Through all that time – and it’s 20 years we’re talking here – the only other constant in the critical, but usually wobbly, southern Ontario football market has been Pinball Clemons.
And now, for the first time since Hamilton inherited him as a very raw second-year pro from the ridiculous and deservedly dead Ottawa RoughRiders in 1997, Orlondo Steinauer will not spend his working day within sight of Lake Ontario.
His move to Fresno State is our loss, equally as much as it is his gain and perhaps moreso.
Steinauer arrived in Hamilton in time for the second-worst season in franchise history: the 2-16 gang that couldn’t shoot straight. But they could do a few things and were building a defence which would be the backbone, along with Danny McManus, of the two Grey Cup-bound teams which would immediately follow. Steinauer, known in latter years as a safety, was a wide-side corner then and in his first Cat season intercepted seven passes, and inched that up to eight the following season, the best two stats years of his career. He had a Pick Six in each of his first three Cats seasons.
But he was always quick to point out, “Remember who was playing the other corner,” referring to the magnificent Eric Carter, “and they wouldn’t throw his way. So they came at me.”
That was the truth, but only part of it, from Steinauer who rarely accepted accolades, and when he did, even as a nationally-praised defensive coordinator, he always spread them around. Some of the rest of the truth was that he was anticipatory, skillful at ball-arrival, fast and had a football mind that not even the best receivers could match. If you don’t believe that, trying figuring out the details of his Ticats defence, which often started slowly in a season, but usually peaked later when it really mattered.
And if you think you have them figured out, which you really haven’t, trying explaining them. A couple of years ago it was mentioned to Justin Hickman – a defensive end, remember – that he had been 15 yards downfield when he had just missed making an interception. “The other guy back there with me was the other defensive end,” he pointed out, and then smilingly shrugged at Steinauer’s call.
And the quarterback still had to hurry the throw.
Steinauer played for and coached both the Argos and Ticats for significant stretches and not many people have done that. He was sometimes criticized for preferring veterans over developing rookies but there was a root to that. The Argos won the 2004 Grey Cup because of such veterans, and his own playing career, which ended in 2008, was extended by at least a year because of his brain power, experience and his complete understanding of Rich Stubler’s complicated defences. As a coordinator, he went on to out-complicate his teacher. But his players got it, if sometimes slowly, and when they did it was a thing of complex beauty.
Steinauer, like Clemons, has a youthful visage and mega-watt smile and was overtly positive, although not overly revealing in interviews and public appearances. But he cared about the development of the game in the GTHA and once you had gained his trust he was terrific off the record. Not to divulge secrets but to point you in the right direction with his hints, or to stop you from plunging headlong down the wrong road. In either case he was acting as a steward for the game, protecting it from harmful misinterpretation. That was very important in a fragile football market, which Hamilton was before the Young-Mitchell era. And Toronto has never been anything but fragile during Steinauer’s time in Canada.
The only time he didn’t play or coach either of the two ancient rivals was in 2009 when he worked at SportsNet and The FAN 590, where he was covering both of them.
He is not alone in this, but he has been an American who helped Canadians appreciate their own game.
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