Took the subway to Nathan Phillips Square last week — not to listen to political palaver from our peripatetic mayor but to celebrate the sports team Toronto almost forgot.
I used to bleed Double Blue. Ed Harrington and the Big Zee. Granny Liggins and Jim Corrigall and Jim Stillwagon; Joe “The Throw” Theismann, Leon “X-Ray” McQuay and Tricky Dick Thornton; Condredge Holloway and Terry Greer and the bittersweet Leo Cahill years when 50,000 wretched souls would pack Exhibition Stadium to watch Anthony Davis and a succession of fake Saviours.
Lovable Losers the Argos were during the 1970s — a decade when the Argo Bounce was a bad thing and the cry of Aaaaarrrgooossswas the anthem of the cursed as we boarded the express buses up Bathurst St. after another befuddling, incomprehensible snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.
I had arrived in 1969, 17 years after the Argos’ last Grey Cup victory. Three decades would pass before the curse was lifted, but how was I supposed to know that when Coach Cahill said only “an act of God” could keep the Argos from winning, it took, seemingly, an act of God, over and over again.
In those days I could rattle off the names of the entire squad. But so much has changed, despite six Grey Cup victories since the curse was exorcised in 1983 and legends like Flutie and Pinball and Rocket were led by Bob O’Billovich and Don Matthews and Adam Rita.
My sons migrated to hoops heroes named Vince and MJ and Kobe and Mighty Mouse and looked south for gridiron gladiators — one latching on to the San Francisco 49ers; the other, led astray by his father to the Dallas Cowboys.
And, yet, here we are again, seeking to relight the flame between the Argos and me.
The Argos lit the football spark in a kid fresh from Montego Bay where football is, y’know, FOOTball. That fall, the junior team from Harbord Collegiate made it to the city football championship for the first time in 75 years and I was hooked.
The summer of 1970 I went to the library, signed out a book by Mel Profit, the Argo tight end, and learned to catch a football, my buddy Donald Coleman perfecting a spiral that landed in the greatest pair of hands on the planet. Harbord coach Dave Grace was ecstatic to get a rookie that September and promptly named him Sticky Fingers ’cause he wouldn’t drop either of the two passes the run-dominated team threw in a game.
And so, my son and I are in Nathan Phillips Square, half-hour early, wondering if Toronto is going to show up to show the Argos some love. And what do we see? A fan wearing a pristine Mel Profit #75 jersey. I shook his hand. “You are my vintage, sir,” I said. And we shared memories and swapped stories of Argos past and the sheer joy of this unexpected championship.
I haven’t been to BMO Field. Have not bought an Argo ticket since Darrell K. Smith was catching balls and Pinball was making tacklers look silly. But the team always has a comfortable place in the heart. They are a lovable bunch, easy to like, so family, so down to earth, so tight-knit, so fun, as wholesome as violent people playing a violent game could be.
Over the years we see them at community events, mentoring kids, sharing positive messages. They are more community-oriented than professional sports personalities we’ve come to know — probably because all but a few play for so little money.
Quarterback Ricky Ray I know. Coach Trestman, too. But Declan Cross? James Wilder Jr., Marcus Ball, DeVier Posey, Cassius Vaughn, Matt Black, Chris Van Zeyl?
Over time, the images and memories blur: Rocket Ismail dodging snowballs on the way to the end zone, John Candy and Bruce McNall delirious. Pinball hauling in the winning TD. Terry Greer catching everything. Anthony Davis for one marvellous day at the Ex. The guaranteed heartache of Labour Day at Ivor Wynne with the damn “Oskee wee wee, Oskee wa wa” chant casting a spell that would discombobulate even the most sure-handed Argo running back.
Then, driving home from Hamilton and, as therapy for the misery that loves company, listening to fans dissect the putrid entrails on the radio, Bob McCown hosting the post-mortem.
All that came back last Tuesday at Nathan Phillips Square.
The fan with the Mel Profit jersey says he sits around the 10-yard line at BMO Field and his season tickets cost about $500. Flabbergasted, I go to Argonauts.ca and, blimey, it’s true. Eleven games, including one playoff game. $500. Can you get a good single Leafs ticket for that little?
Maybe it’s an outgrowth of disgust with the way the NFL has blacklisted quarterback Colin Kaepernick for daring to protest police brutality. Maybe it’s the special feel of this Argo team — all family and love and teamwork and so endearing. Maybe one naturally returns home.
But I miss these guys. In 2018 I’ll return to my first love. Arrrrrggoooooosss.