TORONTO — Ricky Ray saw it coming out of training camp. These Toronto Argonauts had a special bond.
They might not have been the biggest, fastest or most heralded. But they had each other’s back.
Ray, who came over from the Edmonton Eskimos in a blockbuster off-season trade, credits GM Jim Barker and rookie head coach Scott Milanovich for choosing the right pieces in assembling what was to become a Grey Cup champion squad.
“Scott and the staff and Jim coming out of training camp didn’t necessarily pick the best most talented guys,” said the veteran quarterback. “They picked guys that were going to be good teammates over some of those guys.
“That’s where it’s got to start with, it’s got to start with the locker-room and how everybody gets along and everybody playing for each other out there. I think that’s been the biggest difference for us.”
Barker says he and Milanovich both believe “it’s not necessarily the 46 best players but it’s the best 46 players.”
“That means the 46 that can work together the best,” the GM said in an interview Monday. “Through the year, we went through players and we did make different moves but it was about finding the right blend of players – of veterans and rookies.”
Milanovich referred to that brotherhood in his pre-game speech Sunday.
“Find strength in your teammates when things gets tough,” he said.
An even-keeled coach who prepares meticulously, Milanovich laid out what was expected. Argos players knew they didn’t have to worry about the changing moods of their head coach or jump through hoops, just execute what they were told.
Barker, meanwhile, said he knew upon acquiring Ray that this team could be special if they made the right moves around him.
“All along I felt we had a great opportunity this year,” he said.
Every pro athlete has a history. And the Argonauts do not have a patent on hard-luck stories. But finding the diamonds in the rough remains a challenge.
“In this league, there’s a lot of football players out there that have stories, there’s reasons why they maybe aren’t first-round picks in the NFL,” said Barker. “Our job is to go out and uncover those and we go across the country looking for those kind of players.”
Giving them a home leads to ties that bind.
“Everybody on this team, you ask them, somewhere they had to overcome something to get to this point,” Ray said prior to Toronto’s 35-22 championship win over the Calgary Stampeders. “We’re a family, we just came together, stuck together and just played great football.”
Ray noticed something special about his new teams from Day 1 at mini-camp.
“Everybody was ‘Hey welcome back,’ giving each other hugs whether you were on offence or defence or special teams,” he recalled. “Lot of times when you play on teams, you kind of have the defensive guys and the offensive guys. And this team has been totally different, everybody gets along regardless of what side you’re on and that’s what you’ve got to have to be able to do things like this.”
Building the team took time. But the rewards for the investment in time and research were worth it.
Chad Owens had already found a home with the Argos, who have a history with pint-sized returner-receivers (Pinball Clemons). In 2012, he led the league in receiving, set a pro-football record for all-purpose yards, was named the league’s Most Outstanding Player and scored the first touchdown in the Grey Cup.
In Ray, he had found his quarterback.
Defensive back Pacino Horne was out of football for two years before the Argos plucked him out of arena football obscurity in May. He paid the team back by running an interception back for 25 yards and the second TD Sunday.
Barker credited defensive coordinator Chris Jones for unearthing talent through evaluation camps he holds. Jones leaves Saturday for just such a camp in Los Angeles.
“Guys who show they have the physical skills, he gives a shot to,” said Barker.
They found Horne at a camp in Detroit.
“He paid his $80 and showed what he can do,” said Barker. “He ended up making it to the next step and then finally making it to training camp. And then the ultimate (goal) of finally making the team and holding onto a starting position all year.”
In five-foot-nine running back Chad Kackert, Milanovich and Barker saw a player who had a bigger toolbox than former league rushing leader Cory Boyd. Kackert won MVP honours Sunday after rushing for 133 yards and catching passes for another 62.
“I was just explaining to someone else the road it took to get here,” Kackert said in the leadup to Sunday’s game. “Just thinking back and reflecting, it will humble you.
“Because there are so many guys out there who can play and don’t get their opportunities … So it’s a real blessing to be here, and to have that opportunity I was given in Week 7 really means a lot. “I’ve had the support of everybody on this team, from the front office to the players to the coaching staff. And that’s made it really easy to make the transition and perform and not worry about everything else except for playing football.”
Defensive back Ahmad Carroll, a former first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers, came on board in May after a roller-coaster career that saw him play in the NFL, UFL and AFL. Prior to joining the Argos, his most recent home was the Arizona Rattlers’ Refusal to Report list.
Cornerback Patrick Watkins, a former Dallas Cowboy, was out of football last year. He signed with the Argos in May and, while missing the Eastern Final and Grey Cup through an ankle injury, was an imposing six-foot-five figure in the defensive secondary.
Released by Calgary on June 16, linebacker Robert McCune signed with Toronto five days later. He had no shortage of motivation Sunday, tying for the team lead in tackles with six.
Acquired in February, impact linebacker Marcus Ball’s last football port of call was the University of Memphis in 2009-10. He also came to light in an evaluation camp.
Veterans Etienne Boulay and Walter Spencer were signed to bolster special teams.
Veteran defensive lineman Adriano Belli was brought out of retirement.
“He was a very important part for us down the stretch,” said Barker.
When kicker Noel Prefontaine was injured in July, Barker called Swayze Waters in Mississippi from the locker-room at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton.
“The big thing in this business is if this person gets hurt, who are you going to turn to,” said Barker.
Still it took a while for this recipe for success to take.
Mistakes, penalties and injuries all made for some bumps in the 2012 campaign. And it took time got the team to jell and absorb new offensive and defensive schemes.
Toronto needed to win its last two games just to finish at 9-9.
The Argos came together before the Oct. 27 game against Saskatchewan, according to Kackert. It was the penultimate game of their regular season.
“I think we had a realization before the Saskatchewan game that we had to win or we were going to lose a huge opportunity,” he said. “Thankfully we answered the call there and we’ve been rolling ever since.”
Toronto downed the Roughriders 31-26 and kept winning, ending the season with five straight victories and a championship trophy – before their home crowd in the 100th Grey Cup. They’ll celebrate the win with a parade through downtown on Tuesday.