Argos earn more than Grey Cup berth with East Final victory

Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray hoists the trophy with teammates after beating the Saskatchewan Roughriders. (Frank Gunn/CP)

There is a saying in sports that “this is just another game.”

That was the company line from the Toronto Argonauts all week. That’s what defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin said about facing his former team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That is what Ricky Ray said about what could have been his final game in double blue.

But as true as the sports cliché of all clichés is about what happens on the field, it couldn’t be farther from the truth around the field. The mechanics of the East Final was the same as every other game this year. It was still played on a 110-yard field where you had three downs to make 10 while playing 12 aside.

This isn’t about the game. You can find that recap here.

That’s because the entire atmosphere around the game was remarkably different than any other football game played at BMO Field over the last 24 months.

Yes, the 2016 Grey Cup was both a great game and a great atmosphere, but in some ways it was artificial. It wasn’t hard to get tickets for free or on the secondary market. The stadium was full because, from an optics standpoint, it had to be.

On the contrary, this time the risk of not “papering the house” with freebies was taken and rewarded.

This was different than the first ever Argos game at BMO Field. It was more about communion than curiosity.

For starters, at kickoff it was four degrees but it felt like minus one. The chilly temperature didn’t turn away fans wearing blue or green. The 24,929 announced made it the largest Argos crowd at BMO Field.

In fact, fans were in attendance bright and early. As I went on a morning run across the Lakeshore paths that hug up against Lake Ontario I witnessed thousands of tailgaters already in the shadows of BMO Field pregaming well before the game.

Although the Toronto Raptors also had a home contest the vibe across the downtown core was decidedly blue.

Normally on weekends I see more of my fellow downtown condo dwellers dressed up to go to Buffalo Bills games than making the short trek down the street to go see the Argos. This is the first time I’ve seen a walk-up crowd as there were considerable lines to get into BMO an hour before kickoff.

The boisterous party within the stands started early as well. When Argonauts linebacker Terrance Plummer picked off a pass intended for Bakari Grant and took it to the house for a 39-yard interception return touchdown, it was bedlam in the stands.

The noise was just as loud when Devier Posey secured a 17-yard touchdown by wrestling the ball away from Kacy Rodgers II with 1:13 left in the first half. And when Ricky Ray led the Argos on a game-winning 68-yard, 10-play touchdown drive in just 2:14. A second half snow storm didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.

The game itself had a thrilling finish but it wasn’t a master class of football. The six turnovers in the first half, including four interceptions, a fumble and an Argos turnover on downs on the first series of the game, wasn’t a great showcase for the CFL product at the highest level. But, although the game itself was forgettable, the scenes and atmosphere in the stands were memorable.

Having anything to cheer about in regard to the double blue was hard to fathom at this time last year.

The on-field home reno was done on the fly. Jim Popp and Marc Trestman built their team and staff two and a half months before the season started. The late additions of S.J. Green, Armanti Edwards, Victor Butler, Bear Woods, James Wilder Jr., and the in-season signing of Mitchell White, all paid big dividends on Sunday.

The normally stoic Green was a rollercoaster of emotions after the final whistle, hugging everyone in sight as he celebrated with his family after what has been a long road to recovery after a devastating knee injury a year ago.

Like Green, the franchise as a whole has gotten off the canvas and bounced back in 2017. Remember, this is an Argonauts organization that was a CFL-worst 5-13 a year ago and didn’t even have the first overall pick to show for it after trading it away for quarterback Drew Willy, who they cut in training camp.

Building the business side of the product will take more time. It’s easier to build culture amongst a team than it is a fan base.

No single Argos player has done more to preach the gospel of the goodship Argonaut than Shawn Lemon. Lemon has been a fixture in the community and with the media promoting the product. The part-time salesman’s day job is to get sacks and on Sunday the former Roughrider had five tackles and three sacks.

Lemon is one of the few Argos who has been to a Grey Cup previously, with two sacks in two career Grey Cup games. But this is the first time the future bottomline of his franchise will be greatly impacted by the final box score.

It must be noted that a big contingent of those in the stands creating the atmosphere were Riders fans.

Saskatchewan came in to this game the team of destiny winning five straight on the road. They couldn’t make it six and thus still no team has crossed over and made it all the way to the Grey Cup. The most famous among the melon head Rider fans was Mike Babcock as he and his daughter cheered for his hometown team rather than the one he currently shares a postal code with.

Walter Gretzky and Morgan Reilly were other hockey faces in attendance.

Michael “Pinball” Clemons could be found in the stands with a section of adorning hardcore fans rather than in a suite.

Even the Ottawa Redblacks super fans, the Lumber Joes, made the trip to see the East Final despite the fact their team wasn’t in the game.

The game felt like an event. An event millennials might want to see and be seen at.

An event that demonstrated the CFL playoffs should still be an integral part of the sporting calendar in Canada’s biggest city.

An event that had an equal balance of grey haired fans reminiscing about Doug Flutie as fresh faced kids who could aspire to be the next Brandon Bridge.

Even in a loss, Saskatchewan’s backup quarterback, Bridge, was the other feel good story. After three Kevin Glenn interceptions in the first half, Bridge led Saskatchewan on a late comeback path when the game felt all but over, and in the process became the first Canadian to throw a touchdown pass in the playoffs since Russ Jackson in the 1969 Grey Cup.

The Mississauga, Ont. native grew up watching Argos games and his play in front of family and friends will heat up the conversation at Grey Cup week around counting Canadian quarterbacks as national or “non-imports.”

But all the kids in the stands cared about was cheering on the hometown team, not the hometown star in the making.

With 1:39 left a “let’s go Argos” chant started throughout the stadium during a long stoppage in play. It wasn’t led by a graphic on the video board or by a call of action by the P.A. announcer. It was organic.

With the win in hand and the East trophy in the hands of offensive lineman William Campbell, the Argos players skipped off the field waving their arms in the air, signalling the crowd, which mostly hung around in the stands, to get up on their feet.

Afterwards, the Argos fans weren’t just jubilant. They were demonstrative, almost defiant about being doubted more than their team was.

As the skies started to darken, the sound that cut through the crisp air was the echo of “Argoooos” chants, and fog horns blowing, as fans spilled into the streets. And the sounds of the 416 Beats marching band that the die-hard fans got to dance into the night to.

It was a win because it was a sign this market isn’t invincible. The CFL in Toronto isn’t an impossible hill to climb.

Maybe the combo of Popp and Trestman and the venue, plus the weak East division, could be a life line. Maybe a 2017 Grey Cup win could provide a mulligan after a 2016 Grey Cup opportunity at home was wasted and ridiculed away.

It was just a cold day in late November. This win, or even one next week, isn’t a magic elixir. You can’t erase generations of a lack of investment and interest. But this cold and colourful day of Canadian football at BMO Field was a sign there could be brighter days ahead.