Toronto Sun Sports Writer Perry Lefko has written a new book on Argos Head Coach Michael 'Pinball' Clemons entitled 'Pinball: The Making of a Canadian Hero'. The book, focuses on how Michael came to be a superstar in the CFL and the first black coach in the league to win a Grey Cup, and how Mike Clemons’ special qualities contributed to making him an enduring Canadian personality, well known beyond the city of Toronto where he became the most popular athlete. It describes his tremendous natural leadership skills and important inspirational messages to Canadians.
Below is an excerpt from the book - thank you to all who contributed their stories of Michael earlier on in the season!
In his pre-game speech, which was filmed for the team’s weekly television show prior to the Eastern semi-final, Clemons provided a personal message to the team. He began by answering a question he was asked by the media the day before the game.
“Most of the times when you get questions in a press conference you give canned responses, but one question caused me to think a little bit. The question was, ‘What does this mean to you?’”
At this point he removed his coaching sweater, under which he was wearing a T-shirt with the picture of his father.
“About a year ago my dad came to his first game in my whole career as a pro. This is his shirt. He’s with me tonight. He’s no longer with us here on earth, but he’s with us tonight. Life is short, guys. We don’t have a whole lot, so when you ask me what does this mean to me, I am giving a portion of my life to commit myself to this endeavour. That’s what it means to me.”
As he was talking, he was hitting an emotional pitch.
“So when I (heard) that question, I (was) a little bit confused and it caused me to think, ‘Well, why do I love this game? Why is it, I began to think? You know I’ve gotten some personal awards and when I get up there, I don’t get emotional about that. Do you know why I love this game?”
As he said this he began to point individually to players.
”It’s because of you,” he said in the direction of one player. “It’s because of you,” he said in the direction of another. And then he walked right up to linebacker Mike O’Shea and pointed directly at him. “It’s because of you getting here early every time and I know how much you care about this game. That’s why I love this game. Family is why I love this game. And you know what a family does? Family looks after each other.”
He instructed the players to look at the teammate next to them and say, “I’ve got your back,” and then to turn to the player on the opposite side and repeat the same thing. Then he began a familiar team chant.
“Together we rise ... together we rise ... together we rise ... together we rise ... together we rise ... together we rise.... Guys, let’s go out of here together and play as a team. Know that you don’t get anything. No second chances here. No second chances. It’s all about tonight. Stay together, play together.”
And then he finished with a count of three. “One. Two. Three. Win!”
As he recalled his coach’s pre-game speech and in particular how Clemons approached him and looked him square in the face, O’Shea said he could feel the passion and sincerity. O’Shea, who normally spent the time during Clemons’s pre-game speeches reading his scouting reports, had been mesmerized.
“It certainly struck me in a good way—a very, positive way,” he said. “I didn’t expect him to take those three quick steps to me as he walked by and say what he said. Not only did it catch me off guard, but it was a pretty neat feeling I had after. It’s very hard to describe. It was almost empowering. Did it make me go out and play any better or play any differently? I don’t think so, but I know I walked on that field differently. It was a pretty special feeling. I don’t know what he did; it was just different.”
In front of a crowd of 37,835, one of the largest football audiences to watch a game at the SkyDome, the Argos dismantled Hamilton bit by bit. The Tiger-Cats took dumb penalties and the Argos played soundly. A 116-yard touchdown by Kenny Wheaton on an interception inside the final three minutes of the game brought the crowd to its feet, deliriously cheering the defensive back in his long run. The Argos won 24–6, and were now headed back to Montreal for the third consecutive year to play in the Eastern final.
A week later, the Argos played the Als in Montreal and once again Clemons delivered a rousing pre-game speech, which the production crew of the team’s weekly television show filmed.
“It took 370 days and two hours and 50 minutes to get back to this point right here,” Clemons began. “Guys, you have prepared. You have put your work in. We are ready to go. See on the other side right now. See on the other side of this game right now. We are ready. Defence, let’s trust in one another and not give up the big play. Offence, success on first down and take care of the football. Special teams, we’ve got to outwork them and the other thing, as (special teams coordinator Marcello) Simmons said, ‘We’ve got to be physical.’ What’s the word?”
And with that, he said, “Hit,” and the team responded. Then he repeated it again.
“It is time now. It is time. It is our time. Turn to the guy next to you and say, ‘It is our time.’ Turn to the guy on the other side of you and say, ‘It’s our time.’ Say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ Now turn the other way and say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ Now when I say all, it means everyone. Who are we?”
And the team collectively said, “Family!”
“Who are we?”
“Who are we?”
“We will stay together, we will play together, and when it’s all done, we’re gonna pray together, then we’re going to head to Ottawa (to play in the Grey Cup). Let’s go get a win on three. One. Two. Three. Win!”
Sixty minutes of football would determine one way or another whether the Argos would finally beat Montreal and go on to the Cup. After losing to the Als in each of the previous two Eastern finals, the Argos still were the underdogs. The opening 30 minutes produced a tight game, with the Argos leading 8–7 on a single point and a converted touchdown after a 97-yard kickoff return by Arland Bruce III late in the first quarter after Montreal scored a touchdown. This was exactly the position the Argos wanted to be in, limiting the Als and silencing the crowd of 51,296 at Olympic Stadium.
Early in the third quarter, defensive end Eric England sacked Als quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who landed hard on his right shoulder and lay crumpled on the turf. He was unable to play thereafter, forcing the Als to use an inexperienced backup. This had been the plight of the Argos in the last two Eastern finals, and now Montreal had to face the adversity.
After three quarters, the teams were engaged in a 9–9 tie. Toronto took the lead on a 16-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, then added seven more points two and a half minutes later on a seven-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Bruce and a one-point convert. With less than two minutes to go, the Argos added another touchdown when running back John Avery broke loose and found open space en route to the goal line. He ended his 25-yard run by diving into the end zone. He had had a season of hell because of a knee injury and had faced repeated criticism in the media, but for one play—one moment—Avery had erased all the physical, mental, and emotional agony. Hell was now heaven and he was diving into it with delight. Montreal added a touchdown with a minute and 18 seconds to go, but the Argos held on for a 26–18 win.
The players celebrated by dumping a tub of Gatorade on Clemons, soaking his coaching sweater. He removed it and came into the media room wearing the T-shirt of his father, but not because he wanted to make any statement—it was the only dry article of clothing he had. After the same game the previous year, Willie Clemons had predicted that his son would win in 2004. He had been correct, even though he did not live to see it.
And one week later, the Argos would win the Grey Cup in the greatest achievement of all for Willie Clemons’s son as a head coach.