Pinball scores big

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

Every so often, somebody comes along in sports who operates on a different plane than most, whose athletic exploits extend into their everyday lives and beyond.

Stand up, Michael Clemons. Oh, you already are.

On any list of fascinating athletes, you'd have to include the tiny Toronto Argonauts coach along with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky.

He's as intriguing off the field of play and he, too, is like a force of nature. An abbreviated one at that.

That's only part of Pinball Clemons's mystique. Plenty of unlikely people make it in sports, even five-foot-six, 170-pound running backs.

Few emboss their personality on their game and everything around it as indelibly as the little guy who captured a team, a city, a league -- and then some.

It's always difficult finding balance when writing about people you like and respect and it might have been doubly so dealing with the book Pinball: The Making of a Canadian Hero (John Wiley & Sons Canada), since a pal in the sports writing dodge wrote it.

But former Free Press staffer Perry Lefko makes it easy by validating what has crossed a lot of minds at one time or another: Is Pinball Clemons for real?

Yes, Pinball Clemons is everything he seems to be. The effusive little guy whose infectious smile captured the London sports celebrity dinner three years ago is exactly what he appears to be.

He's the warm, thoughtful and completely honest guy that comes across through the TV screen or in person. While these traits might be detriments to a professional football coach, he manages.

You tend to look for feet of clay whenever a larger-than-life sports figure comes along. Everyone looked hard at Clemons, but first impressions have more than stood the test of time.

Pinball is a book about Clemons wrapped in the recent history of the Argos. That's a story in itself given the bizarre twists and turns of North America's oldest professional sports franchise, the backdrop for the tale of the little guy who took on the big guys on and off the field.

During a playing career spanning more than 11 seasons, Clemons became a star player, then president of the franchise and its head coach, all the while appearing (free) for any and all worthy ventures. His wife acknowledges that her devout husband has a wider "family" needing him.

Lefko employs a clever technique to help portray an accurate sense of his subject. Dozens of players and coaches around the league speak of him in almost-adoring terms -- some consider him the most memorable person they've ever met -- but it's ordinary folks who get the chance to provide anecdotal insights into the essential Pinball.

People were asked to provide experiences they've had with Clemons and Letters For Pinball are interspersed through the book.

My favourite among the many unpublicized acts of kindness dealt with Pinball's visit to a youngster in an Ottawa hospital two days before the Grey Cup Game. The boy jokingly offered to trade his slippers for Pinball's Reeboks. Clemons left the hospital in stocking feet.

Everyone who encounters him has a story. Mine is standing alongside the Argos' training camp practice field and Clemons remembering me from his London visit and coming over to say hello. I'm not that memorable. Clemons remembers everyone.

When the floundering Argos named Clemons playing head coach in 2000, it was seen as a grasp at straws of credibility, since he was one of the few around the franchise who had any. Ultimately, through financial woes and other upheavals, it was a master stroke that kept things on an even keel.

After losing the East final to Montreal and a chance to defend the Grey Cup three weeks ago, he was subdued but in character.

"Ten per cent of life," Clemons says, "is what happens to you and the other 90 per cent is how you react."


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