Pasts do not concern Argos

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Some people look at Jerome Mathis and see the police rap sheet, the assault charge, the pit bulls that newspaper accounts say had people scrambling for safety on to car roofs.

They see bad news.

Some people look at the former National Football League Pro Bowl kick returner, signed by the Argonauts this week, and see another parolee looking for redemption in sport's halfway house -- formerly known as the Canadian Football League.

They see talent that finds daylight in a defence, and trouble in life.

So this might be a good time to remember that Mathis is no Michael Vick. He never has been convicted of anything except possibly running a lousy pass route. And that assault charge was dropped 24 hours after it was laid.

"I believe Jerome's record is clean," said Michael (Pinball) Clemons, the former Argos coach, currently a vice chair and special advisor, and the man in whose keeping many players with troubled pasts have ended up.

Not that it would have mattered. Clemons always has believed in regeneration of the soul.

"They're people, not statistics," said Clemons, who cares less about where a man has been, and more about where he might go.

"The first option is to sign all Rhodes Scholars. But people make mistakes. If we're honest, all of us have been given second, third, 28th chances. How many times have we messed up? You have to say, where is this guy now when you bring him into your organization? With a Rhodes Scholar you don't have to ask that question."

It was a question when Robert Baker went from a cell for distributing cocaine to go-to guy on offence. When Bernard Williams, kicked out of the NFL for a drug violation and up on assault charges, got another life as an Argos lineman. When R. Jay Soward, banned from the NFL for substance abuse, found life outside a bottle of booze. And it is a question asked, perhaps now, of a player pegged to replace the charismatic running of Dominique Dorsey.

"I don't give up on people," Clemons said. "There are those who say, 'Oh, those kids will never amount to anything.' Well, that kid's name was Michael Clemons once. I was single-parent (child), mom was 18 when I was born, lived in the projects. I was that kid who wouldn't amount to anything. I was that kid the world was going to give up on."

DESERVE A CHANCE

Instead, he won a city's heart. Others deserve a chance to do likewise.

Clemons went from the Argos backfield to head coach to front office. He is active in community relations and Stop The Violence -- a program to eliminate guns, gangs and bullies. Some people might suggest that he's working for a team that hires the very people he's trying to help eliminate from society. Not so.

"I'd be a hypocrite with our Stop the Violence program if I said put down the gun, change your life, turn away from your ways and make a positive contribution in life -- oh, but you can't play for my team," Clemons said.

"Now if you choose to keep doing those things, that's different, then you can't play on my team."

Clemons looks at football as more a microcosm of life than a game. He views its players as more than Xs and Os on a chalk board. As a coach, he believed his job was about more than the win column.

"If I coach you and you're the same person when you leave as when you came, that's my fault. A player owes us more than a touchdown; we owe them more than a cheque," Clemons said.

"We have a level of expectation of how they handle themselves, how they deal with our fans and there's reciprocity. They should grow as people. I told our guys when I was coach that my job wasn't to win football games. My job is to help you become better people. If you become better people you will win more football games."

It is a philosophy many in pro sports, including some within the CFL, don't buy.

"At the end, when I was winding up as a coach, people would argue with that approach," Clemons said. "But we were the only team that went to a divisional final six straight years. I believe you win games by developing people."

So Willie Middlebrooks, an NFL bust and arrested for domestic violence, got a respite in the Argos secondary.

And it is why Mathis, Pro Bowl numbers aside, gets a chance to look good in double blue.

"Sometimes we're going to be wrong," Clemons said. "But we're going to let them prove that."


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