Veteran defensive end Ricky Foley is standing in front of his locker in the Toronto Argonauts brand new locker room, shirtless and displaying an upper body full of tattoos, including one on his right arm that says “Country Boy.”
The 34-year-old is from Courtice, Ont., a tiny community about 60 km east of here and home to some 35,000, which is only about 10,000 more than the number of fans who turned up on Thursday at BMO Field for the Argos season opener, and the first game of the CFL season.
But the game didn’t go at all as planned—not even close. Foley did not expect what was supposed to be a storybook season, a fresh start for this team in their new home at BMO Field, where they’ll host the 104th Grey Cup this November, to begin this way.
The Argos suffered a 42–20 loss to their rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats, an effort that saw them turn over the ball three times, and get a slew of penalties, and look like they were out of it after the first half, then stage a semi-comeback, then fall back again and never recover.
“They’re a good team—I get it,” Foley said. “But we really beat ourselves.”
Only when conversation shifts to the atmosphere does a smile cross the face of the fifth-year Argo and three-time Grey Cup champion.
“It was awesome,” Foley said. “That’s killing me, though. We have an awesome fan base, we had everything we wanted for the last how many years, being here in this organization and we came out and crapped the bed. So that’s not good. But it was amazing.”
And then Foley, who’s now played 62 games as an Argo, said “awesome” three more times.
In a less-than-stellar debut to 2016 for the double blue, the atmosphere was the silver lining. Argos coach Scott Milanovich put it best: “It was awesome and disappointing all at once.”
But was it ever awesome.
If Thursday’s first-ever CFL game at BMO Field was any indication, football is going to be an event in this city again. It’s back.
Before kick-off, you might have mistaken the atmosphere for one you’d find outside Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, or at Michigan Stadium. Not along the lakeshore in downtown Toronto.
For the first time in a long time before an Argos game, you could tell something big was about to happen. And for a city set to host the Grey Cup, this turnaround comes just in time, thanks to new management under owners Larry Tanenbaum and Bell Canada, who took over on the first day of the year.
This was an historic day for Toronto: The first tailgate before a regular-season pro sports game in the city, ever. Well, sort of. “We’ve been doing this illegally for years,” said Matt Pettit, a season’s ticket holder.
“Look around,” Pettit said more than an hour before kick-off, beer in hand, burgers cooking on a little barbecue nearby. “I don’t feel like we’re in Canada right now. It feels like we’re at an American sporting event, and that’s a good thing.”
This was an experienced tailgating crowd. There was a food truck on site in case you didn’t come prepared, but most people did. They cooked up burgers, dogs, roasted peppers. They brought red cups, ping-pong balls and long tables for beer pong. There was a lot of country music. They played cornhole and ladder golf and tossed pigskins and sat in pickup trucks and drank beer.
Argos flags, helmets and jerseys were everywhere, and there were contingents of Ticats fans yelling “Argos suck!” and plenty of Argos fans yelling “Ticats suck!”
It costs $35 to park in the tailgate lot, of which there are two: One close to BMO Field, the other on the Ontario Place grounds. You can also leave your car overnight there—until 9:00 a.m. in one lot, and until noon in the other. Yes, the Argos want fans to party.
The only difference from your average American tailgate is this, and it’s a big one: You have to buy your beer at the event, as per Ontario liquor laws. You can’t bring your own. And security will check your trunk and back seat as you drive in. (Though one fan pointed out if you hid beer under a towel in the backseat of your car, you might be in the clear.)
The good news is the beer goes for $4 for a can, compared to the $12 it costs inside the stadium. The other good news is you can get your tailgating beer from a guy who’s cycling around with a cooler like he’s selling ice cream. He even lets fans sit on the beer bike for photo ops.
There was a lineup outside both tailgate parking lots about an hour before the game, because both were at capacity. In one line there was a guy who went to the trouble of painting his beard and beer belly double blue, and who carried a sword and shield. And the party started early: tailgates begin three hours before the game. Foley was driving by at 4:45 p.m.—two hours and 15 minutes ‘til kickoff—and saw fans partying.
Pre-game party-wise, there’s also the Shipyard, a new concert space where you can find a marching band and the team’s long-time pep band, the 50-member Argonotes. The Shipyard has a festival atmosphere, and it was elbow-to-elbow packed on Thursday.
Rory Loughnane, 37, has had Argos season tickets in his family for 25 years. The electrician went to a game on his wedding day, and he swears team legend Michael Pinball Clemons was among his wedding guests, plus the mascot, Jason.
“This is atmosphere,” he said, burger in hand, an hour or so before the game.
Loughnane had one word to describe the feeling before games last season: “Terrible.”
“This has all the potential to be what football needs, what fans want. It’s outdoors. There’s tailgating,” he says. “It’s finally football the way it should be.”
The first CFL game of 2016 featured a marching band before the game, and there was a ceremony with former Argos legends Rocket Ismael, Damon Allen, Joe Theismann and Pinball. Nobody was more excited than Clemons, the former star running back turned vice chair, who bounce-ran onto the field, pinballing his way through people as he doled out chest bumps and high fives and hugs with a massive grin on his face.
And instead of a largely empty Rogers Centre—which last year looked cavernous even when a good crowd came out—the 25,000-capacity BMO Field had a packed crowd of 24,812 in attendance for Week 1.
The crowd was electric to start the game, but Hamilton quieted down the Argos’ fans pretty fast, charging out of the gate with a touchdown on their second possession. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli hit receiver Andy Fantuz with a 39-yard pass, which Fantuz caught after it deflected off the hands of Argos defensive back Isaiah Green.
The good times continued for Hamilton, and by the end of the first half, they led 25–6.
Argos veteran quarterback Ricky Ray, who went 27-for-38 with two touchdown passes and a pick and was sacked six times, was critical of his own performance.
“I gotta play a lot better in the first half, especially. I had some guys open that I missed,” said Ray, who wore a blue checkered button-up post-game, and no smile. “You can’t have penalties, you can’t have turnovers. Those are the two biggest areas that you just can’t do in games. We gotta get that fixed.”
The momentum did shift briefly in the second half. With little more than five minutes to go in the third quarter, the Argos scored the first touchdown in their new home. Ray dropped back and hit receiver Vidal Hazelton—one of the big three who accounted for much of Toronto’s offence last season—with a one-yard pass deep in the end zone.
That cut Hamilton’s lead to 25–12. And seconds later, the Argos forced a fumble off a kickoff and picked up the ball on Hamilton’s 10-yard line. Again, Ray threaded a perfect pass to Hazelton, this time on the two-yard line, and last season’s runner-up for rookie of the year burst through to the end zone for the second time in 53 seconds. And suddenly it was 25–20 Hamilton, and we had a game on our hands.
The Argos stood on the field for their next kickoff and pumped their hands to get the crowd going.
“You could really feel the momentum going our way when we got that turnover and touchdown. The crowd was into the game and it definitely pumped us up,” Ray said.
The crowd responded, but so did Hamilton’s offence. The Ticats answered back immediately on their next drive, and the one after that to open up a 19-point lead. The crowd thinned out after that, aside from large contingents of Ticats fans who belted out the Oskee-Wee-Wee chant that ends with: “Eat ’em raw!”
Despite the blowout finish, this one had a bit of everything: Between the third and fourth quarter, the cheerleaders took the field—and seven guys in full Argos uniforms, helmets included, joined them in a choreographed dance. Two streakers took the field, and the second, who ran on while the security guards were all preoccupied with the first, was chased off the field by a couple Argos and then knocked to the grass by defensive back Matt Black. It was one of the best hits of the game.
It had all the ingredients for a big party and celebration. The tailgate. The concert. The fans. The old-time rivalry.
The Argos delivered pre-game, but not on the field.
Hazelton, owner of the best sneakers on the team—mustard colour, and covered in silver studs—says this team will look very different in Week 2 when they head to Saskatchewan, and they’ll deliver the next time they play at home.
“You could hear how electric the place got, and that’s something that we’ve been missing,” the 27-year-old said of the fan reaction to his first touchdown. “I’m sorry we didn’t get the win for the fans, but I promise you we’ll be better.”
Foley’s still a little surprised the opener went the way it did.
“Maybe we thought we were too good, I don’t know,” he said. “I do not expect this kind of effort or this kind of result at all to happen next week, let alone for the rest of the year.”
That party he saw before today’s game, Foley says, will continue post-game the next time Toronto plays at home, July 13 against Ottawa.
“We gotta put the product on the field for them to come celebrate more,” he said, “and get these Ws going.”