Argos’ legend Cahill has eye on 100th Grey Cup

November 21, 2012, 3:27 AM

Leo Cahill, head coach of the Toronto Argonauts the first time the franchise played the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup in 1971, will be noticeable by his absence when the two teams clash in the championship game on Sunday.

But it has more to do with his health then rehashing the worst defeat of his coaching career.

The 84-year-old Canadian Football League legend, who became a broadcaster after his coaching career, will be in London this week, undergoing follow-up tests from an operation a year and a half ago that nearly claimed his life. In fact, he feels lucky just to be alive.

Contacted by sportsnet.ca, Cahill said his health is better than he thought it would be, but not as good as he’d like.

"Thank God I’m progressing pretty well," he said, his voice not nearly as powerful as it was during his heyday when he worked the Toronto media like a maestro with his penchant for attracting attention to his team. He was as much a promoter as a coach.

He once said it would take an act of God for his team to lose a two-game playoff series in 1969 after winning the first game by eight points, only to lose the second game by a whopping 29.

Cahill, who has lived in Sarnia the last 12 years, had been scheduled to undergo a heart bypass in the operation, but his aorta burst during the procedure. What was supposed to be a three-hour operation stretched into eight and Cahill was lucky to survive. He had been told afterward only one in 10 patients survived that type of operation.

"According to everybody, I’m extremely lucky to be alive," he said. "I think I’m out of the woods as far as this is concerned, but they’ve got to check me out."

"He’s been doing pretty well," Cahill’s son, Terry, said. "He does all the things he needs to do."

Cahill has been employed since 2004 as a goodwill ambassador for the Argos, although the contract expires at the end of this year. The salary is relatively minor, but helped him to earn an income while at the same time keeping him connected to the team he once presided over like a king. An Illinois native, Cahill has worked in Canada since 1960 but plans to return to the U.S. after this year to live with one of his daughters.

Cahill coached the Argos three separate times, but the glory he enjoyed as Coach of the Year in 1971 turned to unpopularity when the team struggled and the fans serenaded him with a chorus of "Goodbye Leo." It became the title of his autobiography.

Cahill cannot forget the memory of the 14-11 loss to the Stamps, which included running back Leon McQuay fumbling inside Calgary’s 10-yard line in the late stages of the game when he slipped on the rain-soaked field at Empire Stadium in Vancouver.

"We had the best week’s practice that we ever had prior to the Grey Cup and then it rained unbelievably and we just played terrible in the game and got beat," he recalled.

Cahill remarked after the game "When Leon slipped, I fell."

The Argos still had a chance inside the final two minutes to gain possession, but punt returner Harry Abofs accidentally booted the ball out of bounds, committing a penalty that gave the Stamps possession again.

"That (loss) is always with him. He thinks about it quite a bit," Terry said. "He’s always saying ‘I should have won that game.’"

Cahill still takes pride in how he helped market the team.

"During the years I was with the Argonauts, they sold more season tickets than they’ve ever sold before and after," he said. "We meant something to that football team. I’m going to be watching the game on Sunday for sure, whether I’m at home or in Toronto, because I’m interested in the Argonauts. I said a couple weeks ago I thought they had a chance to go all the way because the quarterback that was hurt (Ricky Ray) has done a remarkable job for them. They’ve kind of meshed."

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