Two hours before kickoff and outside the Rogers Centre on Sunday afternoon, Toronto looked very much like a football town.
There was noise and booze and all kinds of people and painted faces and jerseys worn with names on the back -- from Csonka to Kelly to O.J. to Ricky -- and all the crazy circumstance that goes along with football when it really matters.
Toronto has seen this twice in the past two years. And each time it was about somebody else. On Sunday, it was about the National Football League coming to town -- something that seemed more alive before the game than it did at any time during the game. A year ago, it was Grey Cup Sunday and almost everybody was dressed in Riders Green.
In between those games -- nothing. Before the Grey Cup of 2007 -- nothing. And this troubles those of us who flat out love football -- NFL football, CFL football, CIS football, Junior Argos football. Just love the game.
And that makes us sad, and a little wistful for what used to be: Without an NFL team to call our own and with a CFL team that has become strictly niche over time. If this ever was a football town, it isn't anymore.
I have been lucky in my work to be able to go to football games all in the name of weekend assignments in the best of football cities: I've been to Cleveland and Buffalo, Washington and San Francisco, tailgated in Miami and Cincinnati, walked from hotels in downtown Pittsburgh and St. Louis and Indianapolis to the stadiums, went out of the city in Dallas and New York and Boston, felt what football feels like in Saskatchewan and in Edmonton. Hell, even Detroit gets it and you can't call what they play there football anymore.
Mostly in Toronto there is ambivalence.
And we're all missing out on the experience.
It is 41 days since Don Matthews resigned as coach of the Argonauts. In that time, I can't recall a single person asking me: Who's going to be the next Argo coach?
But I have been asked whether Jay Triano will last with the Raptors. I have been asked about a million and a half questions about Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. I have been asked way too often about how J.P. Ricciardi has lasted this long. But never a single question about Adam Rita. Nothing.
In Edmonton, hardly a day goes by where this isn't a newspaper story about the coaching candidates for the Eskimos. In Toronto, you can listen to talk radio on any number of stations and there is no debate, no clear-cut candidates to replace Matthews, who replaced Rich Stubler, who replaced Pinball Clemons, all in the last calendar year.
There is a certain texture to being a football town that is missing here. In Buffalo, the mood on Monday is often determined by what happened on Sunday. The tone of television and radio is formed by how and what the Bills did. The whole week of a game is about the buildup. Last week here there was buildup and then not much else.
You can't get emotional about something that isn't yours, something you're not passionate about. That's the very nature of sport, the nature of the being a fan. You need to engage. You need to feel part of something.
Here, there is so much to discuss and debate about the current state of the Argos yet we don't. Not in the mainstream. There are pockets, there are brave, diehard fans. Just not enough of them.
But when Michael Fletcher got benched, did you hear anything? When it looked like Mike O'Shea was too old to tackle anybody anymore, was it a phone-in topic for Bob McCown?
This is a team made for talk radio, ripe with issues. And this is a town that doesn't care to address them. Why is Greg Mohns still around? What about Rita? Is Kerry Joseph done as a quarterback? How did the best defence in the CFL become the worst in one season?
Good questions, all of them. Just no answers. And all this would be daily debate and mainstream news if only this was a football town.
An NFL team might change all that. Not somebody else's NFL team. Or maybe -- and I hope I'm wrong -- we're not cut out for this football thing at all.