The position of tight end has been referred to by many football experts as the most difficult and demanding spot in football. A tight end must have the size and speed of a middle linebacker, the blocking ability of an offensive lineman, and the "hands" of a wide receiver. In the long history of Canadian football there have been few players who have mastered the position better than the Toronto Argonauts number 75, Mel Profit.
Profit was born on July 30, 1941 in New York City. However, while Mel was a very young child, he moved with his family across the continent to the west coast where he grew up in San Jose, California.
Mel's first experience in football was not an overwhelming success. As he described it in his 1972 book "For Love, Money, and Future Considerations" his coach said to him, "Profit, you can't catch, you can't block, and you can't tackle. Just what is your specialty?" However, Mel did "bounce back" from his football experience to become a star player at his high school and was good enough to attract the attention of many of the big stateside universities. He eventually settled on the University of California at Los Angeles, better known by its initials as UCLA.
While at UCLA Mel blossomed into an outstanding athlete. In his senior year he led the Bruins in receiving and many felt he was perhaps the finest tight end in college football. At 6'5, 230 pounds he had the size, great hands, and good speed to have professional teams across North America 'stand up and take notice.'
Drafted in 1964 by the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL and Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, Mel decided to stay on the West Coast and signed with the Rams. The coach's were impressed with what they saw in training camp until he was injured and was slow to heal. Impatient with his slow recovery and leaning more towards employing a veteran line-up the Rams shipped him off to the Pittsburgh Steelers where he spent the 1964 season as a member of their 'taxi squad.' That one year on the "taxi squad" soured Mel on the idea of a pro football career and, when the season ended, he to headed to Europe...never intending to play football again. Profit spent 1965 traveling throughout the continent where, as he commented later, "After the first year, I had no desire to try training camp or football again, so in 1965 I gave it up. It didn't prove to be that easy; after a summer of traveling, found I actually missed playing."
Mel looked around for a professional team that would be interested in his talents and found it with the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League. They also had the added advantage of being on the west coast, which Mel preferred. But his stay in BC was far shorter than he expected. Mel showed up with his long hair flowing out of the back of his helmet and the Lions, a rather conservative organization at the time, didn't care for that! Looking back Mel described it, "As soon as I arrived I started receiving suggestions to cut my hair. These came not only from the management, but from some players as well. As it turned out, I became Toronto property before the season got under way, and the management here was too busy trying to field a team to bother about the length of my hair."
The team Mel joined in Toronto in 1966 was in "shambles." The Toronto Argonauts were the laughing stock of professional football and coming off a 3-11 season in 1965. Head Coach Bob Shaw was desperate for any players who had the talent for professional football and could easily see Mel had what he was looking for. Since Shaw had so few talented players he could not care less what length Mel's hair was as long as he produced on the field...which he did! Mel became one of the Argonauts most reliable receivers that season, catching 32 passes. By the end of that year, rookie quarterback Wally Gabler, and veteran Eagle Day always looked to Mel when they needed a "clutch" reception. The Argos showed some improvement in 1966 finishing at 5-9 but that still was not good enough for a playoff position.
In the spring of 1967, Shaw suddenly quit the Argonauts and Toronto scrambled to find a new head coach. They quickly settled on Leo Cahill who had been a highly regarded assistant coach with the Montreal Alouettes from 1960-64 and, at the time, was the head coach of the semi-pro Toronto Rifles of the Continental Football League. In Leo's first practice running the Argos, he realized he had something very special in Mel Profit and knew he was capable of possibly becoming the finest tight end in Canada, perhaps one of the best in all of professional football.
Mel had another solid season in 1967. In Cahill's first year on the sidelines, Profit caught 30 passes but only 1 for a touchdown. The Argo passing attack had been "hit and miss" all year and most fans and media felt Mel was somewhat under-employed, at least as a receiver. Even with the "hot and cold" passing game, the Argos improved to 5-8-1 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1961. Toronto headed to Ottawa to take on the powerful Rough Riders, but very few fans gave them any chance. The Argos lost that game 38-22 but nevertheless impressed the entire league with their tenacity and spirit. The Argos quickly fell behind 20-0 but clawed their way back to make a game of it. One of the reasons for the comeback was the outstanding play of Mel Profit. He showed great on-field leadership, encouraging his teammates to keep playing hard. Mel threw a couple of powerful blocks to clear paths for running backs Bill Symons and Jim Dillard and caught 6 passes including one in the 3rd quarter for a touchdown...which closed the gap to 20-15.
1968 was Mel's "breakthrough" season. When that year ended, Mel had caught 40 passes, including seven touchdowns. These figures were much more impressive when one realizes the Argonaut offence was based around the running of Symons and Dillard. Quarterback Wally Gabler rarely threw more than 20 passes per game, so 40 receptions in a season was truly outstanding. Fans and media alike recognized him as the finest tight end in the Eastern Conference. The debate in the CFL after 1968 was; who was the best in the league at that position? Mel Profit or Calgary's Herm Harrison.
The Toronto Argonauts, also had a breakthrough season finishing at 9-5 and 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, and hosted the defending Grey Cup champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Semi-Final. Hamilton started the game fast, jumping out 14-0 over the bewildered Argos before the first quarter was 5 minutes old. The Argos lined up on 1st down at their own 10-year line wondering what had hit them. Wally Gabler called a simple off tackle run to Bill Symons, who hit the line, and received two giant blocks.
Dillard, his partner in the backfield, "blasted" the inside linebacker clearing him out of the way and Profit exploded off the line and simply destroyed the defensive end opposing him. Those key blocks cleared the way for a 100-yard touchdown run, getting Toronto back into the game. The Argos ended up winning 33-21. The young and up-coming Argonauts then put a scare into the powerful Ottawa Rough Riders in the 2-game total point Eastern final. Toronto won the first game at CNE Stadium 13-11 in a game dominated by their aggressive defense. Ottawa buried them 36-14 in the second game at home in Ottawa to win the series 47-27 and advance to the Grey Cup.
The Argonauts were now big news in Toronto going into 1969 and Mel was a huge part of that. "Mousy" (as he was called by his teammates) made headlines off the field when he opened his own clothing store called "The First Asylum", on Wellesley just off Yonge Street. Mel, always "marching to his own drummer" sold clothes that he, himself, had designed in the store. He was among the few players in professional sports who made headline news in both the sports and fashion pages! Wally Gabler still chuckles when he thinks of Mel's apartment. "Mel had this apartment that had two pieces of furniture in it. There was a futon on which he slept, and a barber's chair in the middle of the room. When you went to visit him you'd have to sit on the floor, while he'd sit in the barber's chair and look down on you. Very different...."
He was also one of the most thoughtful athletes in professional sports. When a reporter would approach Mel he was just as likely to discuss the war in Vietnam or other Canadian social issues as he was to talk football. Mel wanted to be known as more than just an athlete. He cared deeply about the community as well and spent a great deal of time speaking to young people, schools, and other groups in Toronto. Unlike many athletes, Mel had decided to make Toronto his permanent home and as such, wanted to make it a better place for all people to live. He had also become an outspoken critic of what he thought was the growing trend of violence in sports and criticized the press when they "glorified" players whom he considered to be cheap-shot artists and "goons."
In 1969, Mel became the "focal point" in the first player's strike in CFL history. The Argonaut players walked out of training camp, complaining about lack of pay for the Canadian players during training camp and the exhibition season. Canadian players, in particular, were paid less than American players and didn't receive a paycheck until they had played in a regular season game. The players, led in part by Mel, protested the injustice. They staged their own training camp, at the high school where linebacker Peter Martin taught during the day, refusing to return to the Argos camp until the issue was settled. When Head Coach Leo Cahill arrived to plead for the players to return Mel stood up, blocked his entrance and asked Leo politely but firmly to leave. He was determined to keep the team united. Mel's efforts finally paid off and a more equitable payment system was created that would benefit all the Toronto players.
He still cared about football and came up with a strong season in 1969 catching 40 passes and hauling in 5 touchdowns. Toronto had the highest scoring offense in the CFL that year and finished the season with a record of 10-4. They defeated Hamilton 15-9 in the Eastern semi-final and then took on Ottawa once again for the chance to advance to the Grey Cup.
The first game of the 1969 Eastern-Final was a dream for Toronto. Their ferocious defense led by such stalwarts as Dick Thornton, Marv Luster, Peter Martin, Dick Aldridge, and Ed Learn physically manhandled and destroyed the Ottawa attack. The Argo offense got huge games out of Mel, wide receiver Bobby Taylor, running back Bill Symons and quarterback Tom Wilkinson as Toronto rolled over Ottawa 22-14 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated.
The Argos headed into Ottawa poised on the verge of attending their first Grey Cup since 1952, but what they encountered was a nightmare. The temperatures in Ottawa plunged well below zero that day, and the field at Lansdowne Park was better suited to the NHL. The Toronto players scrambled to find any shoes that would give them traction on the icy turf. Mel wore a pair of regular sneakers figuring that the flat soles would give him better surface contact on the turf and thus better traction then cleats would. The Rough Riders came out wearing broom-ball shoes that had tiny suction cups on the soles. They had outstanding footing while the Argos had none. Mel describes the moment when he knew the game was a lost cause. " Deep in our own territory, we were forced to punt...again. Dave Mann was kicking and got off a fairly long kick, the kind a punt returner has plenty of time to catch. As one of the ends in coverage, I started down the field working up a full head of steam. Just as the returner fielded the ball I put on the brakes to check myself in order to respond in whichever direction he would move. Unfortunately, there were no brakes. I took off like I was on skis and just slid right on by the punt return man. To this day I swear he waved at me as I went by."
Ottawa destroyed the Argonauts 32-3 to advance to the Grey Cup.
Toronto headed into 1970 with high hopes but it turned out to be one of the most baffling seasons in the team's history. They finished at 8-6, good for second place in the Eastern Conference, but they struggled offensively through much of the year. Nagging injuries often plagued Profit, but he never left the line-up and eventually caught 39 passes with two for touchdowns. The low number of touchdowns could be attributed to the erratic injury filled seasons of quarterbacks Tom Wilkinson and Don Jonas. Mel put himself in the Argo record books that season when he took a pitch-out from quarterback Don Jonas and fired a 75-yard TD pass to wide receiver Jim Thorpe. It was the Argonauts longest passing play of the season. Considering the struggles of Jonas and Wilkinson that year, some jokingly wondered if Mel should take over the quarterbacking role after that play!
The Argos season ended far too early when the Montreal Alouettes came into CNE Stadium and upset them 16-7 in the Eastern Semi-Final.
After the season ended, Mel made plans to retire. He had been embroiled in a contract dispute that had lasted through the entire 1970 season. Mel figured "enough was enough" and called a press conference to announce his retirement. When Argonaut owner John Bassett Sr. heard about the press conference he personally intervened and gave Mel the contract he was seeking.
The Argos were determined that 1971 would be their year. John Bassett opened up his checkbook and Leo Cahill brought in some top new talent. From the US colleges he signed Jim Stillwagon, Gene Mack, Joe Theismann, Tim Anderson, and Leon McQuay. He signed quarterback Greg Barton from the Detroit Lions, and added all-star Canadian slot-back Dave Cranmer in a trade with Calgary. Leo also made Mel one of the offensive captains for that season.
The Argos had an excellent season in 1971 finishing first in the East with a record of 10-4. Mel Profit had another outstanding year, becoming Joe Theismann's favorite target. He caught 39 passes for 5 touchdowns, was a steady and consistent blocker, and provided outstanding on-field leadership. However, despite that performance Coach Cahill personally struggled with his demeanor. Leo commented "Ask anybody about the best Argos in my time and they'll always list Mel Profit but he wasn't a football coaches cup of tea. You wouldn't think players would like him either. He never publicly proclaimed this but he gave the impression that he felt football was a game for thugs. I never felt sure that Profit really wanted to play football." Leo went on to say..."Also this thing he used to say - that the sportswriters encouraged brutality by glorifying all the cheap shot artists - always led me to believe that he was likely to shy away from getting hit and would prefer to take the path of least resistance. The total contradiction of that is that he would catch the ball in a crowd in really tough situations. He had this great concentration and therefore could make the big play that could win ball games for you. Shy guys don't do that."
The Toronto Argonauts defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 2-game total point Eastern Final with Mel catching a Joe Theismann pass for a clutch touchdown in the second game played at CNE Stadium. Before that crucial game however, Mel told the Toronto Star in an interview at his "First Asylum " store he was considering retirement once again. "If you wrote that the second game (here today) could be my last before Toronto fans, I could not challenge you. And so the conversation obviously turns to "why"?
Profit is a man thoroughly capable of seeing the warts on sacred cows. He's willing to talk about them publicly, in articulate, and intelligent terms.
"For one thing," he began, "it's become harder and harder for me to justify some of the things about football that happens to me. There are dehumanizing things about the game, things you don't justify by saying that we're well paid. That's the typical public reaction. "For one thing, it's not normal not to know from one day to the next where your home is." Mel went on to comment on what he saw was the rigid almost militaristic culture in football and denounced what he saw was the gratuitous violence in the game.
With Mel talking about retirement the Toronto Argonauts headed into Vancouver to battle the Calgary Stampeders in the 1971 Grey Cup. The game at Empire Stadium was marred by terrible weather. It had rained all week and despite the best efforts of the ground crews the artificial turf was covered in a layer of water. Toronto was trailing 7-0 early in the second quarter when Joe Theismann and Mel Profit combined on the biggest offensive play of the game. Joe dropped back to throw as the Calgary front four roared in on him. He hung onto the ball until the last possible second and then just before being hammered...unloaded a rocket. It was an incredible throw considering the state of the soggy football. The waterlogged ball sailed through the rain, deep down the left sideline to Profit who had gone charging off the right side of the line and cut clear across the field. Mel hauled in the pass around the 22-yard line and made it as far as the Calgary 11 before being knocked out of bounds by Calgary defensive back Terry Wilson for a gain of 55 yards. On the next play Theismann tried to hit Mel at the goal line with a pass but the pass was too high. Another incompletion led to a field goal.
Mel made another big catch in the second quarter in heavy traffic for a 1st down but the Argo offense simply could not get untracked that day. They were defeated 14-11, throwing away a magnificent performance by their defense who had held Calgary to only one 1st down in the second half.
Mel was named a member of the Eastern Conference all-star team for 1971 and was awarded the Jeff Russell Memorial trophy for being the top player in the East.
In the spring of 1972 Mel published his book "For Love, Money, and Future Considerations" which is considered by many to be among the finest sports books ever written. He also made headlines (and angered the Argonaut management and the City of Toronto government) when he publicly criticized the decision to use taxpayers money to pay for artificial turf at CNE Stadium. Mel told Trent Frayne of the Toronto Star "there are people and projects in this town requiring $625,000 far more than pro athletes and their fans need a new floor for their playpen."
At this time Leo Cahill decided that Mel's days with the Argos were numbered. Leo had signed 3 rookie American college stars and had to find room on the Argo roster for them. He had two Canadians who could play tight end and decided to keep them instead of Mel. As Leo describes, "We looked all over our personnel and finally came down to Mel Profit. We had two Canadians playing at tight end behind Profit. Tony Moro had been a regular before and Bob Hamilton looked like he was going to come along. Between them we'd get the job done at tight end."
The Argo players and Mel were stunned. Bill Symons still doesn't believe Leo's version of why Mel was let go. Bill told the author, "It was a political move releasing Mel. Mel did not get along with management. Releasing him really hurt the team. He was not a leader off the field but on the field he was very good."
In a recent interview with the author Leo reiterated why he made the decision regarding Mel and gave more details. "I made the personnel decisions on the team. Nobody in the front office told me what to do. I called Mel into the office before training camp and told him that because of the Canadian/American ratio I would be looking at going with a Canadian at tight end. If things worked out then he would be our tight end. However I felt he should know the direction we were going in. I also offered to trade him to any team he wished, as I felt he had earned that right. He simply said 'the hell with you' and walked out."
Was Mel released or did he retire? The confusion around that issue still lingers. The loss of Mel combined with an unbelievable rash of injuries and some plain bad luck sent the Argos crashing to a 3-11 record in 1972 and quickly led to Leo Cahill being fired.
As soon as it became public that Mel was no longer an Argonaut, the NFL Los Angeles Rams tried to convince him to return home and once again play for them. The Rams knew Mel Profit had emerged as one of the finest tight ends in the game. Mel, however, had made the decision that if he was not going to be an Argonaut, then he didn't want to play football. He started his post football career that spring at City TV, the new Toronto television station. They hired Mel to host a talk show which proved to be very popular with the viewers, and Profit made it a point to have many of his former teammates on as special guests. In 1975, he was hired by CFRB radio to be the "colour man" on the Argo radio broadcasts and proved to be one of the most intelligent, and well-spoken broadcasters in the business. The fans loved him, as he was not a "homer," and had no concerns whatsoever about criticizing the team on the air if he felt they were playing poorly. His comments could be tough, but were always accurate. The Argos were not happy with Mel's critical remarks and put pressure on him to "tone them down." which he refused. Profit felt his role was to be as honest as he could in describing the game as he saw it. The final straw for the Argos came late in the 1976 season. The team was on its way to missing the play-offs for the 3rd consecutive season and looked terrible. In particular, the Toronto offense, designed by head coach Russ Jackson, was a nightmare. Mel was so disgusted during one game he said, on the air, "Jackson's offense is the only professional offense I have ever seen that could be inscribed on the head of a pin." That remark was not quite fair as Russ Jackson was a new coach struggling to learn the trade and he had little offensive talent to work with but that was it for the Argonaut management. As they told CFRB, if Mel was back for 1977 they would give the radio rights to another station so he was replaced by a former teammate, Peter Martin who has done an outstanding job in the role ever since.
Since then, Mel returned home to California, dropped out of the "limelight" and is living a very quiet, private life. He is still well remembered in Toronto however. The Argo Alumni society receives dozens of requests every year from people who would like Mel to speak at events and he is consistently voted as one of the most popular athletes in the history of the city.
Mel Profit wore the "double blue" with a great sense of class, distinction, and dignity and will never be forgotten. The feelings of his teammates towards the man they called "Mousy" are summed up in the following poem written by the Argonauts star defensive back and his close friend Dick Thornton.
SO LONG FRIEND...WHATEVER
"Let no man write my Epitaph." A common phrase, heard often and I'm sure Mousy would have wanted it that way. But for this one time, partner, sorry I overrule, knowing you can never play politics without Power.
A team leader, a true captain in all his coveted glory... living recklessly for today and to hell with tomorrow...but still deeply sensitive and with a huge heart that carried an equal or greater amount of Pride.
We were close, yet communicated seldom which to some...classified us as total strangers.
It's commonly called silent rapport that so few understand. I admired him, standing up for his beliefs as he was fully aware that they would eventually become costly in the end, though he was always constant and content within his Heart.
I'll miss him terribly, the racetrack, the three-handed gin, the intelligent conversations and of course, the ladies but his dedication to the game was always first and foremost, despite what they'll try to say and write..
May his mind broaden with this catastrophic experience; the disappointment flutter away with the southerly winds and for his character to give him the strength in showing them how wrong a Judgment Decision can be.
Eastern Conference All-Star - 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971
Jeff Russell Memorial Award (Outstanding Player - Eastern Conference) 1971
Voted by Fans to the All-time Argonaut "Dream Team"
"Goodbye Argos", Cahill Leo, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1973
"For Love, Money, and Future Considerations, Profit Mel, D.C. Heath, Canada, 1972
"Pigskin Poet" Thornton Dick, Simon and Schuster of Canada, 1976
Toronto Star, November 20, 1971
Toronto Star, Spring 1972 (exact date unknown)
Personal Interviews with Leo Cahill, Wally Gabler, Bill Symons, and Dick Thornton
Toronto Argonauts' Media Guides (1967, 1971)
Craig Wallace is a Human Resources professional living in the Toronto area. He is the author of the Legends Biographies on Dick Thornton and Bill Symons. He is working on a book on the 1967-72 Toronto Argonauts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org