TORONTO — Adriano Belli sailed off into the sunset Wednesday – literally.
The veteran defensive tackle, one of the CFL’s colourful characters, announced his retirement in his own unique style. Belli, dubbed the Kissing Bandit because he kisses everyone he meets on the cheek, bid a fond adieu aboard the Kajama, a 50-metre long gaff rig schooner.
And Belli made the announcement clad in a white sailor’s uniform and cap.
Adriano Belli announces his retirement on the Tall Ship Kajama near downtown Toronto on Wednesday afternoon.
“Please join me in supporting the health and preservation of all CFL quarterbacks as I regretfully step away from an occupation that has brought me so much pleasure,” Belli said. “From the Rockies of Vancouver to the smoked meat of Montreal, I couldn’t have enjoyed our country more over the past 10 years than by playing in the CFL.
“I will miss crushing quarterbacks greatly, but will miss representing this great Canadian tradition that is the CFL even more. Thank-you for coming, guys, let’s have a party.”
After the news conference, Belli, his teammates and guests took part in a brief cruise of Lake Ontario. Once the boat returned, the well wishers then threw Belli overboard.
A foot ailment limited the six-foot-five, 290-pound Belli to just five games with Toronto last season. The 33-year-old Toronto native became a free agent in February and had teams – most notably the Argos and Hamilton – interested in signing him.
But Belli said being unable to adequately train this off-season as well as facing the daunting prospect of again trying to juggle football with helping operate his family’s meat-packing business in Mississauga, Ont., made him opt for retirement.
“It was a grind but I wouldn’t take it back for anything,” Belli said. “The league is becoming so competitive that you can’t have another job.
“You’ve got to stay focused on the task at hand in terms of staying in shape and being a professional football player. It’s hard to look a guy like (Argos special-teams coach) Mike O’Shea in eye and say, ‘I’m done,’ but we all have to do it.”
A 2001 first-round pick of the B.C. Lions, Belli spent 10 seasons in the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes (twice) and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (twice) before spending his final four years in Toronto. He amassed 213 career tackles and 28 sacks and twice was an East Division all-star (2005, 2007) and earned league honours in 2005 while earning a Grey Cup rings with the Als in 2002.
But statistics don’t nearly tell the story.
On the field it usually took two offensive linemen to block Belli, often freeing up another defensive lineman. And Belli was a Canadian in a position reserved for an American, giving his coach the luxury of playing a U.S, player elsewhere in the lineup.
Belli’s gregarious, fun-loving approach made him a popular teammate and leader in the locker-room. Argos head coach/GM Jim Barker, who presented the burly lineman with a painting of Belli crushing a quarterback, said that leadership will be tough to replace.
“He’s a unique individual in how he approaches dealing with other players,” Barker said. “You can bring guys in that are maybe a little shaky character-wise because he’s going to make sure that’s not going to happen.
“Hopefully somebody else picks that up now.”
Belli was a tenacious player who went all-out and did whatever he had to – literally – to be effective. He was an expert in verbal warfare, using his tongue to get under the skin of his opponent and get them off their game.
“I came into the league six years ago and we were rivals for three years and did our share of jabbing each other,” said Argos offensive tackle Rob Murphy. “I’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of leagues with a lot of teams and I’m happy to call Adriano one of my best friends.
“He is a true teammate who will do anything for you. He has a heart of gold. He’s a little misunderstood like a lot of us but there’s not a better teammate I’ve ever played with.”
A free spirit who also told it like it was made Belli a media favourite. He routinely talked about wanting to “kill” a rival quarterback or publicly called out an opponent.
Yet, even in the heat of battle, Belli often had a smile on his face.
Adriano Belli (left) and Ed Philion joke around following practice prior to the Grey Cup game in Winnipeg, Friday Nov.17, 2006. Belli swears that when he was selected in the CFL draft, the general manager on the other end of the phone told him, “You’re fat, you’re slow, but you’re Canadian, and that’s why we drafted you.”
Argos president Bob Nicholson said the team will formally honour Belli this season.
“Having been in the sports world working for the better part of 30 years . . . the CFL means a lot to me because of guys like this,” Nicholson said of Belli. “They bring a lot of passion to game, have a lot of fun and it means a lot to them.”
Nicholson also read a tribute to Belli from Argos head coach Don Matthews, who called Belli “a game-changer.”
“With him nationality doesn’t matter,” Matthews wrote. “He plays as good as any inside defensive lineman that I’ve ever seen.
“If I were a coach starting a football team I’d choose Belli with one of my very first picks. Adriano, I wish you the very best of luck in your retirement. You’re one of the players I will always remember both on the field and as a friend.”
But at times Belli had difficulties controlling his aggression and it sometimes got him into trouble with untimely penalties or ejections from game officials or fines and suspensions from the CFL. In March 2009, the league banned Belli from Toronto’s 2010 season opener for entering Montreal’s dressing room at the Rogers Centre before the final game of the 2009 campaign.
“I’ve played the way I always wanted to play,” Belli said without apology. “I never wanted to be the type of guy that steals a couple of years and I’m happy knowing every down I’ve played I’ve given it 100 per cent.
“I don’t remember the games so much. I remember hanging out with the boys . . . I remember going to war with guys like Mike O’Shea and seeing it in his eyes that he wanted to kill guys on the other team. Those are things I will remember.”
Away from the field, Belli was a teddy bear with a huge heart and love for community service. He was involved in a number of charity endeavours, most recently the “Big Kiss Fund,” where companies made a donation to the Sick Kids Foundation for every sack or tackle Belli made.
Belli also brought kids from the hospital to every Argos home contest to enjoy all the game-day festivities. In 2008 he sang O Canada prior to an Argos clash at Rogers Centre and once performed on Canadian Idol.
“The decision to retire wasn’t hard at all,” Belli said. “I’ve been so blessed, I’ve been coached by some of the greatest coaches in the CFL, I’ve played with some of the coolest guys around and I’m blessed to have played this long.
“I fooled them this long, I feel like I could still fool them a couple more years but it’s time.”