Marcus Ball (6), Cleyon Laing (90), Shawn Lemon (40), Brian Tyms (18), James Wilder Jr. (32), Terrance Plummer (47), Khalil Bass (44), Martese Jackson (30) of the Toronto Argonauts at the Nathan Phillip Square in Toronto celebrating with the fans of Toronto their win of the 105th Grey Cup. Tuesday, November 28, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
While it’s far from being in my nature to write in the first person, the 2017 season provided some spectacular memories for Argonaut fans.
I’m in the fortunate situation to be around the team more than most, having a front-row seat to witness what became a remarkable story. It was capped off with about as Canadian an evening as one could imagine. A Grey Cup win in a snowstorm in the nation’s capital with Shania Twain arriving for the half-time show on a dog sled.
Here then are my favourite 17 memories from the 2017 Championship Season.
17. The Leader
He was old, he was injury prone, and his arm was shot. Many a fan was hoping that 2016 was Ricky Ray’s final year in Toronto. The quarterback himself didn’t know if he would be back for another season. While most weren’t sold on Drew Willy carrying the torch, many weren’t convinced that Number 15 had anything left.
The now 38-year old quarterback silenced his critics by posting one of, if not the best season of his Hall-of-Fame career. He threw for 5,546 yards and 28 touchdowns in the regular season, then led the Argos to a pair of last-possession wins in the East Final and the Grey Cup.
A quiet, unassuming man by nature, Ray was extremely emotional after the winning the championship game. The pure joy on his face was great to see after he put together such an incredible season.
I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see an athlete win a title. I know that it was the most fun I’ve had calling an offence in my 12 seasons as the Argos play-by-play voice. Selfishly, I hope he plays another five years. I enjoy our conversations and love watching him dissect opposing defences.
It wouldn’t even slightly surprise me if he posts two or three similar seasons to the one he just had, should he decide to come back.
Here’s hoping he does.
16. A third man in the booth
The Argos honoured Doug Flutie this season, as the quarterback rightfully joined the list of “All-Time Argos” in a celebration at BMO Field.
At one point in the third quarter of that game, Doug joined us in the booth for a few minutes.
I wasn’t calling the games for his two seasons in Toronto but was a season ticket holder. He was such a treat to watch and it’s always fun to relive those two seasons when he comes back for a visit. For those who didn’t get a chance to see him play, do yourself a favour and find some video. He’s arguably the most dynamic player to ever don the Double Blue.
It’s always fun talking to Doug, but catching him on this night was something special.
15. Did he just catch that? No, seriously, did he just catch that?
My Grey Cup assignment was pretty cool. There were no local calls for the Championship Game, just the national broadcast on TSN radio. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be the Argos sideline reporter for the game, so I had a great view from the sidelines – for most of the game anyway.
The first quarter didn’t go well for the Argos. Down 6-0 to Calgary after 15 minutes, the Boatmen started the second quarter with the longest offensive play in Grey Cup history. Ricky Ray hit DeVier Posey for a 100-yard touchdown.
Guess what, I missed it.
I had moved behind the bench, trying to listen in on conversations during the break, attempting to get a feel for what the players were experiencing after the first quarter so I could provide better information in my next on-air report. As I was walking back to my spot, standing at midfield between the Toronto and Calgary benches, I heard the crowd roar. As I looked to the field, between the shoulders of players jumping up and down in front of the bench, I saw a blue blur on the far side of TD Place Stadium.
I had no idea what had happened until I saw the replay on the scoreboard.
It wouldn’t be the last time I missed a big play in that game.
14. What are you doing here?
It was about three hours before the Argos regular-season game against Saskatchewan at BMO Field. I was on the field talking to assorted folks when someone yelled “Hey!” I turned and saw someone I hadn’t seen in quite some time but was thrilled to connect with once again.
Until that moment I hadn’t realized that Brandon Isaac was on the Riders coaching staff. BI was a fantastic player with the Argos, a key component of their win in 2012, but was also blessed with outstanding leadership qualities.
If things were getting quiet at a practice that year, if the monotony of the season was starting to kick in, the linebacker would chip in with a well-placed “Arrrrgooooooooooos” to lighten the mood, while at the same time letting his teammates remember that even the dog days were a part of the process.
When all is said and done, the memories on the field are fantastic, but the friendships that develop are an even bigger part of the game. Connecting with someone you haven’t seen in a while is always a great feeling.
When the meeting is a surprise it somehow makes it even sweeter.
13. Lightning strikes more than twice
There’s always something a little different about the Labour Day Classic, but this year’s game was memorable for a different reason.
Lightning, and lots of it, led to a two-hour delay in what turned out to be another tough trip to the Hammer for the Argos, as the Ticats would eventually win their first game of the season.
From our perspective in the broadcast booth, it was a challenge. After the players left the field due to the storm it took a long time before anyone let us know what was happening, so we just talked football. A lot. No, seriously – a lot. We had no scheduled commercials or sports updates.
For Jeff Johnson and me, it was like an extended podcast. We just discussed everything Argos. Drew Edwards from the Hamilton Spectator joined us for a bit, while Andy McNamara was hosting our coverage from our studio in Toronto and popped on from time to time to join in on the fun.
I can only remember one other major delay like that, as a severe lightning storm caused a lengthy stoppage during a game in Regina about a decade ago, but this one was a lot longer.
All I know is that whoever was still listening to the broadcast was hearing two very passionate football fans talking about all things Argos. Two additional hours is a long time to talk when you’re already in a four-hour broadcast. Because of JJ, the time flew by. Thanks, partner.
12. The birth of a cult hero
He was the 27th pick in the 2016 draft. To most, he was a player from McMaster who had surprisingly few touches as a running back. In his rookie season with the Argos, he had a grand total of two catches.
Declan Cross was not drafted to run or catch the football, he was brought in to play special teams and block, but a funny thing happened in 2017. Cross showed us a side of his game that had been as hard to find as a well-placed Easter egg.
Unexpectedly Cross became an integral part of the offence and remained a key component on special teams. He’d end up with 36 receptions including five touchdowns, adding a pair of key two-point conversions in the Grey Cup game.
He added to his likability factor when he scored his first career touchdown at BMO Field, then slipped and fell on his butt after running toward the back of the end zone.
Cross gets it. He’s a true professional on and off the field. He understands his role on the team and is aware that it’s important to reach out to fans, especially the younger ones. He seemed to be everywhere in the community following the Grey Cup win.
The Oakville native could be an important part of the Argonaut family for years to come.
11. The play
It should rank higher because it was one of the biggest plays of the year, but there were just so many to choose from this season.
The Argos hosted the Riders in the East Final. Things looked good for the Boatmen after three quarters as they had built an 18-3 lead. It would take a collapse in the fourth quarter to keep them out of the Grey Cup game.
It almost happened.
The Riders stormed back and took the lead on a 79-yard punt-return touchdown on a Cristion Jones. A two-point conversion gave the visitors a 21-18 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
Cue Ricky Ray.
The QB threw five consecutive completions to move the Argos to the Saskatchewan 40-yard line. In normal circumstances, the club would call on Lirim Hajrullahu to kick a game-tying field goal, but the Argos were heading into a strong wind and it was out of his range. The season would come down to a third-and-five.
As they came to the line of scrimmage Ray identified the coverage. James Wilder Jr. would run a wheel route and Ray hit him with an absolutely perfect throw. It was a 22-yard gain and a first down.
After an incomplete pass, Ray threw his seventh completion on the drive, hitting Armanti Edwards at the Rider one-yard line.
Cody Fajardo would cap the drive with a touchdown dive.
The Argos were going to the Grey Cup.
Fans will be talking about the third-and-five play for a long, long time.
10. Feeling Double Blue
Sometimes it ain’t easy being an Argos fan. While things are moving in the right direction, there’s still the realization that there’s still work to do to get the team where it should be in the Toronto sports landscape.
The East Final experience, the dramatic Grey Cup win, the great talent on the field will all help, and there was one moment this season where I got a view of what things could be like in the near future.
The Argos had just hammered the Alouettes 38-6 at BMO Field on the first Saturday afternoon of the CNE. After the post-game show wrapped up I was heading over to Liberty Village to meet some friends and tip a celebratory beverage.
As I walked through the CNE grounds at the north end of the stadium I noticed people wearing Argo gear. Not just one or two people in tee-shirts, but it seemed everyone who was at the game hovered around the Ex and was geared up. Tee-shirts, jerseys, golf shirts, hats. The place was painted in Oxford and Cambridge blue.
People were having a great time. There were smiles all around and I heard more than one “Arrrrgoooooos” on my walk. We had just seen Ray throw four TD passes, the home team won, and Argo fans looked around and saw other people who shared their CFL passion, which admittedly is sometimes hard to find in Toronto.
It was a glimpse of what could be, and I loved what I saw.
9. The kid’s in the Hall
It was back in the spring that I found out that one of my favourite people was receiving an honour that was justly deserved. I was asked by the folks at York University if I would like to emcee their Sports Hall-of-Fame Induction Ceremony.
I couldn’t say yes fast enough because one of the people being inducted on that evening was my broadcast partner, Jeff Johnson.
JJ spent 14 seasons in the CFL, the final dozen in Double Blue. He won the admiration of anyone who watched him play, and especially by those who got to know him off the field because they understood how hard he worked to play in the league for so long.
It was when Jeff was at YU that I got the first opportunity to see him play. He was a two-time All-Canadian running back at York and won the CIS Rookie-of-the-Year award. I called one of his games for CHCH’s OUA Game of the Week in 1999. After the game was over our broadcast crew had a quick chat and I headed to my car for the trip home. As I drove away I looked back at the field and in the south-east corner of the end zone I saw Johnson sitting by himself, still in full uniform, obviously frustrated by a close loss by the then Yeomen.
That image stuck with me. To watch him grind out 14 years of pro football, without being drafted no less, was a real privilege.
To have the honour of emceeing such a special night, watching him interact with friends and family, was another memory that will last a lifetime.
8. Another Hall-of-Fame evening
It’s always a special night when players are inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. This year was no different when the careers of former Argo Mike O’Shea, Anthony Calvillo, Kelvin Anderson, Geroy Simon, Stan Schwartz and Brian Towriss were celebrated.
The ceremony was held at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton and was attended by a who’s who of three-down football. Seeing ‘Osh’ receive his due was particularly sweet, but the entire evening was just fantastic.
Having dinner with my old broadcast partner Pete Martin and his pal Bill Symons – my favourite Argo when I was a kid – was sweet enough, but I finally got the chance to meet someone I was also a pretty big fan of.
The name Bob Bronk may not ring a bell with everyone. He was a star fullback at Queen’s when I was going to high school in Kingston. After finishing his career with the Golden Gaels, he joined the Argos in ’82 when they went to the Grey Cup against Edmonton, before winning it the next year against B.C.
Considering our rather large circle of common friends it’s somewhat remarkable that we had not met before, but it was nice to finally meet and spend some time with someone that I admired as a player at two different levels of the sport.
7. Double Blue Podcast
This year the Argos decided to try something different. I’m glad they did and it turned out to be even more fun than I had expected.
The Double Blue Podcast was a weekly conversation about all things Argos. The format was pretty simple. The first segment was a look back at the previous game, while the third focused on the upcoming contest. There was no time limit, so if Jeff and I got off the beaten path a little – or a lot – it didn’t matter. We were also not forced to hit a specific time, which would have been the case if we were on a traditional radio station. If we wanted to talk, we talked.
But the best part of the show, at least for me, was getting to know the stories of the players and other personnel who joined us for the podcast’s second segment. I truly loved doing the research on the guest, trying to find out something interesting about the person’s background that could be explored in detail during the conversation.
Each and every week was intriguing and I never walked away from one of those chats without a smile on my face and without having learned a great deal about the guest. I hope you enjoyed listening to them as much as I had hosting them. If you didn’t get a chance to listen, they’re all available online. It’s a great way to get to know the people who you may know as just a name and a number.
You can find the Double Blue Podcast right here.
6. The warrior
The return of Marcus Ball to the Argos was unexpected. He showed up just as training camp opened and added two things immediately, skill and leadership.
Unlike Ricky Ray, the linebacker was a vocal leader. His voice would be heard in the locker room and on the field, but in Week 15 he was injured during a game in Hamilton.
It wasn’t a sure thing that he’d play again in 2017.
As he got closer to potentially returning to the lineup I had an off-the-record conversation with one of his teammates who had experienced the same kind of ankle injury. He was astonished that Ball was able to get back in the lineup as quickly as he did, saying that in his experience it was months before he felt right.
But Ball returned to the lineup in time for the East Final. He may not have been playing at 100-percent, but his return was an important piece of the championship puzzle.
After the Grey Cup final, I was walking out of the stadium in Ottawa. I left the locker room and sauntered across the field one last time. I stopped just in front of the goalposts on the west side of the stadium and looked around. There were maybe three or four other people on the field, all at the other end. It was so empty and quiet it was hard to believe what had happened there just an hour or so before.
Then a strange thing happened. In this desolate stadium, I saw Marcus running along the goal line, still wearing most of his uniform. I assume he had been on the TSN panel as part of the post-game show. I wanted to congratulate him, as I hadn’t spoken to him after the game.
I figured the best way to get his attention was to shout a line he had used often throughout the course of the season.
“Whatta you say, whatta you say…today WAS the day!”
He stopped, looked around, and made a beeline for me. I’m glad I was able to express how happy I was for him. The game was one thing, we all watched it together. Seeing people I have a great deal of respect for rewarded for their hard work is something else altogether.
That was a pretty special moment, especially given the location. Despite his outstanding career, regardless of his two-interception performance in the 2012 East Final, no matter what might happen in his remaining time in Toronto, I can almost guarantee that ten years from now that discussion will be my first memory of Marcus Ball.
The guy is a warrior.
5. The catch, part one
When the Argos acquired SJ Green there were several questions to be answered. After all, the man was coming off major knee surgery and was now in his 30s. He was monitored closely during camp and didn’t participate in every practice.
It took Green mere minutes to show everyone that he was back. His first big reception came on the Argos first drive of the season opener against Hamilton. It was just a simple seam pattern in double coverage. He made the catch, took a hit, and in his own mind, he knew the knee was okay.
Later that quarter, less than five minutes into his Argo career, Green gave us an indication of the season ahead. He made a sensational one-handed catch in front of the Hamilton bench that would be seen over and over and over again during the season.
Little did we know that he’d come off major knee surgery to have the best season of his career. JJ and I send our thanks to SJ for giving us so much to talk about.
4. The catch, part two
Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton has not been kind to the Argos. Just 26 days after the Labour Day loss, the Boatmen had a chance for redemption.
It turned into a shootout, with the Ticats taking a 35-21 lead early in the fourth quarter. It looked like another loss at the Tim’s, but someone forgot to tell the Argos.
A pair of field goals cut the deficit to eight points and set up an opportunity for DeVier Posey to take over.
With less than a minute left on the clock, Ray hit Posey for 31 yards on a third-and-18 to extend the drive. One play later from the Hamilton 25, Ray looked for Posey again, this time in the end zone.
The Ohio State product had two Ticats in his back pocket. Ray put some air under the football and led Posey, but from our vantage point in the booth it was going to be an overthrow. There was no way the receiver was going to get there.
He got there.
Posey made a diving catch to cut the deficit to two points. James Wilder Jr. ran for the deuce to tie things up, before Ray hit Posey again in overtime, this time for a 13-yard game winner.
The Argos finally picked up a victory in Hamilton, set up by a spectacular catch by a man who would later be named the MVP of the Grey Cup.
3. The biggest play I never saw
After Lirim Hajrullahu kicked a 35-yard field goal to give the Argos the lead in the Grey Cup final, a quick look at the clock showed there was 1:25 left to go, plenty of time for Bo Levi Mitchell and company to work their way down the field to tie things up and head to overtime. I watched the drive from just to the left of the Argo bench, literally standing on the sideline.
The Stamps quickly moved into field-goal range and then surprisingly looked to end it on one big play. From my vantage point, I saw Mitchell unload the football, but I couldn’t see the receiver or defensive back to my right, the angle was blocked by players.
I had to watch the safety.
As I looked to the end zone I saw Matt Black sprinting toward the ball. I quickly looked up at the ball, then back at Black, then back to the ball, then back to Black. In my head, I was trying to figure out if he was going to get there. Just as he was about to make a play, my view was blocked by sea of players on the Argo bench, but I was certain Matt was going to be able to get there in time.
Before I could turn and watch the play on the scoreboard I knew what had happened. The shouting from the bench told me everything I needed to know, even before I saw that Black had made one of the biggest plays in Argo history.
While I obviously wish I had seen the play live, I will never forget the vantage point I had for it. In reality, it probably makes for a better story.
2. Emotional extremes
It’s a month after the Grey Cup and I still can’t believe it happened.
As the Grey Cup was starting to wind down things weren’t looking great for the Argos. They were down 24-16 with five minutes left in regulation time. The mood on the sideline was bleak. Even a rouge would have given Calgary a two-possession lead. A touchdown would have been lethal.
Kamar Jorden caught a pass from Mitchell and it looked like he may score. You know what happened next. Jermaine Gabriel caught him and as he was pulling him down Cleyon Laing forced the ball out. Cassius Vaughn recovered it and 109 yards later was in the end zone. Ricky Ray hit Declan Cross for the two-point conversion and it was tied.
It will be impossible to forget what it was like on the sidelines at that moment. Heads weren’t hanging, but it was eerily quiet. You could tell players were sensing the inevitable. Calgary was going to at least kick a field goal, making a comeback even tougher, especially in the cold, snowy conditions.
Then all hell broke loose.
To experience that play while essentially being on the Argos bench was incredible. The swing in emotion is very difficult to put into words, it was that intense.
I’m glad I saw that play.
1. Well, look who’s here
After leaving the field following the post-game interviews, I headed to the Argos room. I’ve always been of the belief that the locker room is the domain of the players. Since I don’t need to do interviews there, I rarely invade their space. On Grey Cup Sunday I made an exception.
In 2012 I walked into the room after the game, but was greeted with a tsunami of beer and champagne. Not having a change of clothes, I backed off and celebrated in drier surroundings.
This year, not everyone had made it into the room when I walked in. I congratulated some of the players that I hadn’t seen on the field, but then I basically tried to become a fly on the wall. As Marcus Ball gathered players around to make a speech, a voice interrupted him shouting “Excuse me, pardon me.”
It was Dylan Wynn, and he brought company. As the defensive tackle entered the room with the Grey Cup, a group of mostly 20-somethings turned into little kids on Christmas morning. SJ Green grabbed the trophy and held it high above his head. His teammates were jumping up and down spraying each other with champagne and beer. The absolute vision of joy etched on the faces of the players was unforgettable.
To have the privilege of being in the locker room to see that happen was the icing on an already sweet cake.
My sincere thanks to everyone involved in the Argonauts family for being allowed to be aboard for an incredible ride. It truly was an unforgettable journey.