May 15, 2017

How ‘Pinball’ inspired a career — without even knowing

Fabion Foote was on a school trip in the seventh grade the first time he saw Michael “Pinball” Clemons. Foote was a face in the crowd to one of the thousands of speeches that Clemons has given across Canada through 28 years of affiliation with the Toronto Argonauts.

He was still a few years away from putting on a football uniform and even further away from being a Montreal Alouettes’ draft pick, but Clemons had struck a chord with him.

“He’s a really good guy, he’s a motivational guy, someone you can look up to as a role model,” Foote said. “He was always encouraging and positive and it was nice to see.”

David Chidley/

Without ever knowing it, Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons played a defining role in Fabion Foote’s career (David Chidley/

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Taken 12th overall in Sunday’s CFL Draft, Foote points to Clemons as the reason he wanted to become a professional football player.

“Because of me?” Clemons said over the phone, sounding pleasantly surprised.

There’s an important detail here that needs to be shared: They’ve never met.

“Well, I guess the first thing is, I want to meet him,” Clemons said. “He’s a pretty extraordinary young man. I understand he’s a tremendously hard worker and has overcome a lot of challenges and I look forward to meeting him. It’s too bad I didn’t meet him and have some personal time before now.”

Over the years, Clemons has been something of a recurring figure in Foote’s life. As a kid, Foote grew up in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, where he first heard Pinball speak in junior high. By 2009, when Foote, his mother and his sister had moved to Rexdale, Pinball was making speeches at his high school, Thistletown Collegiate Institute.

“I don’t know him, but I feel like I know him,” Foote said, “because he was always at these events in Toronto, trying to help the youth stay on the right path.”

Foote tight-roped that path as a kid. While his family and those actually close to him helped steer him the right way, the young athlete always had Pinball’s words in the back of his mind. He grew up playing just about every other sport that school could throw at him — badminton, volleyball, basketball, soccer — until he found football in the 12th grade.

Too big and too strong for those other sports, the refs’ whistles and wagging fingers disappeared when he got on the football field. He hit the ground running through o-linemen and over quarterbacks. He had four sacks in his second-ever game. He was home. He played in front of Pinball in a high school playoff game at Rogers Centre.


Johany Jutras/

Fabion Foote runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 CFL Combine presented by adidas (Johany Jutras/

They’ve yet to meet, but Clemons certainly knows who Foote is. He knows he had 34 tackles and 6.5 sacks in a four-year career at McMaster, knows he cracked the CFL Scouting Bureau’s final rankings last month and he knows a little about where Foote grew up and what came with that. But he didn’t know the impact that he had on the kid.

“My part of it is the smallest part,” he said. “I’m just glad that something I said or did was able to translate. The greatest amount of work obviously goes to him and those core people around him who have had more of a long-term influence on his life. The decisions he as a young person has made are extraordinary.”

Those decisions may have been tough at times, but Foote found his way through them. Even when he saw friends and people from his neighbourhood go one way, he felt something pulling him in the other direction.

“I stayed out of that. For me, I always felt like I was different than the people around me,” he said. “I think to myself a lot and I tried to have a better understanding of situations without getting myself in the wrong groups.”

It’s hard for him to think about anything other than his football career taking off right now, but Foote has plans of taking his sociology degree, heading back to school and becoming a teacher.

“I’d like to inspire younger kids, because a lot of people that I know didn’t choose the route that I took by going to school and getting an education and doing something they like,” he said.

“Instead, some people that I know chose to go into crime or drugs and got arrested. Seeing that happening throughout my life, I’d want to be someone that would be able to advocate for and motivate the youth, to let them know that they can make better decisions and make better life choices rather than taking the easier way out.”

McMaster Athletics

Foote was selected by the Alouettes in the second round of the 2017 CFL Draft (McMaster Athletics)

All of these years later, Clemons hears about Foote’s goals and he’s the one motivated.

“This is the amazing example. But you kind of want to think this is also the kid that was driven enough to make it anyway,” he said.

“I can’t help but get excited about a young man like this. I believe that working with kids and trying to give them greater access is one of the most noble things on Earth.

“We often say if you help one it’s worth it and there’s no question about that. My hope is that we help more than that. We want to reach out and encourage and that’s the magic of someone like Fabion.

“Because I don’t think the magic is in me. I think the magic is in them,” Clemons said of all of those kids, all of those ears that his words have found over the years.

“We’re just there to remind them that they have that light, that magic.”