his ability to play.

Two games into the season, Mihelic suffered a leg injury that shelved him indefinitely, further fuelling criticism about the merits of the deal. It also began the first of many changes on the offensive line.

After opening the season with a victory over Saskatchewan, the Argos dropped games to Ottawa and Montreal and sat last in the East. Questions were directed at first-year offensive co-ordinator Kent Austin and his scheme, which sputtered. It all came together for the Argos in the next game as they walloped the previously undefeated Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34-6.

That began an incredible run for Toronto, which won its next four, leading up to a game against the Als in Montreal on Aug. 12. Trailing their East Division nemesis by four points, the Argos came to Molson Stadium hoping to beat the Als in their own backyard.

Not only would the Argos be defeated by a score of 22-10, they lost the services of Allen, who suffered a cracked left tibia that would sideline him for a number of weeks.

In Allen's absence, the ball was placed in the hands of backup quarterback Michael Bishop, who became the undisputed second-stringer following the trading of Brady.

In his first game, a 14-6 win over Winnipeg, the often-criticized signal-caller with the rifle arm threw for 300 yards and ran for almost 100. If only for a moment, the team was back on track.

But in the next game the Argos lost 31-10 in Vancouver to the Lions and the services of Miles to a foot injury. The defence, which had been outstanding for weeks, showed a vulnerability for the first time, in particular in its inability to stop the run.

To beef up its receiving corps, the Argos signed Andre Rison, the controversial former National Football League great, and then Arland Bruce, a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber who had spent the last year with the San Francisco 49ers.

Rison would play only sparingly when the receiving corps got healthy again -- although he accepted the role as an unofficial coach -- but Bruce combined with Levingston to give the Argos two lethal returners: The Killer Bs.

Following a fight-filled overtime 30-30 tie against Hamilton on Labour Day, the Argos went into Winnipeg and lost 44-34.

In the aftermath of the loss, two high-profile players engaged in a verbal confrontation that nearly became a fist fight, and Clemons had to pull the team together.

Wins over Edmonton and Calgary eased things in the locker room, but the team had to concern itself with something off the field.

The University of Toronto decided to pull out of the proposed Varsity Stadium deal with the Argos, the Canadian Soccer Association and the federal and provincial governments.

Cynamon and Sokolowski found themselves having to scramble to do something quick to honour their promise of building a new stadium.

Following a win against B.C. and a loss to Calgary, the Argos announced that along with the CSA and the levels of government a deal had been entered into to build a future stadium at York University.

And the Argos carried the good news further by beating Hamilton 38-31 in the penultimate game of the season to secure second place in the East and home-field advantage for the East Division semi-final.

With little to play for in the final regular-season game, Clemons rested several key starters and the Argos lost 58-20 to Montreal at the SkyDome.

B.C. Lions coach Wally Buono called Clemons' decision "an embarrassment to the league" and the Argos drew criticism in the media for charging full price and fielding backup players.

The Argos responded the next day by offering redeemable vouchers for a similar ticket for any game in 2005 with a proof of purchase.

The playoffs began two days earlier than scheduled as a result of the unavailability of the SkyDome because of a booking engagement for a children's show. But by this time the Argos had become Toronto's team -- helped in part because of the National Hockey League lockout -- and the game drew a crowd of 37,835, the largest home audience for an Argos game since Aug. 26, 1992.

The Argos responded with a 24-6 win.

Then they went to Montreal, and despite being 10-point underdogs, the Argos beat the cocky Als 26-18. They sidelined Als starting quarterback Anthony Calvillo early in the third quarter with a clean hit by defensive end Eric England, but the Argos had Montreal on its heels anyway.

Bouyed by their win, the Argos went to the Cup feeling confident and it showed in their epic victory.

On and off the field it had been an incredible season for the fans, the rookie owners and the head coach. The Argos became Toronto's team again and, in the end, Canada's team.

"I try to keep things in perspective. I think I am a man of perspective," Clemons said after the win over B.C. "With this being a game, I don't know why it means so much, because it seems to be out of perspective, but I think it's the people.

"I think in all of us is a desire as people to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself and to work and to care for people with no alternative motive; just to have other people's best interest in mind.

"When you get there, I don't think there's any greater satisfaction."


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