Over the last quarter-century, Gareth Cunningham has been there through the myriad highs and lows of the Toronto Argonauts Football Club.
From the emotions of Pinball Clemons’s final game, through the tail end of the SkyDome years and 2017’s Grey Cup triumph, he has been witness to it all — and seen his relationship to the team shift in tune with his own life.
“It’s changed a lot for sure,” laughed Cunningham, a Kitchener-Waterloo region native who bought his first season ticket in 1992. “I went from being a high-school student borrowing the parents’ car to make the drive to the game, (and) now I’ve got two young children. Big changes through the years!”
Gareth with wife Amanda and son Brynmor at an Argonauts game. (Photo via Gareth Cunningham Instagram)
The love affair began in 1991.
Cunningham was a high-school student in Waterloo; the Argonauts, owned by a star-powered group that included NHL great Wayne Gretzky and legendary comedian John Candy, were on their way to winning the 79th Grey Cup with the likes of Rocket Ismail and Matt Dunigan.
“It was a phenomenal year, with the amazing ownership, 50,000 people at the East Final, it really all helped launch (my) excitement,” he reflected. “The next year Dunigan left, then with (Doug) Flutie, Clemons, (Robert) Drummond and (Paul) Masotti in ’96 and ’97, that was obviously a huge high.”
Two games stand out in Cunningham’s memory from that era: The 84th Grey Cup in 1996, a Toronto triumph which saw the Argos put up 43 points in atrocious weather to beat Edmonton, and the following year’s Eastern Final.
“That ’97 East Final against Montreal was a nail-biter to the end, (and) one of Pinball’s crowning experiences — getting a TD late in that game for a repeat Grey Cup experience — was phenomenal,” he reminisced. “Then, I remember being in the stands watching Pinball finish his last game and being moved to tears because he’s just such a fixture in the Argos organization.”
Cunningham (far left) in younger days, when the Argonauts still called SkyDome home and he sat in Section 110. (Gareth Cunningham photo)
He’s always been a commuter-type fan, driving in first from the K-W Region — then London for the past 11 seasons — for Argos home games.
Book-ending his ‘career’ as an Argonaut fan: Outdoor venues.
“My very first game was in ’87 at Exhibition Stadium, (and) to be back at BMO Field now and outdoors is awesome,” said Cunningham, who works in recreation and athletics at Queen’s University. “I like to drive part of the way, then take public transit the rest of the way (to) get in a good hour and a half before kickoff, to soak in the atmosphere.”
Of course, his traditional gameday schedule — early arrival, with plenty of time for socializing and grabbing food well ahead of kickoff — has changed with fatherhood.
“With youngsters now, it’s (just) trying to arrive 10 minutes before kickoff, grab some quick concessions in the stadium and enjoy the seats until we need to make a break at halftime,” he explained. With seats close to the team bench at the 40-yard line, there’s plenty of action. “You see a little bit more with the players on the sidelines, (it’s) so intimate and we love it — we have to sacrifice funds for Grey Cup Festivals or games, but we like where we are.”
Cunningham (centre), in his previous post at Western, with CFL head of football operations Greg Dick (left) and commissioner Randy Ambrosie (right) at a Mustangs game. (Gareth Cunningham Instagram)
While Gareth and family have recently made the move to Kingston, Ont., he isn’t about to let the added distance to BMO Field deter him from his twice-monthly pilgrimage.
“For me, it’s the CFL community. The players are so accessible, and it’s affordable,” he explained. “You really feel that you’re part of this community with the fans.
“You feel the players legitimately appreciate your support and presence there, and now with a young family, it feels like this is part of the family tradition,” summarized Cunningham. “You just feel part of the community, team and fan experience.”
Want to join Gareth in the stands at BMO Field as the Argonauts look to right the ship in 2019?