Paul McCallum had Wally Buono right where he wanted him, one last time.
As a room full of media messengers assembled to watch him sign a one-day contract to retire as a member of the B.C. Lions, the kicker could have used the stage to gleefully squeeze his boss for another buck or two as he transcended formally into another life. McCallum grinned and acknowledged the opportunity, but signed the ceremonial document anyway, thus kicking off a different debate as to his place in CFL history for his contributions during a 23-year career.
That he wanted to exit wearing orange rather than green could have been a debate unto itself. McCallum spent parts of 12 seasons with the Riders, one more than he played in B.C., and his last act with the Lions last season wasn’t entirely handled smoothly.
But McCallum said too much had happened to him in the Lower Mainland to think poorly of the Lions, and should he one day be elevated in status to enter the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, it’s clear now he’ll bleed orange then too.
“This is where it all began, me growing up down the street. All my memories growing up are here,” McCallum explained on a day when he came to the podium winging it as always, in a manner far removed from a Peyton Manning farewell. “It wasn’t an easy decision. It was the right decision.”
So much of McCallum’s career has been defined by forces in and out of his control. He had to leave the Lions to gain steady work because of the dominating presence of Lui Passaglia. He had to endure the legendary resentment when he missed a crucial chip shot in the 2004 playoffs for the Riders against B.C., a miss that galvanized his career, McCallum said.
“When I missed that field goal, I looked at it as I didn’t put a ball through the goalposts. Shortly after there was a tsunami (in Sumatra) where all those people were killed. In the big picture (the miss) didn’t mean that much,” McCallum said.
Truth be told, McCallum’s career was more defined by his two Grey Cup wins with the Lions and a host of records, not the least of which was his 62-yard field goal in 2001 and 30 straight makes that should still be a record if the league at the time knew how to determine what constitutes a miss.
There’s also a defining side of McCallum not visible on the field. Included in that assessment included a wide mix of charitable work, a fiercely competitive nature that reared up every time the Lions tried to replace him with promising talent like Sean Whyte, a playful streak that earned him a reputation as one of the league’s best locker-room pranksters, and a few noteworthy contract negotiations conducted without an agent with his former employer.
“He’s a pretty good business guy,” Buono said of McCallum. “He’s smart enough to realize you have to be creative sometimes to get things done, and he can separate his emotions.”
That’s always been high on Buono’s dossier too, which perhaps explained why he was unwilling to comment on a recent inference by the agent for Jon Jennings that the quarterback might be a camp holdout without a contract extension.
McCallum’s best work, however, might not be evident until the CFL Players Association next goes to negotiate a collective agreement, for it was the kicker who was lobbying for reform inside the union while the league was having its way in the last round of contract talks.
But because he signed in Saskatchewan last year and ultimately left on his own terms, the Lions saw first-hand how much they missed McCallum’s consistency once Buono made the painful decision to gut out a season with Richie Leone. This wasn’t a case of not missing a player until he was gone; McCallum made sure of that.
Now it’s up to others to wage the debate led for years by McCallum, who used to argue that kickers were not a lower life form but athletes too. There’s centre stage, Henry Burris; the Ottawa Redblacks quarterback now gets to answer all the old-guy questions. The only grinding McCallum will be doing from this point will be on behalf of his clients in Maple Ridge trying ride out the Lower Mainland real estate explosion.
“I’m not playing anymore; I can be honest, right?” McCallum said. “I’m very happy with the things I’ve done. The one record I wanted that measures a kicker is percentage and to attain that goal (hitting 94.1 per-cent of his field goals in 2011) means a lot.
“Let bygones be bygones.”
With that, he signed his last Lions contract and left.