In a league as small as the CFL, every championship game is bound to be accompanied by deep personal connections between opponents.
Former teammates being reunited on opposing sides, young coaches facing off with former mentors, and even the occasional familial clash are all staples of the Grey Cup. Even within the league’s quaint reality, you’d be hard-pressed to find two opponents with a tighter bond than Pinball Clemons and Mike O’Shea.
“People would ask me, ‘Who’s your favourite player? Who’s the favourite player you coached?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t have favourites but Mike O’Shea is my favourite.’ That was my favourite line ever, every time someone asked me,” Clemons, the Toronto Argonauts’ general manager, said Thursday about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach.
“He is one of the most special people that I’ve ever been around in my life. I love him like a nephew, brother, son — whatever you want to call it.”
The pair of Canadian Football Hall of Famer have been tied to each other for almost three decades. They began as tenacious opponents, before becoming teammates with the Argonauts for four seasons from 1996 to 1999. When Clemons became head coach of the team following retirement, O’Shea continued to be his defensive stalwart for seven more years. Once his own playing career was done, the ferocious linebacker would coach special teams with the organization for four seasons while Clemons served as Vice-Chair.
The two men have shared four Grey Cup victories together but on Sunday, they will be opponents for the very first time in the title game. Clemons enters as the architect of the East Division champion Argonauts, heavy underdogs to O’Shea’s back-to-back defending champion Bombers.
Now in search of his third consecutive title, the two-time CFL Coach of the Year credits Clemons for many of the lessons that have contributed to his success.
“He taught me a tremendous amount. As a player, I was very concerned about the here and now — as you should be as a player — and Pinball certainly opened my eyes to a much bigger picture that I probably was not capable of being so concerned about as a player,” O’Shea explained.
“As a coach, it’s an invaluable lesson, looking a little bigger at the team and the people. I mean, he’s one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet.”
For Clemons, O’Shea’s success as a coach has not been surprising — though he admits even he couldn’t have predicted the creation of a CFL dynasty.
“I think it was only two years ago when the question was, could he coach at this level?” Pinball recalled. “I knew the answer to that was always yes but I didn’t know [this].”
His recollections of O’Shea during his playing days are that of a player-coach, always going the extra mile alongside then-Argos defensive back Orlondo Steinauer — who lost to O’Shea in consecutive Grey Cups as head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The pair often beat their boss to the facility and instituted additional meetings for the defence.
Those years under Pinball would set the foundation for O’Shea’s second chapter, though he has done it in a style far different than his friend and mentor. The North Bay, Ontario native is authentically himself, roughly polished and uncomfortable with the spotlight while remaining fiercely loyal to the men in his locker room.
By contrast, his American-born counterpart is the proverbial social butterfly, known for his infectious positivity and elaborate oration. His reputation for stirring pre-game speeches is legendary; an aspect of coaching O’Shea will never replicate but recalls fondly.
“I remember one in particular and it wasn’t about necessarily the message, it’s that as I was studying my sheets and listening, I happened to just glance up as he ran towards me in the locker room and got in my face.” the Bombers’ bench boss said with mock surprise.
“I remember that one. Not exactly what he was saying but the fact that he was almost right in my locker.”
Needless to say, there was no malicious intent in Clemons’ invasion of personal space. The two share the same core values and though they manifest on wildly different ends of the emotional spectrum, the mutual respect is clear.
“He’s extremely passionate but he knows that, and he was in that moment and I appreciate that,” O’Shea recalled. “He would never try to hide from that, how passionate he was about people. It was exciting to be around him. I was very fortunate to play against him, play with him, and play for him and all of them were learning experiences that were very important in my life.”
On Sunday, only one of the two All-Time Argonauts will be able to emerge victorious, a fact that neither seems to relish. Their relationship transcends any single game but staying at arm’s length is never enjoyable.
“I try not to think about that part a whole lot. Right now, he is the competition and I try to leave it there. I need to honour his line,” Clemons noted. “I’m not going to give him a call and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I don’t want to take him out of his rhythm and what he’s doing, but he’ll always be one of the most impactful people in my life.”
O’Shea will not intentionally seek out his friend this week either but plans to take a more unique approach if the two do encounter one another by accident.
“Yeah, I’m gonna kick him and he’s gonna say thank you and smile and say, ‘Oh, yes, yes,'” he said while grinning ear to ear, performing a shockingly good Pinball impression.
“Hopefully, I see him beforehand but he knows how I feel about him. I love the guy.”