Heart of a champion

Portrait of Argos coach Michael 'Pinball' Clemons. (SUN/Ernest Doroszuk)

Portrait of Argos coach Michael 'Pinball' Clemons. (SUN/Ernest Doroszuk)

BILL LANKHOF, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Michael Clemons works his football team's sideline like a Peter Pan spreading pixie dust of joy and goodwill. While his contemporaries stare balefully or spout venom, The Pinball approaches every tick of the clock with a smile and passion that not only restored life to the venerable franchise that is the Toronto Argonauts but has, for 15 years now, lit up the cityscape.

He may be the most genuine, honest and unpretentious person in professional sports, making him our choice for the Toronto Sun Sportsman of the Year. He is Toronto's adopted son -- and in the new year he plans to return the favour by becoming officially a Canadian citizen.

"About 10 years ago this is where we decided to live. It's who we are. We're not American. We could go and become American again, but it's not the choice we're making," he says.

Pinball Clemons always has recognized a good thing. Maybe because he saw the seedier, ugly side of humanity while growing up on the troubled streets of urban Florida.

Canada may not be perfect, he admits, but for an African-American it is "more colour blind."

"Some people say they would rather know openly when people are (prejudiced) but those people have never had to grow up and be called a n----- when they walk down the street."

Things like that could happen to a kid strolling the dusty sidestreets of Clearwater and Dunedin in the late 1970s, even when that kid was already a budding prep football star.

"The difference," Clemons says, "is this: It's not that all people here are good and all the people there are bad. But, when I walk into a bank up here they'll look at me and assume that I'm competent until I show them that I'm incompetent. (In the States) someone like me will walk into a bank and they'll assume I'm incompetent until I prove that I'm competent."

If there is one thing Pinball has never been accused of since exploding on to the CFL landscape it is incompetence. He has lugged a football further than anyone in the professional game.

Four times his name has been inscribed on the Grey Cup, three as a player and, for the first time, one as a head coach after his Argonauts turned the trick this year. His indefatigable energy, ever-present smile and an innate belief in the goodness of mankind, brought the Argonauts from the brink of receivership to a national championship.

The only barrier between Clemons and the Canadian sports hall of fame is time.

While Toronto has a history of building up heroes only to reject them like jilted lovers amidst tirades of retribution and treason, Clemons has remained a constant: A 5-foot-6 leprechaun amid goliaths.

"Very few times do people feel they can associate with a sports personality at a normal level and that is what people get with Pinball," says Mike Morreale, a former teammate, who played last season with the arch-rival Ticats. "You feel that you know him; you feel that he's your buddy; you feel he'll come over for dinner if you offer it too him.

"His whole purpose is to make everyone feel good. People look up to Pinball for the things he's done on the field and off but he'll say: 'No, look what YOU'VE done.' He uplifts you.

"I've never seen him shy away from anyone. I've never seen him not shake a hand. It's funny when you've got an autograph session and there are more people wanting the coach's autograph than the players. He's one of those people you can emulate but you can't ever duplicate. He's one of a kind."

Still, people did wonder when he stepped from an all-star career to take over as coach of the Argos from the ludicrous John Huard in the lost summer of 2000. It seemed a cheap publicity stunt by a management so desperate it was willing to pull down the team's last shining beacon with them to a murky end.

"There were people who did say, 'what about your image you worked to build,' " Clemons says, "but failure wasn't a concern of mine.

"Failure is two things: Giving up, or not understanding that life is about people and not stuff. If you want to show me a truly great person don't show me money or awards. Don't show me records. Show me what that person has done for someone else.

"My No. 1 responsibility is to be a great husband and a great dad. If we win the Grey Cup next year and I fail as a husband and dad then I'm a complete failure," Clemons says, "if we don't win the Grey Cup but I am a great husband and a great dad then I am an overwhelming success."

He is what, in a past age, was described as a sportsman: A man of ideals that cannot be tabulated on a scoreboard or in a record book.

"I ran for over 25,000 yards," he says, "and what it amounts to is I ran a few miles with a piece of leather, which on its own is not really appealing."

Michael Clemons is more than an athlete, although he is certainly that. Today he lives in Oakville in a comfortable home with his wife, Diane, and their three daughters. He is turning 40 years old next month, and the conscience of Toronto's sports world.

Dan Ferrone, already an eight-year veteran when Clemons first walked into the Argos' camp, remains in awe -- not by what Clemons does, but by how he does it.

"You meet a lot of guys who are absolutely wonderful when you first meet them but you think, ohhhhh-kay, over time we'll find out about your skeletons. We'll see your dark side, you're going to get mad and we'll be there.

"In all the time I've known him --that's what, 15 years? --I have never heard him swear.

"Think about it!" says Ferrone, laughing, "Never. Coaching is an emotional job but never! I always tell him I'm waiting for the day because I'm going to dance around the table."

ROOTED IN HONOUR

Clemons' life, not just his game, is rooted in honour, selflessness, faith and hope. His family group is not just a football team or those who smile back from the family photo album.

They are the 57-year-old athlete from Special Olympics who brings a tear to his eye. They are the people at group homes such as Horizons for Youth and they are the brave, young faces he meets through the Children's Miracle Network.

"The fact you are in a community means that you take something from it," Clemons says. "You take housing. You take water. You take up space on the train, the highways, you take space in school. But if all we do is take without putting anything back into the community then it becomes depleted. If we allow that then it is like a drought and the community no longer produces fruit."

To understand how he arrived at this signpost of social awareness in life, it is necessary to understand the pathways traversed in a childhood overflowing with love, tinged with regret and rooted in a land of grudging racial tolerance.

"It goes back to being an only child for the first 14 years to a single parent. I've got a complex family situation," Clemons says, smiling quietly.

His mother was a high school beauty queen in Dunedin when she met an urbane, college intern from Palmetto.

Michael Clemons was born January 15, 1965.

"She was still in high school; dad was finishing university and there was a thing in his family whether she was educated enough for the family," Clemons says. "My dad wanted her to come and live with him about an hour and half away. She said no. She didn't feel comfortable; she felt like an outcast because his family didn't think she was educated."

So, for his first 14 years, Clemons grew up in government housing across from the Dunedin sewer plant.

"There was a cycle of poverty; there wasn't much hope of doing anything significant in life," he says. "It was the kind of place where a lot of people came through delivering baskets of food during the holidays, we would get those big cans of ham."

He says it with about as close to distaste as is possible for a man who refuses to accept despair as an irreparable condition.

"My mom drove me everywhere," he says, the mega-watt smile suddenly erupting across his elfin face. "She never made excuses. She forfeited her youth to build into me and into the community. She was 18 when I was born. Amazing commitment. From the time I was eight to 18 she only missed one football game and that was because she was at a church meeting."

Ah, yes, religion. It was something else that mother Clemons instilled in her son. She became church clerk at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Dunedin. Clemons never smoked, doesn't drink and wears his religion like a comfy cardigan.

He'll quote a biblical text but it has all the preachiness of a friendly bearhug.

He found a relationship with his father later in college, spent a couple summers with him and even had him come to Montreal for the Eastern final in 2003.

"I didn't spend a lot of time with my dad," Clemons says. "He did have an Achilles heel with the ladies but I found out at his funeral (last year) that he acted like a father to many young men who didn't have a father. He was a school teacher, he coached the semi-pro football team, he ran the youth centre, he oversaw the high school yearbook ... when you said his name around Palmetto he was a bit of a local hero."

Just before Clemons started high school, his mother married his step-father. She would become the first African-American to work in an administrative position with the City of Dunedin. Her son got offers from Harvard, Columbia and the College of William & Mary. He would soon walk in the footsteps of presidents and titans of southern business.

"To grow up in that environment and see how my mother never complained and the commitments she made to others was a unique experience," he says. "I wouldn't trade my upbringing for anything. There was just a lot of love. You didn't know you were poor.

"To be in that position where I can turn around and offer other people love is one of the biggest honours I have in life."

Speaking of honours, Clemons has had more than a few. There was the league MVP in 1990, those four Grey Cups, a John Candy Memorial player of year award in 1995, winner of the Players' Association award for community service ....

"He truly takes interest in other people; who they are and what they do," says CFL commissioner Tom Wright. "If you had followed him around (at the Special Olympics banquet), he would come up to athletes he hadn't seen for two years and know who they were and what they did."

Clemons has developed an on-going involvement with the Special Olympics since a dinner at which he was to sign autographs in 1990. "I was almost in tears seeing the response of the kids, the athletes. It was overwhelming."

About three years later it hit home when his sister-in-law's son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

"I'm away from Florida but I'm T.J.'s favourite uncle," says Pinball, smiling like a kid who has just been told he can have the triple-scoop of ice cream.

He also is involved with former teammate Jeff Boyd in several group homes.

"You'll never find a more 'hope is eternal' person," says Wright. "When you talk about a true sportsman, someone who has had such an effect on his team, his family and his community I don't know of anyone in this country who can measure up to Michael."

Clemons wonders if it isn't pretentious to be discussing his charitable inclinations. It isn't until he has been convinced that hiding his light under a basket would -- in this case -- hinder the cause that he confesses: "Okay, I'll co-operate and be a good boy," he says, laughing, "My wife and I thought that instead of exchanging gifts several years ago we would buy gifts for 45 kids at Horizons For Youth. We do that every year for the Christmas party. We already have so much. It seemed frivolous to be spending money on ourselves."

He's working with the business community to do something similar for another group home, Eva's Initiatives.

Behind that smile, there can be a pensive man.

"We've had some difficult situations," he says, stumbling for words as the melancholy falls like a shade over those ever-beaming eyes, "we do a fair bit of work with the Children's Miracle Network ... it's tough sometimes."

The network raises money for children's hospitals. There are trips and wishes realized for very sick children. But, not every ending is happy.

"They have the children's champions in each city," Clemons says. "I would meet one every time we come to a city and have them come down to the locker room. The weekend we were to play in Edmonton, we called on the Tuesday to arrange everything for a young fella. He had passed away the week before ...

"It's not all smiling and laughing and being where the camera is ... the work sometimes is very sobering. It's real life -- it's not some game you do to help build your profile, which unfortunately is the way some people look at it."

That will be as close to a verbal shot as Pinball is likely to take at anyone.

When Clemons took over as head coach, the Argonauts franchise was a mess. No money. No leadership. A lousy stadium and an eroding fan base.

"When they hired him as coach a lot of people called it a publicity stunt. I don't think it was," former teammate Paul Masotti says. "He knew the players. He knows the game. There was nobody from outside they could bring in who could stabilize the players, who could stabilize the team. He was the only choice."

It was not a job Clemons ever wanted. He was thinking of retiring to spend more time with his daughters and wife. He believed he was ready to leave the public eye.

"I said no thanks," he says. "It was my desire to support my wife. She enjoys singing and entertaining. She has got a professional voice and she's starting to get the bug again. She's a lot easier on the camera than I am -- poetic justice would have her in front of it more than I am."

But general manager J.I. Albrecht, in a rare stroke of genius, persevered.

"It was an awkward situation," Clemons says. "After saying no, they said do us the favour of going home and discussing it with your family."

They hit Clemons in his weak spot: His sense of duty.

"The burden was that this team, this organization, had given our family so much that Canada was going to be our home," Clemons says. "The Argos had everything to do with my family becoming a part of this country. Because of all I had been given I decided it was my time to reciprocate."

The team rebounded, winning six of its last eight games.

"I never felt it was a publicity stunt but I understood why people might think that," he says. "I understood the magnitude of the situation. I was in the locker room and I understood what was going on. I felt there were things I could do to make us better. As long as I was comfortable with that, it didn't matter what others thought."

A GREAT THINKER

Last year, Clemons took the Argos to the Eastern final. That has been accompanied by new and committed ownership and the drawings for a stadium of their own are on the board.

"He looks at things different than most people," Masotti says. "He's one of the greatest thinkers I've ever met. Football wise, life wise, he's a grand-scheme thinker. He sees through problems very easily. When there's confusion a lot of people know things are going wrong, but they don't know why. Pinball can go to the heart of the matter and fix it."

Clemons has always been more than a jock -- even at William & Mary: The Ivy of The South; the school of the Jeffersons of yesteryear.

"When I went on my visit it felt old, traditional, and cold," he says. "The idea of fun was a frat party and drinking. And here I was a kid who didn't smoke, didn't drink. As a school, for me, other than the academics it had nothing. I must admit."

But the two warmed to each other. He amassed 4,778 all-purpose yards and 31 touchdowns and, in 1986, he was named an NCAA Division 1 AA all-America and Virginia major college's offensive player of the year. He has been inducted into the school's Hall of Fame and in four years as an economics and business major his academic grading never slipped below 90%. He now returns occasionally and feels only warmth and satisfaction. "I guess," he says, laughing, "I'm just a jock who thinks he's an academic."

Actually, he started a job with Honeywell working in its space shuttle program and had it not been for the Argos to come calling, that likely, is where he would be today.

Instead, this summer he took an Argonauts team with many questions, with inexperience, with an aging quarterback who had a sidekick who misread things more often than Dr. Watson, and somehow made it believe that it could win a Grey Cup.

Ferrone isn't surprised: "There were lots of times when he questioned himself whether he should coach. I always said to him, you've got to be kidding, this is what you're going to excel at, people listen to you. You understand the game. You understand the people. He's an intellectual."

Maybe. But an intellectual with the heart of a gladiator.

"The one defining moment I'll always remember about him as a player was in 1995," Morreale recalls. "We had a terrible team and Pinball was the smallest guy on the field. He was on the field to take the punt and the Ottawa kicker took off with only about 10 yards to go for a first down and Pinball made this beeline sprint about 40 yards. He went, dove in the air, grabbed his face mask and just drove this guy out of bounds about half a yard short of the first down. That, to me, was ... if he can deke and run and make guys go, 'wow!' with the ball, and then make a tackle like that on a fake punt, as a fellow football player, you just see that and think, that was huge. I'll never forget."

But it's only half of an equation that has made Clemons revered by his players. Says Argos linebacker Mike O'Shea: "There are a lot of people who have been touched by Pinball. To me its his unwavering belief in humanity; that no matter how many times you disappoint him he will still believe that you're going to do the right thing.

"It makes him a different type of coach. He has the ability to do Xs and Os; he has the ability to do all the jobs of a traditional coach but what makes him different is that he chooses to believe in people."

The football playbook according to Michael Clemons is bound in the trinity of preparation, understanding and enthusiasm. His motivational speeches are legendary.

"The day I took the job, everybody suggested that players will play for you and I love to get them fired up, but the first thing is you have to be competent," Clemons says, "because if you go out there all fired up and you can't wait to get on the field and you have no idea what you're doing, in this game you're going to get hit in your mouth.

"Maybe after the first play you jump up, say, yay, I'll get him next time. Pow!. Oops! That's okay, I'll get him now ... Owwwch! By the end of the quarter that gets old. After three or four games, that gets real old. So, as much as you need the passion and the fervour, it doesn't mean much without an understanding of what you want to do as a team.

"Perspective is very important to me. Things have to make sense to me. I consider myself a pragmatist."

A lot of Argos fans just consider him a Moses.

Says Wright, "this team was on life support. He has an ability to get things out of people that nobody else seems able to do. He would say he wasn't individually responsible for saving the franchise but Pinball held the team together until other people came along to help ... he gave it credibility, voice and hope."

Now he has given it a future, something the franchise has not often been able to say with confidence in the past decade.

So, has the man who would not coach become a career coach?

The question seems to startle him.

"I don't know," he says. "Probably not but, as I say that, God's probably laughing at me again, saying, 'This kid has no idea.'

"Right now I can't imagine anything being better than this but life does have turns and a career is for a long time. There's so much in life I want to achieve."

There is so much in life he already has achieved -- the most impressive of which is simply being Pinball.

Says Ferrone: "Some players are completely different when the camera is on than when it is off but with Pinball, he's as genuine as genuine gets. There is no other side to Pinball."


Videos

Photos