TORONTO - Rodney Harding hasn’t squashed a quarterback on his grillwork in close to 15 seasons.
But, looking trim and fit, he looks like he could still do some damage.
The Argos’ all-time sacks leader still goes to the gym every week like he’s preparing for Gameday, he stays active in the sport as a referee, and he’s not shy about admitting that he’d always hoped someday to see his name lifted to the rafters at the Rogers Centre with some of the club’s other former superstars.
Saturday, Harding will become the 22nd player to be inducted as an All-Time Argo at halftime of the Labour Day rematch against Hamilton.
“The most important thing is that I’m alive to enjoy it. I’m turning 50 this year and I was telling my wife that this was quite an honour. All the hard work paid off and it’s nice to be rewarded for your performance,” Harding said Friday, before addressing the current Argonauts. “I was hoping that eventually I would make it. Those were some outstanding players.”
The list includes players such as Jim Corrigall, Dick Shatto, Terry Greer and Jim Stillwagon.
Harding played from 1985-96, winning the Grey Cup in 1991 with a team that included players such as Pinball Clemons, Chris Schultz and quarterback Matt Dunigan.
Dunigan remembers Harding as a great teammate.
Even more, he remembers him as the guy on the opposite side of the ball who kept making life a misery.
“When Rodney arrived, Rodney hurt. Every time Rodney hit me something broke. It was like a recurring nightmare when you wake up in a cold sweat — except it was reality,” said Dunigan, who is now a broadcaster. “I’d get hit and it was like, ‘ahh crap, sonething’s broke again. It must be the Big Cat.’ He always arrived with some bad intentions.
“It was always something. blown hamstrings. broken fingers, sore ribs. You always had to do damage assessment after he hit you. He was a piece of work.
“I was a teammate for two years (1990-91) and an opponent for far more. I wish I’d been a teammate for longer.”
Harding is a prime example of how much the rivalry between the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts means to players on both teams.
Harding spent 12 seasons in the CFL, was named the Argos’ player of the year in 1992 and — 15 years after his retirement — his 92 sacks is still a club record. Those were heady seasons in Toronto sports. The Jays were winning the World Series, the Leafs with Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark were at their zenith, and the Argos led by Harding, Kelvin Pruenster and D.K. Smith were Grey Cup contenders. But asked to flip back through the memory banks of his career, Harding comes up with the classic 1986 confrontation in the two-game Eastern Final against Hamilton.
“We had a big lead after the first game but they came back and beat us,” said Harding, recalling the Ticats’ comeback from a 22-point deficit in Game 2. “It was always a great rivalry.”
Perhaps not a bad message to deliver to today’s Argonauts as they go for two in a row against Hamilton Saturday. Harding admits seeing his former team put the truncheons twice in two weeks to their mutual nemesis would make a lovely gift to mark his election to the all-time Argonauts’ club.
Harding was as good in the dressing room as he was on the field.
“What made him exceptional was the confidence, the experience, the leadership he brought. He was a playmaker on the field. Off it he never had to raise his voice. When he talked, people listened,” said Dunigan, just then, applause drifting across the practice field from the current Argos as he addressed the team.
“That,” said Dunigan, as the players gathered around Harding, “is the type of respect he deserved on and off the field.”
Since his retirement, Harding has returned home to Oklahoma City.
“My last year I was in Calgary and we had record snow in September — four foot drifts. I said, first plane out, I’m retiring.”
He has worked for a uniform company ever since and stays active refereeing high school basketball and football in Oklahoma City.
“I still have a passion for the game. You can see little kids develop from eight years old. You can see the ones that are going to get the college scholarships. I’ve refereed (NBA sensation) Blake Griffin’s games, (NFL quarterback) Sam Bradford’s games. We’ve had quite a few who are in the pros right now.”
Unlike those he watches and mentors, Harding never hit the NFL jackpot and he will never win any NBA Slam Dunk contest. But nobody, ever, had more class and Saturday Rodney Harding will dust away the dross of time. For just a few minutes, he will again be The Big Cat.