TORONTO -- Argos fans have a chance to re-visit one of the greatest eras the City of Toronto has ever seen on Saturday, as Leo Cahill and 15 other members of the 1971 team will be in attendance at the team’s home opener against the Calgary Stampeders.
Cahill, who coached the team from 1967 to 1972 and then again for two years starting in 1977, will be joined by names such as Joe Theismann, Dick Thornton, and Jim Stillwagon as the club recognizes some of the team’s past football heroes.
As part of the TSN Documentary series, Engraved on a Nation, the 1971 team is being chronicled in "Mavericks: The Story of the 1971 Argos" which began filming a few months ago.
The team will participate in a special pre-game autograph session, while Joe Theismann will throw out a ceremonial 'first pass' pre-game. The entire group will be recognized during a special on-field halftime presentation.
Cahill, who lead one of the most colourful and intruiguing collection of players in Toronto sports history can barely wait to be reunited with his former players.
“The only thing that I’m worried about is I won’t know their names,” he said with a chuckle. “I haven’t seen a lot of them in about 30 years, so I’m really looking forward to it. I speak to some of them –Pete Martin, Jim Stillwagon, Jim Corrigall, Charlie Bray, and guys like that. But the guys that I haven’t spoken to – they’ve changed a lot and I’ve changed a lot, so there will be a kind of an introductory deal.”
There’s something about this particular group that resonates with any Argos fan that witnessed it in action. That thing everyone’s calling swag these days– whatever it was called in 1971, the Argos were full of it.
Led by a shining young Theismann at quarterback and ‘Tricky’ Dick Thornton on defence, they became the class of the CFL, eventually earning their first Grey Cup appearance since 1952 after an impressive 10-4 regular season.
Every last ounce of admiration from Argos fans was matched by hatred from other teams and fans around the league. Toronto took on the identity of its football team, and the Boatmen were the talk of the twon.
“We had some of the most exciting players,” said Cahill. “There was a magic about them that they brought around the city and they were very well-known. Just walking down the street, there would be people asking them to have a cup of coffee, or buying them dinner and stuff like that.”
Cahill said he may not have realized just how special it was until after it was over.
“They said that after that, there’s never been that kind of a fan reaction to a football team, and I’ve got to credit it not to myself, but to the Theismanns, the Stillwagons, Corrigalls, the Timmy Andersons, the Charlie Brays and the Pete Martins,” he said. “All of these guys were great personalities around the city and they carried the football team – they made it very interesting and they played pretty well on the field.”
Then came the Grey Cup. The Argos were favourites heading into their battle with the Stamps, but a slick, rain-soaked Empire Stadium turned the game in Calgary’s favour in what had become a tight defensive struggle.
Thornton appeared to become the hero of the day, intercepting a Calgary pass in the late stages of the game and returning it to the 11 yard line. Down by three points, it was up to Theismann’s offence to get the go-ahead score and carry the Argos to victory.
On the next play, Theismann handed off to star running back Leon McQuay, who slipped while trying to make a cut on the soggy turf, and out came the ball. The Stamps recovered and held on for 14-11 win, capturing their first Grey Cup win since 1948.
Cahill says that as often as that moment has played over in his head, he tries to focus more on all the great moments.
“You look back at the good days and forget about the bad days, concentrate on the wins and the guys mostly, the players and how you got them originally, how they blossomed into great players and things like that,” said Cahill.
The 2012 edition of the Argos can actually draw some similarities to the 1971 team, specifically when it comes to building the brand and making football relevant in such a big city. Cahill recalled the team’s struggles when he first arrived on the scene, and how the franchise was transformed so quickly.
“When I got there, people were leaving at halftime and there wasn’t much of a display of interest,” he said. “We took a team that was selling I think maybe 12-14,000 tickets, and when I left they were selling close to 40,000. When I came in there, not only coaching the team was difficult, but promoting the team as well – getting out and seeing people and stuff like that.”
Cahill says today’s Argos aren’t far from that status, and with an elite quarterback joining the team this season in Ray along with the 100th Grey Cup coming up in Toronto, 2012 presents a great opportunity to take the next step.
“I think it had a carry-over when Pinball came, and he had a great football team too that won the Grey Cup,” he said. “So I think it was a carry-over and I think they’re still reaping the rewards of my era there and Pinball’s era there. I think this year is going to be a great year for the Argonauts.”
With a number of remarkable characters added to the team in recent years like Chad Owens, Cory Boyd, and Ricky Foley among others, the Argos have a chance to spark their fan base exactly how they did in ’71. The biggest piece was only added this off-season in Ray, and Cahill said he couldn’t be more confident in the guy now leading the Argos’ offence down the field.
“I think that probably the best thing that I’ve seen so far about Ricky Ray is not the ability that he’s had as a leader out West and as a winner out West, but how non-responsive he is to pressure,” he said. “I think the guy is born to be a quarterback and I think if he gets the help he needs, he’s going to make Toronto a very successful team.”
“They’ve got a nucleus of great football players, they’ve got a great attitude, and with the leadership that he provides at the quarterback position and some of the other outstanding players they’ve had in the last couple of years have given a lot of gusto to that team. I think by mid-season they’ll be challenging and that by the end of the season they could be the team that could win.”
For now though, Cahill and the ’71 team will always look fondly upon their years together as one of the league’s most daunting forces, and the former head coach and general manager said he’s excited that fans will be able to re-live that.
“We had great fans and I think they’ve got great memories,” he said. “We had a team that had a lot of individual personalities and a lot of success factors as far as building the team from the real problem area that it was when we got there, to a very successful franchise when we left.”
The story of the 1971 Argos is one of eight documentaries that together form one of the largest projects TSN has ever produced. It celebrates 100 years of the Grey Cup, and how it has become one of Canada’s greatest, proudest traditions.
The documentaries will start showing in September on TSN, CTV, and in French on RDS.