Those 'maverick' '71 Argos

Joe Theismann, quarterback of the 1971 Argonauts, chats it up with current Toronto pivot Ricky Ray...

Joe Theismann, quarterback of the 1971 Argonauts, chats it up with current Toronto pivot Ricky Ray on Friday at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:33 AM ET

TORONTO - You could make the argument that only in Toronto would they hold a reunion for a professional sports team that lost the big game. Another reason for the rest of the country to point a collective finger and laugh.

But then again, the 1971 Toronto Argonauts were not your ordinary gang of also-rans.

Yes, they lost the 59th Grey Cup on that damp and rainy day at the old Empire Stadium in Vancouver, 14-11, to a big, mean Calgary Stampeders side on a play that will live in infamy for Argos diehards. But the ’71 Argos were a team, as star quarterback Joe Theismann described it, “made up of characters with character.” A team much bigger than that loss, a team that captured the imagination of the city of Toronto like no CFL team has before or since. A team huge on talent and with the swagger to match. A team with such mystique, that a film — Mavericks: The Story of the 1971 Argos — by award-winning director Christie Callan-Jones — will be included in the TSN Grey Cup documentary series this fall.

“We were always the bad guys, and we loved being the bad guys,” said linebacker Gene Mack. “To this day, Toronto are always the bad guys and everybody else are the good guys. But that’s all right. We certainly upheld our end of it.”

They were a collection of louts and loners, partiers and intellects, brought together by the flamboyant coach Leo Cahill who, after star running back Leon McQuay slipped and fumbled the ball deep in the Calgary end late in ’71 Grey Cup, famously quipped: “When Leon slipped, I fell.”

Ultimately, they were a team made up of unforgettable characters who loved playing together for a city that they all grew to love, and for a coach none of them will ever forget.

Theismann — who guided Notre Dame to a Cotton Bowl before and the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl after his career in Toronto— said at a team reunion on Friday afternoon that of all the teams he played for, college and pro, the group of guys he best remembers were his teammates on the ’71 Argos.

“The moments we had, the thrills we had, the times we had — so much of it had to do with the people of the city of Toronto,” he said. “Socially, things were changing in this world so much (and to) be able to play in this city at that period of time was one of those unique periods in life. For me, anyway.”

Cahill managed to convince Theismann, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1970 to Stanford QB Jim Plunkett, to head north after contract negotiations with the Miami Dolphins, who had drafted the Notre Dame star in the fourth round in 1970, fell apart. The same for the Argos’ star defensive tackle Jim Stillwagon who, despite winning the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award with the Ohio State Buckeyes, was drafted by the Green Packers in the fifth round. He too decided to accept an offer from Cahill to play in the CFL. For Mack, the former star linebacker at the University of Texas El-Paso (a team that defeated Archie Manning and the University of Mississippi in the 1967 Sun Bowl) elected to stay in Toronto after landing in the city for the first time on a cold and snowy February day.

“I was from Texas and had this old leather coat, like a sports jacket on,” said Mack. “But they put me up at the Royal York Hotel and everybody was so nice, I decided to stay. I’ll stay for a year, I thought, and ended up signing four more one-year contracts.”

He never really left. Mack went on to a busy career in the Canadian film industry and is still involved in community and charity work throughout the city. He said the excitement of living in Toronto during that era, with the Yonge St. Mall and Yorkville music scene and all the unique bars and restaurants was an incredible experience. Toronto was just coming into its own as a multicultural metropolis and the players took to full advantage of that.

“Man, somewhere between Starvin’ Marvin’s and Le Coq d’Or and Brown Derby, the Colonial ... we had a great time,” said the two-time Eastern Conference all-star, listing off some of Toronto’s legendary watering holes. “Midway through my first season, I moved to Yorkville, and it was slamming. It was where I wanted to be.”

Mack said most of the players in those days lived near the old Exhibition Stadium, where the team practised and played. The parties were historic and Cahill, he said, generally turned a blind eye to their shenanigans, as long as they showed up on game day, ready to play.

“We really were mavericks,” said Mack. “The thing about it is, we practised and we learned together and, after the games, we went our separate ways. We were several eclectic groups, and we were all different. It was like those old Oakland teams. Leo had the ‘Just Win’ ideology. All he wanted us to do was to show up to practice and win the games on Saturday or Sunday.”

And they did, going 10-4 and making it to the Grey Cup for the first time since 1952. For the Stampeders, the ’71 Grey Cup represented their third appearance in the big game in four years, but they hadn’t won since 1948. To a man, the ’71 Argos believe that it was their game to win, though Theismann said he will never forget how big and physical the Stamps were.

“I ran for my life the entire game,” he said with a laugh, adding that the Calgary defensive line was a good as he had ever faced. “I got the ever-loving crap beaten out of me the entire game. They looked like men and we looked like boys.”

Mack said, heading into the game, the “western press” did their best to ostracize the Toronto team, which came into the game with a reputation for arrogance and bravado.

“There was a night club across the street from our hotel in Vancouver that had burlesque dancers and the (western media) said we spent all our time in there,” Mack said. “But we only spent half our time there.”

Calgary led for most of the game and held a 14-11 advantage late in the fourth quarter when Toronto defensive back Dick Thornton intercepted a Calgary pass and ran it to the Stampeders 11-yard line. Theismann, who was replaced by Greg Barton earlier in the game but sent back in later on, then handed the ball to the team’s star running back, Leon McQuay, another outlandishly flamboyant individual, who then slipped on the rain-soaked turf and fumbled the ball, leading to a Stampeders recovery and eventual win. Though some of the players went to great things in the CFL and, in Theismann’s case, a Super Bowl, the loss still stings. For Mack, the defeat was so devastating, he couldn’t take the team bus back to the hotel.

“I rode back to the hotel on a bread truck, that’s how disgruntled I was,” he said. “The bread truck driver took me back because he felt sorry for me. I didn’t want to see nobody. I was still trying to figure out how — as well-prepared and how accomplished I thought our team was — we lost that game.”

Some 41 years later — on the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup — the players from the 1971 Argos gathered inside a small theatre at the U of T’s Erindale Campus, traded war stories and commented on how much they enjoyed playing in Toronto and the CFL. For Theismann, playing for the Argos made his career in the NFL possible, and he will not abide anyone bad-mouthing his old team or league.

“Talk to Jeff Garcia. Talk to Warren Moon. Talk to Doug Flutie,” said Theismann, when asked what playing in the CFL meant to his development as a professional quarterback.

As the guys huddled for a photo — with Theismann, of course, still the guy in the centre of things — an Argos media person suggested that they line up in two rows, with the guys in front down on one knee — an act much easier said than done given all the bad knees and backs involved. But the old comrades had a good laugh as they attempted to get down on one knee, and ribbed each other mercilessly.

On Thursday night, the guys gathered at Pete Martin’s house for a barbecue. On Saturday afternoon, they’ll be honoured at the team’s home opener at the Rogers Centre. The reunion has been a blast. And while the dinners and recognition are nice, the real joy was just being together again.

“I laugh sometimes when I think: ‘How many guys had the opportunity to play with a PhD in biochemistry and a PhD in mathematics, Mike Eben and Paul Desjardins, my centre and my wide receiver,” said Theismann. “It was a very unique group of guys. It was a collection of players, a collection of men, who have never really forgotten where they’re from, or the friendships we developed.”

Some, like Martin, the team’s linebacker-turned-colour commentator, are Toronto guys. Others, like Mack, came from completely different worlds, and decided to stay. But for all of them gathered on a sweltering July afternoon, returning to a city they grew to love to be with old teammates was special.

“I always say Toronto is the best city in Canada,” said Mack. “Now, I like other parts (of Canada). I like what Saskatchewan stands for, how they stand behind their team. But the rest of them, they can go to hell.”

With that, Mack lets out a big laugh. Clearly, the swagger is still there.


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