Belli sails away on his terms

Popular Argonauts lineman Adriano Belli rented a three mast tall ship to announce his retirement...

Popular Argonauts lineman Adriano Belli rented a three mast tall ship to announce his retirement Wednesday. The ship took everyone on a three-hour tour of the Toronto Islands. That's Adriano on the bow of the Kajama with a friend. (DAVE THOMAS/QMI Agency)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:54 PM ET

TORONTO - Rob Murphy was with a couple of friends when he learned that Adriano Belli, his Argonauts teammate, would be announcing his retirement on a boat.

“I turned to them and said, ‘Of course,’” Murphy said on Wednesday as he sipped a drink on the deck of the tall ship Kajama. “Any other send-off would not have been big enough for him. He has a huge heart and a huge personality. This is a perfect way to end it.”

Belli packed plenty into a 10-year career in the Canadian Football League, which officially ended in a manner that only the 33-year-old Toronto native could have dreamed up. With many of his Argonauts teammates, fans, media and other friends from around the league gathered on the deck, Belli emerged and strolled to the bow dressed in a classic white and blue sailor’s outfit.

“I want to let you all know that in the preservation of quarterbacks across the Canadian Football League, I will be stepping down from my duties as a defensive tackle,” Belli said after taking control of the microphone. “I’m glad to do so as a Toronto Argonaut and in my home town.”

There’s no question the CFL and the Argos are losing one of the sport’s most colourful characters. But while Belli will be remembered by some for his on-field antics and often outlandish quotes, he was among the toughest nose tackles during his tenure in the CFL. He might have driven coaches around the bend for his penchant for penalties, usually for offside or unnecessary roughness, but he made up for it with his tenacity.

“He had great natural strength and he could not be single-blocked,” Argos head coach and general manager Jim Barker said. “He took it personally if one guy was able to block him.

“I think people get lost in what a character he is. You won’t replace him as a player. You can change the ratio, try to find an American who is close. That’s what you have to do.”

Belli, also known as The Kissing Bandit, has raised thousands of dollars for the Hospital for Sick Children through his Big Kiss Fund, and won’t let the charity go to the wayside. As such, it’s difficult to envision a CFL without Belli. Having said that, not getting one of his patented pecks on the cheek complete with two days’ stubble won’t be such a bad thing.

The decision to retire did not come easily for Belli, who missed the majority of the 2010 season with a foot injury. He runs a family food business, and has said several times in recent months that with an increased competitive level in the CFL, it’s next to impossible to play football and try to put in the hours in a full-time job in the off-season. Getting a hold of Belli during the winter months usually meant trying to catch him between business meetings.

And it didn’t help that his 6-foot-5, 290-pound body wasn’t responding well when he did find time to go to the gym.

“I’m starting to get to the age where I can’t give it 100% every play,” Belli said. “I never wanted to be the type of guy who steals a couple of years. Jim asked me to write the off-season weight-training program for the boys and when I sent it in, he said it was time to go.”

Not quite. Barker said he was shocked when Belli told him a couple of weeks ago that he had decided to put his uniform away as Barker figured Belli wouldn’t want to retire after an injury-filled season. A free agent, Belli spent the past four years with Toronto and had he returned for an 11th CFL year, it would have been as an Argo.

How would Belli want to be remembered?

“As one of the ambassadors of our sport, and one of the Canadian kids who truly enjoyed our league,” Belli said. “I enjoyed every city we played in, every fan, and I want to be remembered as a Canadian kid who couldn’t have pulled more fun out of this league.”

Works for us.

The Belli essence

Adriano Belli says he won’t follow former Argo teammates Mike O’Shea and Orlondo Steinauer into coaching.

But the Argos would be wise to keep him on the payroll in a community-related role. There aren’t many CFL players who love the game as much as Belli does, which is obvious to anyone who has the chance to talk to him.

“You have to bottle the Belli essence,” Argos president Bob Nicholson said. “There’s a good chance (the Argos will hire him in some capacity). I’ll need to visit with him about that.”

Belli’s departure from the Argos locker room will create a void, and the Boatmen will honour him at a home game during the 2011 regular season. Just don’t expect to see Belli walking on the sideline with a clipboard in hand.

“As (coach) Jim (Barker) would probably tell you, I’m not much of a football mind,” Belli said. “I don’t think I would be that good of a coach.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/koshtorontosun


Videos

Photos