While the Toronto Argonauts didn’t make it to the Grey Cup game this year, their remarkable 16-2 regular season was recognized at the CFL Player Awards on Thursday.
The Argos dominated the voting, taking home four of five individual honours, while Ryan Dinwiddie was also recognized at the league’s Coach of the Year.
As great a night as it was, there was still an empty feeling among the winners after being upset by Montreal in the Eastern Final last Saturday at BMO Field.
The Argos won the most prestigious award of the evening as Chad Kelly was named the league’s top player, winning the George Reed Most Outstanding Player Award, renamed in honour of the Hall-of-Fame running back who passed away last month.
Kelly becomes just the seventh Argonaut to win the award, joining Bill Symons (1968), Condredge Holloway (’82), Michael Clemons (’90), Doug Flutie (’96, ’97), Damon Allen (’05) and Chad Owens (‘12).
His route to Toronto is well documented. When Kelly was taking questions at a post-award media availability, Argonauts.ca asked the QB if the award validated his journey. His response was straight from the heart.
“I wanted to say this up on the podium out there with everybody. Three years ago, I was literally coaching at a junior college (East Mississippi Community College) and I was showering in a trailer and at that point I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt like I was good enough to play in the NFL. I didn’t really feel like I had much confidence left in me to be able to play football.
“I was around guys that were vying to just get a college scholarship and be able to keep on playing past junior college ball. And at that moment when I was sitting there and, like I said, showering in the trailer, something just hit me and it was like, man, you have so much more to do in your life, that if you just grab a hold of it and really work extremely hard and give everything you can right now in this moment for the next six months, you never know where life can take you. I’m sitting up here today as the most outstanding player, which is beyond a blessing to be able to even achieve something so amazing. That’s kind of where I kind of look back and say that was a moment where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with my life and now I’m sitting up here.”
Astonishingly, Dejon Allen became just the second Argo to win the Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Award since it was first handed out in 1974. Centre Mike Kieselak did it twice, in the Grey Cup seasons of 1996 and ’97.
Allen was steady as the right tackle on the league’s best offensive line. As a group the Argos allowed just 19 sacks while helping A.J. Ouellette rush for over 1,000 yards.
It was in training camp that Allen and your humble typist had a lengthy conversation about the possibility of him winning the award. He wanted to know who did the voting and how it was conducted. It was obvious that this honour means a lot to him.
“It’s important because it shows the hard work I put in,” he said during the media conference. “It was a long time coming. I’m just blessed to have that opportunity. I showed up this year and I did a good job and got it.”
Allen was dominant. According to Pro Football Focus he allowed just 11 quarterback pressures and a pair of sacks all year.
When asked who the best pass rusher was that he faced this year, Allen gave perhaps the most honest answer of the night.
“Hmm, that’s a difficult question,” he replied before pausing to think. He then smiled broadly and said, “I want to say, it was fairly easy this year, I’m not gonna lie to you guys.”
It evoked some good-natured laughter from those in the media corps, who took the quote in the spirit it was intended. Allen did eventually tip his cap to Saskatchewan’s Anthony Lanier.
Javon Leake was named the league’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player. If he wasn’t returning punts for touchdowns, he was consistently giving the Argos outstanding field position. Leake had 13 returns of 30 or more yards, while the player with the second most returns of that distance or more had just five.
This was the Maryland product’s first full season as a punt returner, as in college he only returned kickoffs. Last year he was injured and battled a hamstring issue for most of the season. He was asked by Argonauts.ca at which point in the year he felt comfortable and confident returning punts.
“BC,” he said of the third game of the season when he returned a punt for a 91-yard touchdown. “I felt like once I got my first touchdown, I tried to do that all last year in my rookie year. I felt like once I got that and just got a taste of it, that’s really when we just kept going up from there.”
He was asked about what special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan means to him.
“Man, that’s my guy,” replied Leake. “Such a great dude, great coach, smart coach. The way he draws it up for me and us works out perfectly. I want to give a special thanks to Coach Mickey, I wouldn’t be standing up here without him. Definitely, he played a big part in this.”
The special teams award was first handed out in 1999. Bashir Levingston won it in 2003, Dominique Dorsey in 2008, Chad Owens in 2010, and Swayze Waters in 2014.
Defensive back Qwan’tez Stiggers is the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie. He led the team with five interceptions. The Atlanta native won in a landslide, receiving 58 of 61 votes cast by members of the Football Reporters of Canada.
It’s an amazing story. A 21-year-old who did not play college football, Stiggers not only excelled, but did so while starting at both cornerback spots and at halfback. He left football after high school when his father was killed in a car accident. He didn’t play college ball, and only returned to the sport in 2022 when his mom signed him up to try out for the Fan Controlled Football League where he not only made a team but led the league in interceptions as a 20-year-old. That led to a contract offer from the Argos.
“So, the crazy part, I was done with football,” he told members of the media. “After my dad died, I was done because it didn’t feel the same. And then I guess it (a FCFL tryout ad) popped up on her Facebook. I don’t know how my mom got Facebook, but it popped up, she signed me up and sent a link to my email. I asked her ‘Mom, what is this?’ She said I signed you up, go out there and have a blast, so I went out there and did just that.”
Stiggers is the fifth Argo to be named the CFL’s top rookie, James Wilder Jr. won it in 2017, Derrell Mitchell in ‘97, Gill Fenerty a decade earlier, and Sam Cvijanovich was the first Argo recipient in 1974.
The third time was the charm for Ryan Dinwiddie.
Finishing as the runner-up for the award in each of his first two seasons as Argo head coach, the Elk Grove, California native finally got the nod over Winnipeg’s Mike O’Shea, who received the award in each of the last two years.
This year’s vote was 58-3.
Since becoming head coach, Dinwiddie has accumulated a record of 36-14. That equates to a .720 winning percentage, the team’s fourth best all-time and the highest of any Argo head coach since 1921.
Other Argos to win the award are Marc Trestman in 2017, Scott Milanovich in 2012, Jim Barker in 2010, Don Matthews in 1997, Adam Rita in 1991, Bob O’Billovich in 1982 and ‘87, and Leo Cahill in 1971.
Despite joining such a prestigious group, Dinwiddie was blunt when asked what the award meant to him.
“Well, not much to be honest with you,” he began. “You only do it for rings, that’s it. You don’t do it for playoff money, you don’t do it for anything else, you just want the championship ring; something that can represent your club and your players and your coaching staff and the organization.”
He eventually admitted it was nice to win the award, but that honest reply represents the feelings of the Argos after such a humbling defeat in the Eastern Final.
It also shows that Dinwiddie, his staff, the players, and the entire organization are prepared to put the work in to put the team in the best position to get back to the Grey Cup game in 2024.