Chad Owens: Running with the best

Nathan Denette/CP

The Argonauts star arrived in Toronto not even knowing who Pinball Clemons was. Turns out the two are more alike than either would have thought.

It was an hour before the 100th Grey Cup and Michael “Pinball” Clemons, Canadian Football Hall of Famer, unofficially the world’s most popular Torontonian, and maybe the greatest Toronto Argonaut of all time, was all by himself under the stands at Rogers Centre, crying his eyes out. A few moments before, he’d been on the sidelines glad-handing, jovially taking pictures with fans, shooting the breeze with whoever was around, you know, doing what Pinball does. That’s when Chad Owens, the all-purpose yardage machine, the CFL MOP, and definitely the most exciting Toronto Argonaut since Clemons retired, ran onto the field to warm up, wearing a vintage Clemons No. 31 double-blue jersey. The minute Clemons saw that, he knew he had to find somewhere private—because the fountain was about to erupt. “It’s one thing to cry like a baby,” Clemons says. “It’s another thing to cry like a baby on the field.”

Owens’s display of respect and approbation for the man he’s been progressively pushing out of the record books was just the latest extension of goodwill between two great football players from two very different eras. Clemons is yesterday’s star, the four-time Grey Cup champion whose 25,438 combined yards are the most of anyone who’s ever played in the CFL. Owens is today’s main event, already holding a pro football record with three consecutive seasons of 3,000 all-purpose yards. But what these two men weren’t aware of when they met and became fast friends three years ago is just how incredibly similar they are. And what a strong relationship—rooted in a mutual respect and near-idolatry for the impact each other has had on the field and off—they were about to build.

Of course, Michael Clemons was Chad Owens before Chad Owens was Chad Owens. An undersized, fleet-footed, tackle-breaking returner and running back who made more cuts and changes of direction on his runs than seemed humanly possible, Clemons set the city on fire with his play. Watching him dart around the neon green Astroturf at SkyDome on old game tape is a sight to behold. His shoulder pads would have been big on Andre the Giant and make him look about twice as wide as he really is. His heavily taped ankles seem to bend and contort in completely unnatural directions as he snakes his way up field. Defenders twice his size litter his wake as they spill to the turf from futile tackle attempts.

And off the field, Clemons has been similarly prolific. His tireless work in the community exceeds that of any other athlete in Toronto sports history and he’s developed a well-deserved reputation as one of the city’s most thoughtful public speakers, especially with youth. The city has practically adopted him as its son. “For a guy who’s been as successful as he has, he could have a real arrogance about him,” Owens says. “But there’s none of that. He’s very generous, very real.”

Owens approaches his returns today in much the same way Clemons did in the ’90s, only angrier. While Clemons wound his way around several tacklers on some of his best runs, Owens tends to go through them on his. He returned a punt for a touchdown in his first game as an Argo, weaving untouched through several Calgary Stampeders before confronting one between himself and the end zone with 10 yards to go. Owens stuck his hand in the defender’s chest and plowed his way right through him for the score. “It’s like I’m the original iPhone and he’s the iPhone 5,” Clemons says. “We’re so similar in a lot of ways, but he’s definitely the better version.”

Putting Clemons’s modesty aside, it would be unfair to call one or the other a better football player. They played in different times. But there is no denying that the similarities between the two are near uncanny. Both came from meager beginnings, raised by single mothers in tropical locales—Owens in Honolulu, Clemons in Dunedin, Fla. Both excelled at football in spite of their slight statures and used the game to further their educations at Div. I schools—Owens at the University of Hawaii and Clemons at the College of William and Mary. Both emerged as all-purpose dynamos and were drafted to the NFL—Clemons by the Kansas City Chiefs and Owens by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both spent a short time in the NFL before they were pushed out of jobs because they were too small, heading north to Canada where more compact players can excel. Both started their CFL careers in earnest with the Argos (Owens was briefly a Montreal Alouette but he appeared in just one game) and made an immediate impact both on offence and special teams as returners. Both had won a Grey Cup and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award by their third full season in the league. Both brought thousands to their feet in the shadow of the CN Tower. Both went on to break records. Both were, and still are, electric.

The similarities reached an acme of sorts last November in Toronto when Owens finished the 2012 season with a record 3,863 all-purpose yards. The title was previously owned by Clemons, who set it once in 1990 with 3,300 and then raised it to 3,840 in 1997. Clemons was on the sidelines for the game, pacing up and down, constantly asking people how close Owens was to the record. He was watching when Owens set the new mark on a 29-yard kick return, but the math on these things can take a little time to sort out, so no one celebrated until a handful of plays later when Owens somersaulted into the end zone for what he thought was a touchdown reception (he was later ruled down on the two-yard line) and began bouncing up and down. He quickly found Clemons on the sideline and the man 17 years his senior lifted Owens up in the air with one arm, carrying him around the field screaming “Yes! Yes!” and telling him he was the greatest over and over again. “I was happier then than either time I broke the record. It’s not even close,” Clemons says. “It meant so much to me because he means so much to me.”

The pair first met in 2010, Owens’s first year in the league. Clemons watched Owens return that punt for a touchdown against Calgary in his first game and the next day went to the Argonauts and had an Owens No. 2 jersey made for himself. The team hadn’t even thought about manufacturing them for sale. “I’m not inspired by many people—there’s not many people that get me fired up,” says Clemons, who calls Owens “extrasplendificient,” a combination of extraordinary, splendid and magnificent. “But Chad takes me to another level.” Two weeks later, when the Argos were at Rogers Centre for their home opener, Owens was warming up when he spotted a small guy with a huge smile on the sidelines wearing his jersey. “I was asking everyone who it was,” Owens says. “I wanted to know how he got my jersey.”

The pair grew closer over the next two years as Owens established himself as a premier talent in the CFL. After the 2011 Grey Cup in Vancouver, Clemons and his wife Diane took Owens and his wife Rena out for dinner. The couples talked about the difficulties of the football life: the travelling, the stress, the separation. But they also talked about all the positives: food on tables and roofs over heads, the support network, the great people you meet, getting to give back to the community. That dinner led to Owens stopping by Clemons’s house in Oakville, Ont., in early 2012, where the two sat in Pinball’s living room wearing shorts and T-shirts, talking for five hours about anything and everything. On the next visit, Owens brought Rena and their three children and the two families ate and bonded for more than eight hours. Now Owens and Rena will simply drop off the kids and go out for some time to themselves. “One of the real challenges of playing football away from home is not being able to say, ‘Hey mom, can you watch the kids?’” Clemons says. “So that’s something we can be. We can be Uncle Mike and Aunt Diane.”

When Owens was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player last season, he got a nice trophy and a cheque for $10,000 to give to any charity he pleased. Choosing the Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation didn’t take much time. Clemons had been telling Owens how he had built more than 150 schools in Kenya, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, India and China through his foundation and how he had named schools after all three of his daughters. Owens fell in love with the idea and plans are already underway to build a school named after his and Rena’s first-born, Chad Jr. “Eventually, I want to have one for all my kids, too,” Owens says. “When he’s older, he’ll be able to travel to this school named after him. That’s gonna be amazing.”

And then, of course, there was the pre-game tribute at last year’s Grey Cup, the 100th playing of the game in the same building that Clemons brought to its feet every night. Owens warmed up wearing No. 31 and the never-spotlight-shy Clemons had to find somewhere quiet to be by himself. It was a stirring moment, emphasizing the bond that two men who are so alike have forged. “Our connection is just unreal; it’s unbelievable,” Owens says. “He’s done so much for me and he’s helped me so much, it was almost like I wanted him out there with me. I wanted him to be running with me that night. I wanted to be Pinball that night.”

Owens might not know it, but in a lot of ways he already is.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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