Food poisoning and press box beers: Paul McCallum, Richie Leone recall story behind the Hall of Famer’s 2016 Lions comeback

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: Scott Grant/ | Bob Butrym)

Kicker Paul McCallum played in 340 regular-season games during his illustrious 26-year professional career in the CFL, XFL, and WLAF, but the story behind his last one might best of the bunch.

Earlier this week, McCallum joined the B.C. Lions in-house podcast 1st and Now to discuss his time with his hometown team and shared the details behind his final season. The then-46-year-old had signed a one-day contract to retire with the Lions following the 2015 season but was pulled out of retirement in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign to solidify the team’s kicking situation.

B.C. made a visit to Saskatchewan on October 29 of that year, taking on the Roughriders in the final game ever played at old Taylor Field. As an alumnus of both clubs, McCallum wanted to attend but was refused a spot on the Lions’ charter flight. He made his own way to Regina anyway and came away less than impressed with the performance of young kicker Richie Leone.

“I was up in the media box, actually the play-by-play box with the Saskatchewan Premier and whatnot, and we had a couple of drinks. Unfortunately, Richie missed the field goal just before halftime, I came out at half and Neil [McEvoy] was walking down the hallway,” McCallum shared. “I was kind of giving him the gears saying we’re going into the playoffs, I don’t think Richie’s comfortable, you need to go get someone else.”

Leone, now with the Ottawa Redblacks, made his own appearance on The Rod Pedersen Show on Friday. Asked about McCallum’s story, he remembered the unfortunate lead-up to that contest.

“Two days before I had cooked some food that [quarterback] Jon Jennings, my roommate, said was in the refrigerator too long. I ended up getting very sick, so I missed a day of practice and then the next day it was a travel day and then the next day was game day,” Leone explained. “I was down about 11 pounds and I missed four field goals. It was a bad dream. We were beating the crap out of the Riders so it didn’t really matter but obviously, it was just so embarrassing.”

The Lions won 24-6, spoiling Saskatchewan’s farewell to their beloved stadium. However, Leone missed two field goals and two extra points, recording just a single point. Though he was named a CFL all-star as a punter that season, the Houston product had struggled in the kicking game, making 35-of-51 field goal attempts (68.6 percent) while missing five point-afters.

Current Lions’ co-general manager Neil McEvoy, then the team’s director of player personnel, had clearly had enough and agreed with McCallum’s assessment of the kicking situation. Rather than take the retired kicker’s advice and reach out to a now-forgotten Argonauts cast-off, the long-time personnel man surprised his realtor with a proposition.

“The next morning, I’m pulling up to my house and the phone rings and I’m like, what does Neil want? Maybe there’s something wrong with the house I just sold him,” McCallum recalled. “And he just said, ‘So what are you doing next week?’ I thought he was joking. That’s how I came out of retirement.”

Unfortunately, that meant Leone lost his kicking duties ahead of the regular-season finale. The 31-year-old has never attempted another kick in the CFL but has made his peace with that decision, noting that punting was always his strength.

“I’d had my struggles earlier in the season that [head coach Wally Buono] had challenged me on — rightfully so,” Leone said. “We get to the point of the year where we were a good team and the rest is history. They brought Paul back but it’s funny to laugh at now.”

McCallum was in the line-up when the Riders came to Vancouver for the last game of the year, nailing all four of his field goal attempts and both point-afters in a 41-18 victory. He dressed for both of the team’s playoff contests, adding two more converts to his resume in a West Semi-Final win over Winnipeg.

Now nearly seven years removed from his brief unretirement, the CFL legend does have a slight confession.

“I never said anything at the time but Neil said, ‘Have you been kicking in?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely,'” McCallum admitted. “The year before was the last time I kicked a football and it was only at my daughter’s soccer practices and everything like that. I knew I could do it but it was funny because I hadn’t kicked a ball in over a year. I didn’t tell them that until after.”

Fortunately, everything worked out well for both specialists. McCallum was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2022 and Leone signed with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals in 2017, before joining the Redblacks the next year. Considered the league’s best punter, he has received all-star honours in five of his six CFL seasons.