Argos of '71 a blast from the past

Dick Thornton, the flamboyant star cornerback of the 1971 Argos, greets members of the current...

Dick Thornton, the flamboyant star cornerback of the 1971 Argos, greets members of the current Boatmen on Friday at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:25 AM ET

TORONTO - Jeff Keeping can recall only the names, unable to describe the throwing motion of the team’s marquee quarterback, in no position to elaborate on how running lanes were opened or the intensity on defence.

Mention Joe Theismann, Dick Thornton or Jim Stillwagon and images are created, impressions formed.

It’s under this backdrop that Keeping leads the latest edition of the Argos, a franchise that will celebrate the 1971 team at Saturday’s home opener against Calgary, the club that denied Toronto a Grey Cup some 40 years ago.

As Theismann correctly points out, the 1971 Argos were a team of characters with character, a description that also neatly sums up the 1991 Argos, who were feted last year as the 20th anniversary was relived.

In recent years, the Argos have lacked character players with flamboyance, guys who will generate headlines by turning any mundane question into a controversy, real or imagined.

In terms of character, they don’t come any better than the likes of Keeping, Jason Pottinger, Chris Van Zeyl and Andre Durie, to name but a few on the Argos.

But as Keeping rightly pointed out on the eve of the 2012 home opener, the Argos have to somehow create an environment where the football buzz is palatable, where home-field advantage truly benefits the home side, where fans become engaged when the on-field product inspires and forces the customer to return.

Different times, different landscape in Toronto: There are all kinds of perceived obstacles the Argos must overcome in making three-down football relevant.

No one is suggesting any Argos team can recreate the aura the 1971 team left on a city, but whatever this year’s Argos team is capable of accomplishing, it begins Saturday.

“It’s huge that we win at home,’’ Keeping said. “We need to establish an environment where teams don’t want to come to your home.

“We win at home and hopefully more people will be in the seats. If we execute the way we think we’re capable of executing, we can create an environment where people are excited about the crowd. Then more people will show up and then it becomes even more chaotic.

“All of a sudden, our fans become part of the issue for opposing teams and it’s just not us on the field. We need our fans to be loud because the passion from the fans adds to everything.

“We need to get there.”

Whether the Argos can get to that point where football matters, where crowds begin to show up, only time will tell.

It’s been 20 years since football was hip, a time of Rocket and Pinball and Matt Dunigan.

Even during the Doug Flutie era and back-to-back titles, fans were never completely engaged.

And therein lies the challenge of this year’s Argos, a franchise that will play host to the CFL’s milestone 100th Grey Cup in late November. Ricky Ray is no Theismann, there’s no Tricky Dick and Scott Milanovich will never be confused for Leo Cahill.

The only connection will be if this year’s team plays well enough to play for a title.

“That 1971 team was special,’’ added Keeping. “People might say why is the franchise celebrating losing, but that’s not the focus.

“That team got to play in a Grey Cup, the pinnacle of our game. I got here in ’05 and the club had just won a Grey Cup.

“We’ve had some great teams since and played in East finals, but we never got to the Grey Cup. That’s our goal: Get to the Grey Cup and win it.”

Following last week’s self-implosion in Edmonton, where the Argos committed 18 penalties in a four-point loss where five points were left on the field following missed field goals from short distance, Saturday looms as a day or atonement.

Above all, it’s a day the Argos must somehow capture, on and off the field.

Wins and losses aren’t the only measuring sticks for this year’s team, which makes the Argos so unique in the CFL.

It’s no small task and not many are giving the Argos much of a chance.

THEISMANN NO AVERAGE JOE

It wasn’t until he joined the CFL when Ricky Ray began to appreciate the legacy Joe Theismann had left behind.

As a kid growing up in California and following Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, Ray knew of Theismann only from the former Argo’s days in the NFL.

“I was aware he played for the Redskins, but had no idea of his CFL background until I got here,’’ Ray began on Friday as Theismann and members of the 1971 Argos met the current edition of the Double Blue.

Theismann addressed the team following its walkthrough and later shared a moment with Ray.

“It was cool,’’ added Ray, who is as cool as they come. “As a kid, I watched him. He’s an NFL legend, a CFL legend and it was pretty awesome.”

Ray does not have Theismann’s athleticism, but he can make plays with his legs.

Despite some drops and penalties during last Saturday’s season opener in Edmonton, the Argos still had a chance to beat the Eskimos in the final two minutes with possession of the ball and a long field to navigate. Ray did move the chains with his scrambling, but the drive stalled and the game was essentially over.

What Ray has in common with Theismann is that ability to throw a deep ball and command a huddle.

Whether Ray can lead the Argos to a berth in the Grey Cup is an issue that needs to be played out this season.

For now, what he needs is more game experience from his receivers.

“You can figure what kind of routes guys like in practice,’’ Ray said. “But until you get into crunch time and develop that experience together, that’s where it really pays off.”

INMAN MAKING INROADS

Now that Dontrelle Inman has gotten his feet wet, he’s looking to make a bigger splash and impression.

Just how much of a presence he will be depends on how the Argos plan to attack Calgary’s defence as Toronto gets set to play host to its home opener on Saturday, a day when the 1971 edition will be honoured.

A CFL rookie who last played football of any kind when he auditioned for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Inman started at wideout for the Argos last week and caught one pass for 19 yards.

“It felt good,’’ he said. “It was fun again to be out there on the field, being able to build that camaraderie with teammates.

“It was challenging being the first game,’’ said Inman, who appeared in four pre-season games last year before he was cut by the Jags. “I was comfortable, but we have to take what we do in practice and bring it to the game field. As a unit, there were a couple of things we missed out there, opportunities we should have taken advantage.”

Inman isn’t sure what the Stamps will throw at the Argos. “You never know week to week,’’ he said. “We’re expecting anything and we’ve practised everything.”


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