TORONTO — Chad Owens became the first non-quarterback on the Toronto Argonauts to be named the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Player since Argos icon Michael (Pinball) Clemons did it in 1990.
He also has the chance to win his first career CFL championship on Sunday as his Argos take on the Calgary Stampeders in the 100th Grey Cup.
However, the 30-year-old Hawaiian could be on his way to much more than just earning trophies if his career continues the way it has been going.
Owens finds himself in a position to follow in Pinball’s footsteps and become one of the biggest sports stars in the city of Toronto.
There are many similarities between Clemons and Owens, they even both share marketable nicknames — Clemons who’s obviously known simply as Pinball while Owens is oft-referred to as the Flyin’ Hawaiian.
On the field both share many of the same characteristics: both kick returners who adapted their games to be effective on offence; both small, extremely quick with great agility and balance.
“On the field, people like that don’t come around very often,” longtime Argos running back Jeff Johnson told Sportsnet.ca Thursday following the team’s practice at the Rogers Centre. “They have the skills and they also have the heart.”
In the final regular season game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Owens broke Pinball’s 1997 professional football record for total all-purpose yards in a single season. Owens finished 2012 with 3,863 all-purpose yards, 20 yards more than Pinball’s previous record — Owens also led the league in receiving yards.
When the record became official, before a brief ceremony, Pinball went onto the field and picked up Owens, carried him around and kept cheering “Yyeess! Yyeess!”
The Argos often get overshadowed in the city since the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Raptors hail from bigger, more widely talked-about leagues. Despite this, Pinball is arguably the most popular athlete in the city’s history.
Although Owens may never reach Pinball-level stature, many believe he is well on his way to becoming one of the faces of Toronto sports.
“I think he’s on his way to doing that,” said Argos veteran punter Noel Prefontaine, who has played with both men. “I also think Pinball, having been around him for so many years, is at a different level … but I think Chad will make his own mark.
“I think he’s developed enough popularity in this city that people love him, appreciate him and love the way he plays football and that’s what Pinball did. Before Pinball ever talked to anybody, people fell in love with how he played the game and Chad has done that part for sure.”
Pinball brought to his teams more than just touchdowns and first downs and Owens has shown he does the same.
“Chad’s intensity, his focus, his drive. He’s got the whole package and our players are galvanized by his temperament, the way he is in the locker room,” Argos head coach Scott Milanovich explained.
“He’s the type of guy you want to pull for and someone that’s going to get awards and accolades you’d like it to be a guy like Chad.”
Johnson sees parallels between Owens and Pinball in the way they interact with fans as well.
“Giving people a chance to talk and taking the time to listen to people, and that’s the biggest thing off the field is just being a good person,” Johnson said. “Everybody deserves some time and an autograph, handshake, whatever it is, a smile, those are the parallels.”
On Sunday Owens will be an integral part of whether the Argos can become only the fifth team in the last 60 years to hoist the Grey Cup in their home stadium.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to play with some Hall of Famers and some pretty good receiving corps and Chad is a guy that is a little bit different than I’m used to playing with,” Argos quarterback Ricky Ray said.
“He’s one of the more well-rounded guys for being such a little guy. I feel pretty comfortable throwing a lot of different things to him. The thing I’ve been impressed with the most is how smart he is out there. He’s always in the right spots. For me, it gives me so much confidence that I know he’s going to be in the spots he’s supposed to be.”
It has yet to be determined just how big an impact Owens will have on sports culture in Toronto, but if he can help the Argonauts win the 100th Grey Cup in the Rogers Centre he will be well on his way to becoming a sports hero in the city.