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August 21, 2013

Landry: 1983 Argos were a once in a lifetime team

Toronto Argonauts

The team of your life.

For every young sports fan, there is a favourite team even among all his or her other favourite teams. One that is held up higher than all the other rooting interests.

For whatever reason, be it proximity to home, be it the lure of a charismatic player or even just because it happens to be that the sport the team plays is the one the kid loves best, that team is special.

If you’re lucky – very lucky – while you’re still young, that team will do something extraordinary. Something that will ensure that the time and the team will remain close to your heart.

Not only that, their exploits will remain vividly cast in a protected corner of your mind, never to be replaced. Never to fade. Encapsulated in one game – one glorious game – that team will never get old, never diminish, never be anything other than what it became at that moment.

The team of your life.

Fortunately for me, the 1983 Argos accomplished that. Just in the nick of time, too.

A kid no more, I was now a high school graduate, preparing for a life in broadcasting. But – and it was a big but – there was nothing more important to me than the weekly fate of the Toronto Argonauts.

Pre-season favourites who almost let it slip away in the Eastern Final and then had a city feeling that a 31-year drought would continue when they trailed at half-time of the Grey Cup Game, they accomplished what some were beginning to believe would never happen again. A football championship for Toronto.

That 18-17 win over the BC Lions in the first ever indoor Grey Cup Game did more than end the drought, it left me – 19 years old at the time – with indelible memories, indelible feelings.

TV tray in front of me, sitting on the couch in the living room of my parents’ house. Adrenaline tingling. Trailing 17-12 with just minutes remaining, Quarterback Joe Barnes – who’d come in to spell a flu-ridden Condredge Holloway after the first half – drove the Argos deep into Lions’ territory.

Glue-handed slotback Paul Pearson had just made an astounding catch to set up Toronto with a first and goal at the BC three yard line.

The next play from scrimmage would become my favourite play in Argos’ history. As it unfolded, I knew that play-by-play man Don Wittman’s call of the winning touchdown would never stop echoing in my mind.

“Barnes… Minter… Touchdown!”

It never did. Some 20 years later, when I again saw a replay of that moment, unlike so many things that can change and be distorted by the mind’s eye over time, it was exactly the way I’d remembered it.

Not because it was spectacular in style. Because it was the most important moment in the brilliant season of the team of my life. I had lived through the farcical 1981 season as an Argo fan, convinced that a 2 – 14 year was going to forever be par for the course.

My favourite player in the CFL – Holloway – had been traded to the Argos before the season began and I had high hopes. If he couldn’t turn it around, no one could, I worried.

Holloway was the most special of players. Extremely talented. Terribly unselfish. Tough as nails, and not just for a quarterback. He would take hellacious – and I mean hellacious – hits and bounce right up. Or, even more impressively, wobble back to the huddle, dig in and be ready for the next snap.

For my money, Condredge Holloway remains the greatest on-field leader the Argos have ever had.

Imagine having not one but TWO Ricky Rays out there. That’s what the 1983 Argonauts could boast. Holloway’s understudy (I hesitate to use that term because he was much more than that), Joe Barnes, was as cool as a cucumber under fire.

While Holloway was a magician at escaping and turning nothing into something, Barnes was not nearly as mobile and relied on quick reads and releases in order to march the offence.

Related: 71st Grey Cup

It took more than three decades. But for jubilant Toronto Argonaut fans, it may have been worth the wait. Cedric Minter’s TD with less than three minutes remaining proved to be the winner as the Argonauts ended a 31 year Grey Cup drought by capturing the 1983 Classic, beating the Lions 18-17.

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Barnes’ style was much more reflective of Ray’s than Holloway’s and by ‘having two Ricky Rays out there’ I mean two number one quarterbacks.

In 1982, with new head coach Bob O’Billovich at the helm and a revolutionary offence called the “Run and Shoot” installed, with Holloway and Barnes slinging to the incomparable Terry Greer at wide receiver and running back Cedric Minter emerging as the ball-carrying threat Argo fans had been promised season after season after season, that offence powered the team to a Grey Cup berth (ultimately a loss to the Edmonton Eskimos).

That meant 1983 dawned with the Toronto Argonauts in an unusual position indeed.

As one of being the favourites to win the Grey Cup. It’s part of the reason that championship remains so special. We all know how easy it is to raise expectations. How difficult it is to live up to them. The 1983 Toronto Argonauts did that, while the yoke of a 31-year championship drought hung around their necks as well. That’s pressure.

All that pressure didn’t seem to matter to that crew, however. A decent defence did enough, while a superb offence helped the team cruise to a 12 – 4 regular season record. Greer set a record for single-season receiving yardage with 2,003. Argo fans had never before seen the likes of Terry Greer and haven’t since. That is saying a lot, as the team has had a long line of sensational pass-catchers. Each of them with special qualities.

But Greer had it all in bucketfuls; size, speed and leaping ability. Yards after catch savvy. Astoundingly sure hands.

Minter rushed and caught passes in dynamic fashion. Like Andre Durie or Chad Owens, he was sensational at snaring short passes and turning them into first downs or even much more. Sure-handed Pearson and Jan Carinci kept the sticks moving. Another burner, slotback Emanuel Tolbert, could bust a big play at any time.

While the 1983 regular season seemed a bit of a breeze for the Argonauts, post-season was a different matter. Whoever emerged to play the ‘Juggernauts’ in the Eastern Final would be fodder and nothing more, it was thought. Didn’t work out quite that way, but a 41 – 36 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was earned after Minter plunged across the goal line with just 27 seconds left.

(That game’s story is brilliantly told in the new book “Bouncing Back: From National Joke To Grey Cup Champs.” You can read my review of author Paul Woods’ detailed history of that team by clicking here.)

Minter’s game-clinching touchdown path was bulldozed by a brilliant offensive line, featuring the likes of Dan Ferrone and the unit’s tremendous centre, Tony Antunovic. Remember, complicated offences and blocking schemes might be the order of the day in today’s CFL, but back then the Argonauts’ line was wading into new territory in adjusting to the variables of the run and shoot.

The defence on the 1983 team should not be overlooked. While it’s true the offence was responsible for most of the victories, Grey Cup Sunday was a different matter. Trailing 17 – 7 after thirty minutes, the Argos’ defence pitched a shutout in the second half, allowing for Barnes’ late game heroics. A defensive line consisting of Rick Mohr, James Curry, Franklin King and Bubba Wilson was dominant. Mohr and Curry terrified opposing offensive tackles that post-season.

King and Wilson provided Khalif Mitchell-like push on the inside. The linebacking corps, spearheaded by Don Moen, William Mitchell and Darrell Nicholson, was fast and aggressive. Nicholson, in the middle, hit like Robert McCune.

Carl Brazley, named Outstanding Defensive Player of the 1983 Grey Cup, was the catalyst, bringing together a secondary that was massive in shutting down the Lions’ impressive offence that day. From his position at halfback, the Argos’ team jokester ran amok.

Equally adept at covering receivers or coming up for run support, Brazley would have been a darling of present Argos’ defensive coordinator, Chris Jones. Because he could – and did – play pretty much anywhere for the Boatmen, mastering all tasks given to him.

Top to bottom, the 1983 Toronto Argonauts were stacked.

It will be an amazing and thrilling thing to see the ’83 Argos celebrated on Friday night. It’s cliché, yes, but no less apt; that it has been 30 years since the drought was ended can’t be true. A decade?

Sure, I’d buy that, but 30 years?

No matter, the passage of time. For me, they’ll all be exactly the same as they were on November 27, 1983.

Champions.

More than just champions, actually.

The team of my life.   


THE EXTRA POINT  

Two days after the 1983 Grey Cup Game, I skipped my college classes for the day and headed into downtown Toronto for what would be a celebration the likes of which the city had likely not seen since the end of World War II.

Certainly since the 60’s glory days of the Maple Leafs.

Expecting to march up the sidewalk as the team cruised up Bay Street and then see the reception at city hall, I was instead thwarted by a sea of humanity, tens of thousands of people jammed on the sidewalks and overflowing into the street, some of them scaling lamp posts, most of them bathed in a portion of the tons of shredded paper that rained down from the office towers.

I never made it to city hall, choosing instead to plunge into the sea, ever closer to the chariots that carried the conquering heroes home.

It wasn’t easy, but I was not going to be denied. As I pushed and struggled through, catching the odd glimpse of a car and a player here and there, I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I made it to the front bumper of a convertible carrying head coach Bob O’Billovich, the Grey Cup in his clutches.

As the car slid slowly past, Obie holding the trophy out for fans to touch, I was already imagining being able to tell my friends that my first ever touch of that big beautiful mug came as the head coach of the Grey Cup Champion Toronto Argonauts held it out for me.

As that moment arrived, O’Billovich pulled The Cup in, pivoted and held it out to fans on the other side of the car. Denied.

That should have been disappointing. But I didn’t care. At least I had THAT story to tell.

One of so many an Argos’ fan of the day could catalogue.