||October 2012 issue
Three downs — and far from out
A lifetime ago, the very first article I wrote as a
young sportswriter in Toronto was about the Argonauts.
Like many who grew up in the city that Canadians love
to hate, I spent my childhood and teenage years cheering for the
Maple Leafs (yes, I accept your condolences) and the Blue Jays.
With stars such as Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Roberto
Alomar and Joe Carter and the promise of playoff success (even,
astonishingly, for the Leafs), these two teams drew me into the
sports section of the daily newspaper and, ultimately, pulled me
toward journalism. The Argos were a secondary interest.
Then, in 1991, the football club’s owner, Bruce McNall, who
also owned the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings,
started doing things a little differently. McNall made some noise
by recruiting a pair of larger-than-life figures, John Candy and
Wayne Gretzky, to be co-owners. And then he made more noise
by pursuing and signing a receiver and kick returner named
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail from Indiana’s football-obsessed
University of Notre Dame. Ismail, one of the best college football
players south of the border, was projected to be the top pick in the
National Football League draft, but McNall had other plans.
Ismail was flown to Hollywood on a private jet stocked with lobster,
watched a Kings playoff game in a luxury box and was offered
a $4 million per season four-year contract to play in Canada.
The article I wrote, at the start of the 1991 season, was about
the changes heralded by Ismail’s arrival in the Canadian Football
League. The league had endured financial challenges in several
cities and had lost its Montréal franchise, but it seemed that an
era of glitz was dawning. The CFL was set to share the stage with
the NHL and professional baseball, I suggested, and with players
such as Ismail on the field, the games would be just as exciting
as any other sport. Granted, McNall wanted a big name on his
roster to help sell tickets, but he also wanted to win. Ismail delivered,
helping to lead the Argos to victory in the 1991 Grey Cup.
The shine did not last, of course. McNall had money troubles
of his own, and in 1993 Ismail decamped for the NFL. But
thanks to two decades of hindsight, I can now say that all of this
is beside the point. As Tom Maloney writes in this issue’s cover
story about the 100th Grey Cup this fall, it’s precisely because
of moments like the unexpected and bizarrely wonderful arrival
of Ismail that the CFL is able to distinguish itself as a singularly
“Although the administration of CFL commissioner Mark
Cohon and a strong group of owners are managing the league
with slick professionalism,” writes Maloney, “the Bull Durham
moments dotting CFL history have always been front and centre.
Only in the CFL would you hear of a team drafting a
deceased player, of a general manager boasting about his closet
full of shoes and challenging a reporter to a boxing match in the
same radio session, of one franchise’s nickname being
‘Roughriders’ while another’s was ‘Rough Riders.’”
Last year, at a 20th reunion event for the 1991 Argos, Ismail
said, “I’ve been to several reunions, and I can say, without a
doubt, this is the one reunion where my heart actually feels
good.” He spoke of landing in the locker room as a shy 21-yearold
and of all that he learned from his teammates. “It was like
a refuge,” he said about his rookie season as a pro. “Listening to
the different perspectives of the different players … I felt
enriched. I felt like I’m going back home and I’m going to be
a better father, a better husband … a better friend.”
Perhaps that’s a little too warm and fuzzy, but I’ll take the
homespun charm of Canadian football over the size and sizzle
of the NFL any day.
— Dan Rubinstein